POLITICS
10/07/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

White House Seeks To Turn The Page On Dishy Memoirs

SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- In late July, Dan Pfeiffer, one of President Barack Obama's longest-serving advisers, was asked to reflect on how the White House communications team had changed over the years.

"There are things that would have caused us to set our hair on fire in the first term that we now know are just sort of fleeting things," Pfeiffer said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. "You can sort of separate the signal from the noise better."

As an example of this less-reactive approach, Pfeiffer offered up the memoir published earlier this year by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The book, which accused the president of lacking commitment to his own foreign policy, debuted with a buzzy write-up from Bob Woodward. Had it come during the first term, Pfeiffer posited, "there would have been a thousand meetings" on how to handle the fallout. When it dropped in January 2014, no one gouged out his eyeballs.

"We recognize that these books sort of flush through the system pretty quickly, and I don't think people do too much sweating over that," he said.

Pfeiffer's composure is being put to the test once more this week. Another memoir written by a former Cabinet official, Worthy Fights by Leon Panetta, heaps an even bigger pile of opprobrium on the president, questioning the decision to leave Iraq, his policy toward Syria and the management of his own Cabinet.

The White House, as has become its wont, has sidestepped the matter with a combination of faint praise, disinterest and subtle, behind-the-scenes pushback.

"Well, let me just say, as a general matter, the president was proud to have Secretary Panetta serve as a senior member of his national security team both as the director of the CIA and as the secretary of defense," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at Monday's briefing. "Anybody in any administration who serves in prominent positions like that has to make a decision about how and when and whether to talk about their experience serving the president of the United States. And I’ll leave it to others to judge the conclusion that Secretary Panetta has reached about sharing his experience."

Outside the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, however, a larger conversation has been started about issues of loyalty, service and the recording of history. It's not just that Panetta's book is so biting. Nor is it that he released the memoir so close to a midterm election in which the president's handling of international affairs is front and center in the minds of voters. It's that he is joining a pile-on rather than starting it.

In addition to Gates' and Panetta's books, the Obama White House has been besieged by second-guessing from a handful of other past officials. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought distance from the president on his past Syria policy. Onetime press secretary Robert Gibbs has criticized administration strategy while serving as a commentator for MSNBC. David Axelrod, Obama's longtime consigliere, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that it was a mistake for the president to declare that his policies are on the ballot this November.

"For the life of me I can't figure out what these people are doing," said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "The Cabinet secretaries are one thing, but at a time when the president could use a few breaks, for a former staffer as smart as David Axelrod to undercut his old boss like that is something."

For their parts, both Axelrod and Gibbs say they're occasionally staking out ground against the White House for one reason only: They're now paid to offer unvarnished opinions, not politically filtered bulls**t.

"When I get asked a direct question of a line in a speech that obviously detracted from the President's message, [that] was a mistake, I am going to answer truthfully. If I don't, what credibility would I have?" emailed Axelrod. "My frustration wasn't with the President's policy, by the way. It was that I felt the language he used obscured it."

Gibbs said in a phone interview, "The job I have with NBC is to be an analyst and to hopefully provide insight into the type of discussion they are having inside the Oval Office or inside the White House. It is not to be a spokesperson for the White House. There are many talented spokespeople in the White House who can be that."

But in addition to defending his critiques (he once called the launch of HealthCare.gov "excruciatingly embarrassing" because it objectively was), Gibbs also offered a larger point for consideration. When smart minds come together to handle immensely challenging geopolitical crises, disagreements are bound to arise. It would be bizarre, perhaps counterproductive, if they didn't.

"I think it is dangerous to say every disagreement equals disloyalty," said Gibbs. "If that’s the case, you could look at a Democrat anywhere in the country and call them disloyal. That’s just crazy."

It's true that no White House is uniform in its strategic vision. The question, others suggest, is not so much whether former staffers or Cabinet officials can second-guess a president. It's when they choose to reveal their doubt.

"These people bring us into power and they give us enormous responsibility and access, and in exchange for that, I think we owe them discretion at least until the presidency is finished and probably until the president has written his memoir himself," said Paul Begala. A longtime confidant of the Clintons, he said he has declined offers from publishers to dish about his time on the campaign trail or in the White House, basically out of loyalty to his former boss. With that mindset, he winced at the Panetta and Gates memoirs even as he found the television commentary from Gibbs and Axelrod to be kosher.

"I guess because I comment on TV for a living," Begala chuckled. "You are being paid by MSNBC like David is. It is not the same as when you are the paid spokesman for the president."

In one of the rare instances of public pushback from this administration, Vice President Joe Biden, like Begala, harped on the concept of loyalty, calling it "inappropriate" for former administration officials to write books "as soon as they leave." To which Panetta replied on MSNBC Tuesday, "I'm a believer that you don't put history on hold."

The Obama administration is hardly the first victim of those eager to write early drafts of history. President George W. Bush had several former officials write scathing memoirs about his policies and leadership, from former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill (who collaborated with journalist Ron Suskind) to press secretary Scott McClellan. Bill Clinton's White House was alarmed when former top aide George Stephanopoulos laid bare many of the president's warts in his seminal memoir, All Too Human.

Each of these books, like Panetta's and Gate's since, was met with divergent reactions: fascination at the rare window into the presidency and curiosity as to the author's motive. Writing in The New York Times on July 30, 1972, journalist Ronnie Dugger offered a review of Harry McPherson's A Political Education that wouldn't seem out of place today. Reflecting on McPherson's internal turmoil while working for President Lyndon Johnson -- his "idealism is converted to doubt by power and the complexity of political reality" -- Dugger seemingly criticized McPherson for speaking out only after a few years removed from that power.

"What matters, what is indispensably required, in public servants, is that they have and act on a sufficiency of moral imagination and moral intelligence," Dugger wrote. "In literary finish this seems to be the best of the memoirs yet published on the Johnson domination -- much better than the first volume of Johnson's own. As writing and as an experience of this mild, well-read, and engaging McPherson, 'A Political Education' is a pleasure. As a learning and a teaching, it fails."

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