We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Memoirs are a rite of passage for high-flying American politicians. They can serve as springboards for those seeking higher office – and bridge-burners for those riding off into the sunset. But while many political memoirs follow the same conventions, they often vary greatly in the insight they provide into their subjects. Kojo explores the art of the political memoir – and what makes the great ones memorable and the poor ones forgettable.
- Lissa Muscatine Co-Owner, Politics & Prose (Washington, D.C.)
- Isaac Chotiner Senior Editor, The New Republic
- Mark Leibovich National Correspondent, New York Times Magazine; Author, "This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital" (Blue Rider Press, 2013)
Best-Selling Political Memoirs, 2004 to 2014
For our show, we pulled together the best-selling memoirs by political figures from May 2004 to May 2014, based on sales at independent bookstores across the United States.
This list was produced by the American Booksellers Association.
Survey: What Do You Read?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Memoirs, they're a rite of passage for the political class, in America. A bestselling book can be an opportunity for an accomplished person to define a legacy or settle scores as he or she rides off into the sunset. Or a chance for an ambitious up and comer to springboard to higher office on the momentum generated by a big box store tour and an interview junket.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo many of these books follow the same conventions, right down to their predictable inclusion of titles, using some combination of the words, promise, decision, courage, fight and America. But that's not to say that they're all necessarily memorable, enjoyable or the least bit insightful about the person whose name is on the cover.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us this hour to explore the art of the political memoir and how these books have both contributed to and clouded our understanding of the men and women who have shaped American politics is Mark Leibovich, he is the national correspondent for The New York Times magazine. Mark Leibovich is also the author of "This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital." Mark Leibovich, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK LEIBOVICHGood to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso, in studio with us, is Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington. She was an advisor and speech writer to Hillary Clinton, both during her 2008 presidential campaign and at the state department. She has also worked for the White House during the Clinton administration. Lissa Muscatine, thank you for joining us.
MS. LISSA MUSCATINEKojo, it's great to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Isaac, thank you for joining us.
MR. ISAAC CHOTINERThanks.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800433-8850. Have you ever read a political memoir that you felt was illuminating about the person who wrote it? Why was it and what was it and why did you appreciate it? 800-433-8850. American politicians have been drawn to the idea of writing memoirs, for a very long time. Long before there was Bill Clinton's "My Life" or George W. Bush's "Decision Points." There were the famous memoirs of one Ulysses S. Grant, for example.
NNAMDIBut it seems, the modern memoir has become an obligatory exercise for people in American politics. Where would you say, Mark Leibovich, that it fits into the life cycle of those who climb far, climb high or fall far in our political system? Or is it now useful at several points in the life cycle?
LEIBOVICHIt can be. I mean, I think, what the modern memoir has become, in politics, is an opportunity to, sort of, slice and dice ones career. In many ways, for merchandising purposes, for messaging purposes, in which you can get numerous paydays, if you write about, you know, different, different ideas or different parts of your life. But, also, I mean, it is, to use the hideous modern phrase, it's a branding exercise for many people in which they can get full control over just a collection of views, a collection of promises, a collection of, of just sort of auras that, that they want to project to the world, often in advance of a larger campaign.
NNAMDISame question to you, Lissa Muscatine.
MUSCATINEWell, you know, I think they've been called a terrible literary form by various critics...
MUSCATINE...it's certainly true that the vast majority of them are, are boring, uninteresting and not very revelatory. But I do think, in the right hands, they can combine what Mark's saying. I mean, obviously, they're an exercise in branding and marketing and messaging. But the good ones also do have some revelation in them about a personality, about the way somebody thinks. And so, I think, they, they can be a, kind of, hybrid model that's moderately useful.
CHOTINERYeah, I think, just to follow on what Lissa said. I mean, some of the best political memoirs have focused, sort of, on the early part of people's lives. So Bill Clinton's memoir, which the second half of his presidency wasn't interesting. The first half about his childhood was. Winston Churchill wrote a bunch of, not very good, books about his time in office but he also wrote a wonderful called "My Early Life," which covers his life, sort of, up to age 30 or 40 or around there.
CHOTINERAnd so, when you can sort of divide that up into a period before the person has, sort of, entered office, the same with Obama and "Dreams of My Father," it's much better than the normal books you see.
NNAMDIIn a piece about memoirs, for the Atlantic, a few months ago, the editor and publisher, Peter Osnos, noted that The Washington Post, Philip Graham, once described journalism as the first rough draft of history but pointed out that memoirs have become attempts by those who write them, to frame that history on their own terms. Do you see it that way, Mark?
LEIBOVICHIt is. I think, I mean it's not a first draft 'cause they've, obviously, had time to refine it and to spin it and what have you. I mean, I think, one of the basic problems with the form is that it becomes very diluted through a whole team of, of, you know, often ghost writers, editors, lawyers, you know, voters, political operatives and you lose the human experience here. I mean, I thought, I mean, President Obama's first memoir, before he was a politician was amazingly revealing. You know, I had some, some issues with the, the composite sketches he drew just as a journalist.
LEIBOVICHBut I thought it was amazing revealing and, frankly, Hillary's last book, I, I, you know, which I read very, very closely on a few occasions, especially when I was reporting on her for 2008, I thought was extremely helpful, especially with the early parts of her life, before you sort of got into, you know, a more political context. So I, I thought again, I guess I would echo what Isaac said there.
NNAMDILissa, you see people come in and out of your store, everyday, how would you measure their interest in the stories that these books are trying to share?
MUSCATINEI think they're interested depending on the largeness of the person who's writing it. And, so for example, if you get a Bill Clinton or a Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, that ilk, there's obviously a tremendous amount of interest. And people -- they just want to feel some connection and closeness to the author, regardless. I don't think they're as discerning necessarily about the complete quality and substance of these books. But, you know, I think if they don't agree with a person, they don't look up to the person or admire them, they're not as interested.
NNAMDIWe're talking about political memoirs, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think makes for a powerful, political memoir? What do you think makes the bad ones so forgettable, 800-433-8850? You can send email to kojo@wamu -- right, wamu.org. Hillary Clinton is on tour right now, a book tour that, to many people, is a fairly obvious prelude to a presidential campaign. So perhaps it would be good if we sorted out the following. What, in your view, Isaac, is the difference between a memoir and a campaign book?
CHOTINERWell, I think, in this case there isn't much. In the case of Hillary Clinton, she's clearly, she's almost certainly going to run for president and so I think that she probably see this as both. I think, sometimes you do see a difference, Robert Gates, who just had a book come out, earlier this year, a very good book actually, was clearly not writing this as a campaign book, it was a memoir. But I do think that the, sort of, gap between those two things is often, often very narrow.
NNAMDII want to talk about the Gates book for a second, since you brought it up. It gained a lot of attention for laying bare his disagreements with officials in the Obama administration. A lot of people said the Gates memoir was a memorable one because it broke from convention. What made the book different?
CHOTINERI think both that he was very honest or seemingly honest about what he went through in government. And I also think that he's just a, he's a good writer who managed to give you -- give the reader a real sense of who he was as a person which I do not think comes across in most political memoirs.
NNAMDIWhat do you say about the Gates memoir, Mark?
LEIBOVICHWell, I, I would agree with Isaac. I also, I mean having read it, I thought it was a really terrific and, again, a very human read. I mean, I think, the way political memoirs are often read today and also received is, you get a lot of the, like, factoids, sort of, extracted from them and then put on, you know, Politico or Huffington Post or Buzz Feed, immediately. Where, you have this ala-carte version of a book that actually stops, I assume, many people from reading it. But at the same time probably titillates a whole other class of people that might get them interested.
LEIBOVICHSo, you know, again, having read the whole of the Gates book, I thought it was great. I also thought that the, you know, the revelations were very, very illustrative of this first draft of the Obama years.
NNAMDILissa, what makes the Gates memoir different in a lot of respects is because he's writing about people who are still in office, people who are still leading and influencing the country.
MUSCATINEThat's exactly what makes it different. I think, Kojo, he is talking critically about his former boss who's still is in office. And I think it's very rare to see a memoir that does that. Perhaps he felt he could get away with it because he's really at the end of his public career, so there was less risk. He's not running for anything. He may not want another appointment in government. But it still was a very, very rare thing to see in a memoir that close to one service.
NNAMDIIsaac, how would you discuss or describe the relationship between the readability of a memoir, what makes it interesting, and whether or not the writer has something, has something to lose by writing it?
CHOTINERI think they're an inversely proportionate relationship...
NNAMDIThe less you have to lose.
CHOTINERYeah, inversely proportional if I got your comparison correct. I also just want to say one last thing about the Gates memoir, which is that, reading the book, I was actually surprised by, on the whole, how well both Bush and Obama came across. And the fact that, the fact that, you know, some of the things he said causes such huge headlines in the media which are probably the kind of things that everyone feels about their bosses. It was, it was stunning because, you know, the book, as I said, is, is fairly positive about both administrations on the whole. But it was so remarkably honest compared to what we normally see.
NNAMDICan a campaign book be good reading or memorable or is it simply the merchandise of modern politics, Mark?
LEIBOVICHTypically not. I mean, they can be, certainly. I mean, I think, usually, again, it's the inverse proportion of the more you have to lose, the less interesting things people tend to say. I mean, I think, look I mean, end-career memoirs tend to be the most interesting because they're, they're not campaign books. And, I think, we see that over and over and over again. And, you know, again, I mean, people will buy books for, for any number of reasons and -- whether it's to feel close to the author and, and to pick up little tidbits here and there, I mean, I mean everyone has their own reasons. But I think that, generally the, the track record is pretty thin.
NNAMDIAnd Lissa, of course, now that you're the owner of a bookstore, you're also interested in how well this books sells. So is there a relationship between good reading in a political memoir, between good reading and whether it sells? Or is the relationship, more importantly, between the size, so to speak, of the, of the, of the individual who's writing the book, the celebrity size, if you will and the reader?
MUSCATINECelebrity definitely, I think, makes a difference but I do think, in Washington, there is a fairly discerning literary crowd here that does care about the quality of books. So a really lousy book is probably not gonna sell well, no matter how visible the author is. But I just wanted to get back to something that both Mark and Isaac have touched on. And that's, if you look at the two Obama books, I think they're very instructive, getting to the points that you're raising, Kojo. Because the first one, as Isaac said, you know, really -- or maybe it was Mark, they really do introduce this man with a very complex and interesting and rich background to, to his public.
MUSCATINEHe's, at that point, not very well known. He, obviously, wrote it to introduce himself and it's a really, really good book with a few caveats...
NNAMDIBut since he wrote it to introduce himself, can't it be called a campaign book?
MUSCATINEWell, perhaps, a very, very, very...
MUSCATINE...early aspirational campaign book.
MUSCATINEBut very aspirational at that point. But then you look at the second book, "Audacity of Hope," which of course, was a huge best-seller, which to me, is a very boring, essentially campaign track that says nothing of great interest that I didn't already know about him. And yet, that was a huge best-seller too. So those two show what he was trying to accomplish at very, very different stages of his career.
NNAMDIGets back to the point you made about Bill Clinton's book, Isaac, and that is, you like the part about growing up in Arkansas and all it told you there. Once it got to the politics you lost interest.
CHOTINERYeah. I mean, I haven't read it in a long time, but my memory of the second half was that it was just very dull, sort of account of meeting with foreign leaders and so on. And I think, you know, what one of you said, I think, is right about the closer you get to the end of a career the more interesting the book is. I'm not sure when Clinton wrote that book, he thought of himself as at the end of his career.
CHOTINERHe's still a young man or middle age man. And, I think, you know, he still had relationships with all these foreign leaders, the Clinton Global Foundation and Global Initiative and all those things. So I think, I think, when he came to talking about politics and other things, he, he was perhaps not being entirely forthcoming.
NNAMDIBut, Mark, what I'm extrapolating from this discussion is, that when you are introducing yourself to the public, you have a much more interesting story to tell then after the public knows you well and you're seeking to, to move your career.
LEIBOVICHWell, maybe, I mean, it depends what your, what your goals are. I mean, I think, I mean one of the things I loved about "Dreams Of My Father," was that, as a reader, I appreciate watching a writing struggle, both with ideas and with writing. I mean, it was -- this took Barack Obama many, many, many years to do. There were a lot of fits and starts. There were a lot of, sort of, synthesizing ideas in there. And, again, I don't know if he had this far off notion that he was gonna be the President of the United States one day and this was gonna help him achieve that. But, I mean, I think almost as a reader you have an intuitive sense of what the goal might be or at least, you know, what the grind is behind it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on political memoirs. We are still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What would you hope to learn from a memoir like the one Hillary Clinton recently wrote that you didn't know about the subject already, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of the bookstore Politics and Prose in Washington. She was an advisor and speech writer to Hillary Clinton both during her 2008 presidential campaign and at the State Department. She also worked for the White House during the Clinton Administration. We're talking about political memoirs.
NNAMDIAnd joining Lissa Muscatine in studio is Isaac Chotiner, senior editor at The New Republic, and Mark Leibovich, national correspondent for the New York Times magazine and the author of "This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital." You can call us with your comments or questions at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIBefore we even talk about the craftwork and the content of these books, we need to talk about what we see first, their titles. This is something the fictional vice president, Selina Meyer, struggled with recently on the television "Veep." Let's take a listen to a scene where she's chatting with a West Wing aid while she's on a presidential campaign publicity junket masquerading as a book tour.
MS. JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUSLook at us. You pretending to be me signing a book I didn't even write.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEWell, that's politics in a nut sack.
MALE"New Beginnings: Our Next American Journey."
LOUIS-DREYFUSWhat do you think of that title?
MALEWell, it's so full of (bleep) there's a colon right smack dab in the middle.
LOUIS-DREYFUSOh god, they kept coming up with all of these awful titles. You wouldn't even have believed it. Like Footsteps to the Future, this one. Red, White and You is actually another one. Yes. Hands of Our Children.
LOUIS-DREYFUSIt's like a massacre or something.
LOUIS-DREYFUSI know. I was so busy listening to these stupid (bleep) , I didn't listen to this voice in my own head saying, this is (bleep) . Salina, this is complete (bleep) . Oh don't step in it. Don't -- you just stepped in it and now look here, it's printed in a book. So that's good.
NNAMDIWell, there's so many things going on there but, Mark, what's the deal with the titles deemed safe for these books?
LEIBOVICHThey're awful. I mean, no look, they're safe.
LEIBOVICHI mean, they're -- I guess they essentially try to fit on a bumper sticker. And I think, look, they nailed the trope of the political memoir title perfectly in this episode. I also think that -- look, when I was actually first thinking about writing this and I knew Hillary's book was coming out, I was -- actually was watching this episode. And then someone said what's the name of Hillary's memoir going to be and they said, "Hard Choices." And I remember I physically put my head down on my desk at that point. Okay.
LEIBOVICHSo, look, I'm not going to judge a book by its title or cover. Actually, the cover's very nice. But I was immediately demoralized by the name of Hillary's title. So I think unfortunately they do fit into very market-tested boxes that can be demoralized.
NNAMDIDo any of you have any favorite titles, either because they were actually really great or because they were so bad?
CHOTINERI mean, I was surprised by Hillary's title -- not to spend too much time on this -- but Bush had just come out with a book called "Decision Points" I believe. And Clinton's title was "Hard Choices" which are essentially the same titles. I was sort of shocked that the committee that came up with Hillary's title didn't do more to differentiate.
LEIBOVICHWere you on this committee?
MUSCATINEI was not the committee.
LEIBOVICHOkay. I'll just tell you, I just feel like, you know, we should ask Marshall McLuhan right here, right?
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Don your headphones, please, because Dan in Washington, D.C. would like to have a word with you. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANHi. Yeah, I've really been enjoying your conversation. I was calling in basically to talk about not the contemporary memoirs but really the value that memoirs -- historic memoirs have. Literary -- another local writer and I have a website called D.C. Writers' Homes. And we've documented the homes of authors who lived in Washington, D.C. But a number of them are memoir writers, so writers like Ellen Mory Slaten (sp?) , Ulysses S. Grant, of course, probably one of the older memoirs. Captain Graham of course, Joseph Alsop.
DANYou know, those are memoirs that really give, you know, a sense of the city, Washington itself, as it was in those eras. But also a sense of what politics were like and what, you know, life in government was like during that period. And that's really -- you know, it's hard to think of another resource, another historic resource. So I'm just sort of kind of interested in what your panel -- what insight that have about how these memoirs, you know, will present a sense of what Washington and civic life was like for future readers.
LEIBOVICHWell, I think it's a great point. I mean, I think a good memoir will set a reader in a time, in a place that is very distinct. And, I mean, one of the problems with a lot of these modern memoirs is they're all written basically in some, you know, Madison Avenue-centered sort of almost antiseptic world in which everything is in clichés and so forth.
LEIBOVICHI mean, some of my -- one of my all time favorite political memoirs -- and it was -- this was a staff person -- but George Stephanopoulos wrote a terrific memoir…
NNAMDII was about to get to that next, yes.
LEIBOVICH...in I guess it was late '90s after he was leaving government. And he clearly had no intention of going back into government. It was a very, very personal book but one of the things that was so good about it was that it really was a reminder of the political media ecosystem that he was operating in the '90s. And how similar it is to now and how completely different it is from now. And, again, I think that he was able to achieve that by writing it himself and writing a very personal testimony.
NNAMDILissa, you're a veteran of the same White House that George Stephanopoulos operated in the Clinton White House. Can you describe what it's like when you see someone like him who's lived through the same experiences that you've had, being candid about them in such a public way?
MUSCATINEYou know, it's a great question, Kojo. And I really like George. He's a pal and a tremendous guy. But I have to say as -- and it is a phenomenal book. It is an absolutely tremendous book. That said, I personally would not have felt comfortable writing that book, having worked for a president and a first lady, having been privy to many things that are private, many things that involve their conversations with foreign leaders, their conversations with their staff.
MUSCATINEAnd to me when you are appointed by them into a position of confidence, you should respect that confidence. So my problem with that book was just the breech of that -- what I believe is a sort of unspoken agreement about that level of confidence. That said, it is a fantastic book that gives, as Mark said, a window on what it's like inside the White House at the very highest levels that I don't think has ever been written before.
NNAMDIIs there a time maybe later on down the road when that quote unquote "breech of confidence" might be more appropriate?
MUSCATINEYou mean is there a statute of limitations kind of?
MUSCATINEWell, you know, maybe so. I do think you have to have some understanding what the person that has appointed you to that position and essentially has helped make your career, that this might happen. And , in fact, there are sometimes nondisclosure agreements where you even promise not to do that. But I suppose down the road it's okay. But I think in that case, to me what surprised me about the book was really revealing things that Bill Clinton was saying to him or that he observed Bill Clinton saying to others in extremely private situations. Which is what makes the book so interesting. But it is a kind of ethical conundrum.
NNAMDIWhich is how people like Mark and Isaac and I make a living by trying to find out these things.
NNAMDIWhile we're talking about Stephanopoulos, what's your sense of how the dynamics are different when you're reading a memoir done by a staffer as opposed to a more important or high-ranking person? Former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClennan penned a memoir a few years ago and it seems that there was more interest in what people could learn about his bosses than there was in anything they could learn about him, Isaac.
CHOTINERWell yeah, I mean, one of the reasons I think the Stephanopoulos memoir is such a good book is that you actually do get a sense of who he was and what he was feeling in sort of the crisis he underwent, if that's maybe too strong a word, in the White House. But I think most of these books -- I mean, some of them are just written to sort of puff up their former bosses. But the other ones, people don't -- you know, nobody really cares that much about who Scott McClellan is. I mean, his family I'm sure does but, I mean, you know, people are reading that to get a picture of George W. Bush.
NNAMDIDo you think it's self serving, Mark, when a staffer's ammo seems to be disassociating himself or herself from the people they worked for, no matter how candid they are?
LEIBOVICHYes, it is. I mean, I think -- look, this is argument I get. I see both sides very, very clearly here. I think the notion that, you know, staffers, you know, have sort of a vow of silence and that we must only get the official, you know, book written by the principal at the appointed time and -- I mean, obviously. But I also -- look, there's a sense of propriety here that does get lost. And I think it would be absolutely appropriate to have people feeling betrayed by an aid who goes off and writes a book.
LEIBOVICHBut, oh boy, I mean, I think 30 years ago very, very few people would've cared about very, very few what very, very few staff people would've had to say at all. We're in an era now where we have these celebrity operatives. And they're all trying to either get another book deal or a TV deal or a speaking deal. And, you know, profiles can become very, very commoditized frankly. And what used to be innocuous sort of background behavior has become, you know, one zone brand. And I think that that's part of the byproduct of this.
NNAMDIWe're having a conversation about political memoirs, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think makes for a powerful political memoir? What do you think make the bad ones so forgettable, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet at kojoshow. We got an email from Janice in D.C. who asks, "How does one know the extent to which a person had the assistance of a ghostwriter in writing a memoir?"
NNAMDILissa, so many political books and memoirs are written either by or with the help of ghostwriters. As someone who has written speeches for politicians, who's helped to craft books for politicians, what would you say good ghostwriters have to do to capture the voices of the people whose names are going to be on the book?
MUSCATINESo much depends on the person whose name the book is attached to. So if that person happens to be a very good writer, as is the case with both Clinton's and with President Obama, the ghostwriter's job is really to help them crystallize their thoughts, do a lot of research, perhaps help with drafting so that they're not sitting at the front of a blank screen having to compose in the middle of the night when they have other day job issues they're probably worrying about.
MUSCATINEThat certainly is the case with Hillary Clinton. She is a very, very good writer. She writes a lot of the drafts herself -- works on a lot of the drafts herself, writing and rewriting. But I think if the person's not a very talented writer, then the ghostwriter becomes that much more important. And so it just varies. It's really -- I don't think there's a particular formula.
NNAMDIMark, are there books in which you feel that you're pretty sure that what you're reading is the ghostwriter and who you're getting some insight into is more the ghostwriter than the subject of the book?
LEIBOVICHThat's a good question. I mean, there is a sort of uniform ghostwriter voice which unfortunately again can be rather alienating. And I do think that the nature of the relationship between the ghostwriter and the subject, you know, the closer the better because then the writer actually knows the voice more intuitively.
LEIBOVICHRather than what you have today is you have this sort of mix and match system where you say, okay here's this cache of ghostwriters and here's a bunch of people writing memoirs. Let's just stick them altogether like some kind of like, you know, memoir writing JDate kind of thing. And hope it's like a -- it all kind of works. And, no, I mean, I just think familiarity of the voices is actually key to something like this.
CHOTINERYeah, you know, I was thinking I was looking before in preparation for this show at Ronald Reagan's memoir, which is not a very good book, which came out a little over 20 years ago. And, you know, from what we know of Reagan, reading the book, the voice is so clearly not his own that it's sort of a weird and jarring experience
CHOTINERBecause you get the sense that you're reading this voice, which is sort of similar to the -- what Mark was saying, the generic ghostwriter voice but it's very bazaar. I think in the better memoirs, or at least the better produced memoirs such as Hillary Clinton's, and maybe because she had more input on this, you know, you do get the sense that it's her talking to some degree. But the Reagan one stuck out to me.
NNAMDIAre there ethical guidelines that you think need to apply to ghostwriting? What kind of transparency do you think is necessary for the process to be truly honest?
LEIBOVICHI would like to know as much as possible about, you know, how much of this has been -- I mean, obviously many politicians especially are pretty generous in the acknowledgments, although not all of them at all. And, you know, rather than sort of leaving it to generosity, I would actually love to see, you know, in a single page or something just what the division of labor was.
NNAMDIWell, Lissa, a reporter, he lives for transparency. How do you think, Lissa?
MUSCATINENo, no. I think he's right. I think you want to know as much as possible. But I do think, you know, there are nuances to these questions, given people's time and what else they're working on. But one really good model, I think, is Madeleine Albright whose long, long time speech writer is a guy named Bill Woodward who is a phenomenal speech writer. And just had a total mind meld with her.
MUSCATINEAnd I believe he's credited even on the cover of one or two of her books. But certainly she gives him a lot of credit. And they were a real team. And I think that's a wonderful model, as Mark was saying, as somebody who really knows the principal very well, really has the way she thinks and speaks and is given the appropriate credit. But she also is a person who's telling her own story in her voice.
NNAMDIIsaac, and I assume that you think the appropriate level of transparency is name on the cover, damn it.
CHOTINERYeah, I mean, I sort of -- I guess I agree with Mark. I mean, I sort of feel that there's a general acceptance now that these books are ghost written so it's less dishonest than it would be if people really thought they were getting something more authentic. But, yeah, you should at least thank your ghostwriter in the acknowledgments.
NNAMDIHow do you think audience expectations or reader expectations of ghostwriting have changed over time? It was only a few years ago that Ted Sorensen came out and spoke openly about the role he played helping JFK with "Profiles in Courage?"
LEIBOVICHIt's funny. My daughter who was then probably about eight or nine was writing a story about whoever the ghostwriter for Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech was. And of course I had no idea that he had a speech writer. She was appalled and she wrote this paper that began, how do I even know that Martin Luther King had a dream? Doesn't wherever the ghost -- maybe it's this guy's dream. And, you know, so I think it did violate a certain, I don't know, innocence, naivete of her sort of learning and sort of knowing who the voices are. But, I don't know, I mean, I think it's sort of part of the modern world.
NNAMDICare to comment on the Lissa, the changing expectations of readership?
MUSCATINEIt's a really interesting question. Frankly I hadn't really thought about that. But I guess in some cases they don't care because they just want to get at whoever the celebrity is and whatever form it's coming to them. And they're kind of inured to the idea of ghostwriters. But I think, as Isaac said, if the voice is so jarringly off, that could become, like you said, annoying and therefore not very conducive to continued reading of the book.
NNAMDIIsaac, we talked earlier about what you got and did not get from Bill Clinton's memoir. But here we are a century-and-a-half later and a lot of people feel that Ulysses S. Grant wrote one of the best post presidential memoirs. Why is that?
CHOTINERWell, I actually have not read that book so I cannot tell you the answer to that question. Maybe we should go to one of the other two people on the panel.
LEIBOVICHYeah, in the this town tradition I guess I should also -- I should praise the book but then I should acknowledge that I have not read it either. But everyone else praises it so I'll just praise it on the radio.
MUSCATINEWell, I think it was clearly a different era and there's -- and he was -- you know, he was a character, as we all know from our limited -- you know, however limited your knowledge of American history is, and kind of a sort of not conforming to the general notions of a president. And so I think for that reason -- I read it a long, long time ago but I think it is -- it reflects his kind of distinctive character more than the generic kinds of political memoirs and presidential memoirs that Mark and Isaac have been talking about.
NNAMDIWe're talking about political memoirs. What have you read in terms of a political memoir that you felt was illuminating about the person who wrote it? Tell us what it was and why you appreciated it. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Mark Leibovich. He's the national correspondent for the New York Times magazine and the author of "This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital."
NNAMDIIsaac Chotiner is senior editor at The New Republic, and Lissa Muscatine is the co-owner of Politics and Prose bookstore here in Washington. She was an advisor and speech writer to Hillary Clinton both during her 2008 presidential campaign and at the State Department. We'll be taking a short break. When we come back, we'll continue the conversation. But feel free in the interim to call, send us an email or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Mark Leibovich, national correspondent for the New York Times magazine and the author of "This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital." Isaac Chotiner is senior editor at The New Republic, and Lissa Muscatine is the co-owner of Politics and Prose bookstore right down the street from here in Washington, D.C. I should say right up the street from here in Washington, D.C. She was an advisor and speech writer to Hillary Clinton both during her 2008 presidential campaign and at the State Department. She worked for the White House during the Clinton Administration.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Lola in Washington, D.C. Lola, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LOLAThank you very much. I would be interested in the review of Timothy Geithner's "Stress Test."
NNAMDIWhat do you think about it, Mark?
LEIBOVICHDidn't read it.
NNAMDIWhat do you think about it, Isaac?
CHOTINERI also did not read it.
MUSCATINEWell, my husband and co-owner of the store read it.
NNAMDIAnd what did he think?
MUSCATINEYou know, I think he thought it was okay. I don't think he thought it was tremendously revelatory. And, again, I think for all the reasons we're talking about, it's an attempt to sort of set the record straight in certain respects and to get his point across about things he's been blamed for, which is fine. I mean, I have no problem with that. I think he's entitled to do that. And -- you know, but I don't think it's going to make for the greatest literature.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on to Sheila in Mount Airy, Md. Sheila, I'm getting to you even as we speak. Here we go. Sheila, your turn.
SHEILAKojo, I love your show. Thank you for having me.
SHEILAI feel viscerally, you know, angry at the idea that there's a candidate for President of the United States of America who can show, not just promote, her ideology and candidacy to the populace with people who are writing it for her. And I know there are campaign managers and people who support her, but I just feel -- as an English literature major, I just feel like plagiarism is a hard...
NNAMDIYou feel ghostwriting and plagiarism are the same thing?
SHEILAI kind of do because, you know, the people who are really writing it aren't her. And I want to hear from her. I want to know what she says. And, yes, she's busy. But if she wants to be President of the United States I need to hear what she really feels and what she really thinks. And if she approves this sort of, you know, pasteurized version of herself, but I...
NNAMDIWell, I’m fascinated. What do you think about speech writers?
SHEILAI think a speech writer needs to be in close, close contact with the ideology of their person.
NNAMDIAnd why is it different with a ghostwriter?
SHEILABecause the person who is espousing to have written this book is not the ghostwriter. You know, have it be a biography. Don't have it be an autobiography or a self-written tome. I object to that on so many levels.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Mark, a distinction without a difference?
LEIBOVICHMaybe. I mean, look, political -- in politics today, I mean, it's -- there are big, you know, communications machines. And this is, I think, of a piece for that. I think what the caller is saying and I think is viable, is that, look, there is a cry out for authenticity and a directness of voice between the person you are reading about and the reader. And, look, I think that one of the things Hillary Clinton seems to be trying to do, at least on this book tour, is to maybe give a less filtered view of who she is.
LEIBOVICHI mean, you know, I've been hearing this for years and Lissa, I'm sure, knows this firsthand. I mean, you know, the most revealing parts of Hillary Clinton are the private Hillary Clinton that her friends really know. And, you know, having spent a tiny bit of time with her just as a journalist, when I've seen that I know enough people who know her to let that exist. So I think that what she's sort of yearning for is maybe a little more of the connection that inevitably gets lost when you have so many filters between reader and writer.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Isaac?
CHOTINERYeah, I sort of -- I understand where the caller's coming from about the sort of fundamental dishonesty of the thing. And I think it does get perhaps difficult if the -- as we were saying earlier, if the politician or commentator is taking credit for something their ghostwriter has written. But I also think, you know, what the caller seems to be yearning for is a time before, what Mark called these giant communications machines. And I think we all do to some degree. I just don't think there's any going back.
NNAMDIThat's not going to happen, but thank you very much for your call, Sheila. Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's memoir "Mirror for Life" is now out on shelves. The book's first sentence is quoting here, "Over the years I figured there was so much written about me that I started thinking about writing a book to tell my own story and without pretense."
NNAMDIHe's made it very clear that he doesn't think his story should be told by those who have already written about him, that this is his story to tell. What kinds of things do you think he would have to reveal about himself in a memoir to change how people perceive him? First you, Isaac.
CHOTINERI don't think that that's going to happen no matter what he reveals in the memoir. And I certainly don't think a good start is telling people who've already written about him, not to write anymore about him.
LEIBOVICHYeah, I mean, I would just say that there are a lot of different versions of history. I mean, there's the person who lived it and there are people who lived close to them. And, you know, I mean, that's sort of democracy, right?
NNAMDIAnd I'm thinking that we're talking about different media here, but there's the power of the image. And the power of the image seen of Marion Barry around the world at the Vista Hotel is very difficult to combat in the pages of a book, is it not, Lissa?
MUSCATINEIt definitely is. And it may be impossible, as Isaac's suggesting. I think that a lot of -- what a lot of these political memoirs, and clearly Marion Barry is trying to do in his, is to reveal just enough to sort of be viewed as revelatory and credible, but not so much that you undermine the recrafting and reimaging of yourself that you're also writing the book to do. And evidently -- and I have not read the book yet, but I've read some of the early reviews of it -- he falls a little short in that balance I think. But he's clearly trying to do that.
NNAMDIAre there any examples you can think of where someone has managed to change long-held perceptions about them in a memoir?
LEIBOVICHLet's see. Yeah, I mean, well first of all, a lot of people have tried. I mean, a lot of people we've talked about -- I mean, Scott McClellan, which I think is one of the most, you know, almost perverse sort of attempts to do it. I mean, here is an official robot spokesman whose job is to say quite literally nothing every day. And to obfuscate is, all of a sudden saying, okay here's what I really think, which is -- again, it's a demoralizing juxtaposition.
LEIBOVICHAnd, I mean, I think frankly the most damning thing I've read about Hillary's book -- and I haven't read the new one -- but John Dickerson and his review in Slate just said, I think the last line was, maybe in her next book -- maybe her next book will be titled Now I'm Going to Tell You What I Really Think which, you know, unfortunately, I assume, if you were involved in writing that, was not a very fun thing to read.
CHOTINERI will say -- this isn't quite changing our opinion of someone -- but the way in which Obama's first memoir played to his political advantage I think was very surprising. When he wrote that book I think it would've been almost impossible to imagine that this unknown candidate who admits to doing cocaine and all these other things in his book would actually get -- the book would actually be a political bonus for them.
CHOTINERBut there's a way in which by getting that stuff out in his memoir in this sort of honest way, I think he sort of undercut future attacks against him on things like drug use and a youth, in his words, misspent in some ways.
NNAMDIAny memoir that changed your perception of the individual who wrote it, Lissa?
MUSCATINEI don't think any change. They may have amplified. So for example, one of the big tasks for Madeleine Albright has been to deal with these revelations about her Jewish ancestry. So did -- were people convinced by that or not? You know, I haven't seen a poll about that. But I imagine at least getting a deeper explanation from her about that was helpful to some people, I would have to assume. And I think she was pretty straightforward about it.
MUSCATINEAnd I do think the other point to make though is that even if they're not revealing or recrafting their own image, sometimes they're just revealing a side of themselves. So with all due respect to John Dickerson at Slate, I do think one of the interesting things about Hillary's new book is that I do think it has a sort of a lightheartedness to it. And a kind of reflection of where she is at her stage of life and her stage of her career where she can just afford to be a little more revealing and a little more self deprecatory than I think people realize she actually is. And I think that's a big bonus to that book even if it has to deal with a lot of sort of official diplomatic kinds of issues.
NNAMDIParker in Silver Spring, Md. Your turn, Parker. Go ahead, please.
PARKERDid anyone mention in your discussion about (word?) memoirs, who his editor was at the publisher?
NNAMDINo, but you can tell us.
NNAMDII am not familiar with that at all. Are you, Lissa?
MUSCATINEI didn't know that.
LEIBOVICHYeah -- nope, it's true. I mean, I think -- I don't know if he actually had a very big hand in the writing too from what I can tell.
NNAMDIIs that your understanding, Parker?
PARKERYes. I don't know -- I think there is some debate about how much influence he had in the actual final product.
LEIBOVICHThere always is.
PARKERI think that Grant was actually a very fine writer.
NNAMDIAnd there seems to be some agreement about that, but thank you for your call. And Frank in Annandale, Va. I think wants to underscore that point. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANKYes. Hi, Kojo. Like your show. Listened many times. And I just wanted to mention that one of my math professors lived next door to Alvin Moscow. And he's the guy who really wrote "Six Crises" by Richard Nixon, so that's nothing new.
NNAMDIGhostwriters are nothing new. I am not sure I can authenticate the alleged ghostwriting of Richard Nixon's book. I don't -- anyone else (unintelligible) ...
FRANKWell, that's Al Moscow. His -- Professor Feldstein was his next door neighbor. And Al Moscow's wife used to complain about Nixon's manners on the phone.
LEIBOVICHI'd go with that.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for that contribution. Here is Wendy in Alexandria, Va. Wendy, your turn.
WENDYHi there, Kojo. I do love your show. I really do. Thank you for being there and existing and bringing your point of view and bringing others out of the woodwork that we want to hear from.
WENDYSo, you know, want to say that. I got to tell you, I don't read these books. And it's because of I don't feel that they're particularly honest of the soul of the person. And, you know, you had a caller earlier...
NNAMDIWhy is that? Because of ghostwriters?
WENDYYeah, but, you know, I feel even -- I don't really like the ghostwriting, okay, but I have to say like the English graduate said earlier, she mentioned that, you know, she was looking for more authenticity, was kind of what was -- when you guys were kind of summing up what she was saying. I don't particularly like the ghostwriting. But, you know what? It bothers me even more that someone writes the speeches.
WENDYNow, I get that that's not a popular point of view. I get that it's been part of, you know, like the other guy said of Nixon, and has been going on for a long time. I get that. I just -- honestly I want to hear from the person.
MUSCATINEI think it's that Wendy's comments are really interesting and very legitimate. But I do think it's very important to understand that with both speech writing and ghostwriting, you should not make the assumption that the person is just handing in a draft and it's there -- then that's it, it's done. And the person takes it and either reads it or slaps it between a cover with their name on it.
MUSCATINECertainly the really, really smart and thoughtful people out there -- and there are, believe it or not, quite a few of them, they work very hard on these manuscripts and on these speeches. They rework them. They rewrite them. And often the process begins with what you might colloquially refer to as a brain dump where the person doing the writing or helping doing the drafting of whether it's a speech or a book is actually sitting and interviewing and listening and hearing and going back through transcripts of what the person has said, how they think, how they frame their ideas.
MUSCATINEAnd the most important measure of a speech writer or a ghostwriter's success and ability is whether they really capture the genuineness of that person they're helping. And so to assume that the person involved, be it Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or whomever -- Elizabeth Warren's another example who says she's wrote her entire new book by herself. You know, it's -- they do come through and they do work very hard on these books. And they are themselves extremely good writers. So don't just assume that they have nothing to do with the final product.
NNAMDIIsaac, you wrote critically about the way the New York Times reviewed Hillary Clinton's "Hard Choices," taking issue with the newspaper's approach to essentially review the book like a new story. How would you describe the strategy that politicians and their publishers put to work with how these books are rolled out? People often start seeing these juicy paragraphs, if they do exist, in those political playbook emails the weekend before a book's released.
CHOTINERYeah, I mean, that definitely is the strategy. I just wanted to say though about something. It seems like a lot of the callers are sort of hoping for more authenticity from their politicians. I think that the irony there is that if politicians thought being sort of real people in some sense was to their advantage, they would act more like real people and not hire campaign consultants.
CHOTINERSo I think for people who say that they want real people and they want authenticity, I mean, maybe some people do but I also think there's a certain thing going on where that's not what people really want from politicians. And if they started being themselves, that that might be a political liability. So I think the responsibility is also with voters who reward politicians who are well put together.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Mark?
LEIBOVICHMaybe they need to hire better political consultants to help them be real people.
NNAMDIExactly. That's what I was thinking.
LEIBOVICHNo, I agree. I mean, I think the market bears this up.
NNAMDIYes, Patrick in Washington, D.C. Patrick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICKHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Say, I have sort of an unrelated question and it's directed toward Lissa Muscatine. Has she ever been to my hometown of Muscatine, Iowa?
MUSCATINEWell, Patrick, I actually have been to Muscatine, Iowa because I was, as you can imagine, curious about what it was like. And my parents had actually been there once. They -- I grew up in California so it wasn't easy to get to. But I was there in the 2008 campaign during the run up to the Iowa caucuses. And the name Muscatine in the town is related to, I believe, a Native American tribe called the Mascouten Indians. My name has nothing to do with that. It's an Ellis Island-ized Russian immigrant name.
NNAMDIAnd so your question is answered, Patrick. Thank you very much for your call. Mark, we're running out of time. Why did you decide not to include an index in "This Town?"
LEIBOVICHOh, because I wanted people to actually read the book rather than going to Politics and Prose, look for the index and to see when they're not mentioned to just stick it back on the cover. It's called the Washington read. And I also should say that there are a lot of really bad memoirs out there, but there are also a few good ones. But whether they're bad or good, you should buy them at Politics and Prose.
MUSCATINEMark, you are the nicest person in the world.
CHOTINERAmen to that.
NNAMDIHe managed to slip in a commercial on public radio.
LEIBOVICHOh, I'm sorry.
NNAMDIThat's all right. Mark Leibovich is the national correspondent for the New York Times magazine and author of "This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital." Mark, thank you so much for joining us.
LEIBOVICHThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDILissa Muscatine is the co-owner of the aforementioned bookstore Politics and Pros. She was an advisor and speech writer to Hillary Clinton both during her 2008 presidential campaign and at the State Department. Lissa, thank you so much for joining us.
MUSCATINEReally enjoyed it. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The Republic (sic). Isaac, thank you for coming in.
CHOTINERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
More women on screen and more exploration are among the trends in video gaming this year. Tech Tuesday explores how pop culture and new technology are changing the gaming experience.
Airline profits are soaring but passengers feel squeezed. We explore the economics of flying as the busy summer travel season takes off.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has authorized a proposal to build a light rail line connecting Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. But he wants local jurisdictions to pay more for it. We explore where the debate heads from here.