Sometimes a president’s harshest critics are not the partisan opposition, but former Cabinet members or advisors who write memoirs before the end of the president’s time in office. Such has been the case this past year for President Barack Obama, who has seen four memoirs published—“Duty” by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (2009-2011), “Hard Choices” by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (2009-2013), “Stress Test” by former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (2009-2013), and “Worthy Fights” by former CIA Director (2009-2011) and Secretary of Defense (2011-2013) Leon Panetta. Each have offered reflections on, and sometimes harsh criticism of, both Obama’s leadership and policy decisions. The latest book by Panetta is particularly critical of Obama as a foreign policy leader regarding the Middle East, specifically his handling of Iraq after the removal of US troops and the ongoing civil war in Syria. By failing to leave some US troops behind in Iraq, and in failing to arm Syrian rebels, Obama’s decisions, according to Panetta, contributed to the growing strength of the terrorist group the Islamist State.
Not surprisingly, others in the Obama White House, including Vice President Joe Biden, have shot back at Panetta, criticizing the decision to write such a book before the end of Obama’s term. Often, the authors of such books—Panetta included—are called disloyal to the president they served. When former Clinton advisor George Stephanopoulos wrote his memoir, “All Too Human,” published in 1999, he was roundly criticized by former White House luminaries—including LBJ advisors Jack Valenti and Richard Goodwin—as being disloyal to his former boss. It’s not hard to understand the motivation for writing such a book, as the money to be made is significantly more than the salaries earned while serving in the White House or Cabinet. Most memoirs bring a large advance in the six or seven figures for the author, and also receive tremendous attention and hype in the news media prior to and after publication.
Obama is certainly not the first president to experience criticism from former advisors in the form of a highly-anticipated memoir. The trend began in earnest during the Reagan years, when one former advisor after another seemed to take turns in the media spotlight with a new book trashing some aspect of the Reagan administration. Most notably, former budget director David Stockman (1981-1985), in his book “The Triumph of Politics,” criticized the Reagan economic plan that he helped to create, and former Treasury Secretary (1981-1985) and Chief of Staff (1985-1987) Donald Regan took aim at First Lady Nancy Reagan in his book, “For the Record,” revealing, among other things, that decisions made in the White House often involved consultation with Mrs. Reagan’s astrologer. More recently, Scott McClellan, former press secretary to George W. Bush (2003-2006), accused the Bush administration, in his book “What Happened,” of relying on political propaganda, instead of hard facts, to sell the American public on why the Iraq War was necessary.
Should advisors wait to write these books until after the president has left office? Or, is the American public better served by a transparent look inside the White House prior to the end of the term? We know that presidents would prefer the former option, while political opponents relish the latter. One can assume that for some advisors, their level of candor may come easier when writing an assessment after the fact than when coming face-to-face with the president. Still, one has to wonder if the content of some memoirs can serve a larger purpose. In Panetta’s case, he is candid about the fact that he did share his opinions with Obama regarding numerous foreign policy decisions, but the President and other advisors often chose another course. He also points out both strengths and weaknesses of Obama’s leadership style, clearly respecting Obama yet being frustrated with him at the same time. As a long-time public servant, with experience in three administrations (Nixon and Clinton prior to Obama), and having served in the House of Representative for 16 years, Panetta is in a good position to offer Obama advice on how to navigate his last two years in office. In addition, at 76, he is unlikely to seek future political office, which to some makes his views more credible and less personally motivated (unlike Clinton, for example, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016). Whether Obama will now accept Panetta’s advice remains to be seen, but this particular memoir may be as much a look back at Panetta’s legacy in public service as it is a preview of what Obama’s presidential legacy, particularly in terms of foreign policy, may turn out to be.