Shelves Are Full of White House Memoirs

Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan isn't the first presidential staffer to write a tell-all memoir. Peter Baker, a writer for The New York Times Magazine talks about the phenomenon of the White House memoir.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Scott McClellan isn't the only political insider to dish. The White House memoir might as well have its own shelf at the local bookstore.

For more, we're joined by Peter Baker. He's a writer for the New York Times Magazine. Until recently, he covered the Bush White House for the Washington Post. He joins us now in the studio.

Welcome, Peter.

Mr. PETER BAKER (New York Times Magazine): I'm glad to be here.

NORRIS: Now, as we said, you've covered the Bush White House. How does the version of events described by Scott McClellan, as at least we've seen in this book yet to published, square with what you actually heard on the other side of that podium?

Mr. BAKER: Right. This is not the Scott McClellan we saw day after day in the White House briefing room. That Scott McClellan was a fierce defender of the president and his policies. He was, you know, doing his job as he felt it was to be White House press secretary. This is when obviously we see now in this book coming out a Scott McClellan full of regrets and doubts and skepticism about his own colleagues in the White House he served. It's a very interesting turnabout in only a couple years.

NORRIS: You sound surprised by this.

Mr. BAKER: Well, on one hand, it is surprising. You know, it's obviously - he's not the type of person you would have expected to do this. He came from Texas with the president. He was chosen, in fact, for his loyalty, not his experience in Washington or with the press per se. But anybody who's actually talked to Scott in the last few months understands, I think, that he has a different perspective today than he did. And he was very burned, I think, by what happened in the CIA case, the leak case.

NORRIS: Now, you say people who have actually talked to him. You've talked to him.

Mr. BAKERS: Sure.

NORRIS: You're working on a book about the Bush White House.

Mr. BAKER: Right.

NORRIS: It's interesting. As you work on these books, you're talking to people who are White House insiders who have their own interests and perhaps financial stake in telling...

Mr. BAKER: Right.

NORRIS: ...their own story. Is there a science to this as you try to put your books together?

Mr. BAKER: It's a great question. I think that what we're seeing is the truth told piece by piece. You know, everybody tells his or her own truth as he sees it with his own or her own self-interest obviously involved. When you're trying to write a broader history of a presidency, we benefit from all these different voices. We have now Doug Feith's book out. Pretty soon enough we'll have Don Rumsfeld's book out; next year probably Karl Rove's book. If you take all of these together, I think you get a broader truth of what was happening inside the White House.

NORRIS: I'm wondering if it's different in the case of this White House because this White House has been so disciplined, so cloistered.

Mr. BAKER: Right.

NORRIS: So we're starting to get information that just seemed not be accessible in the course of covering the White House.

Mr. BAKER: It's certainly increases the shock value, I think. Obviously other White Houses have had kiss-and-tell books come out - Don Regan during the Reagan White House; George Stephanopoulos, perhaps you could argue, during the Clinton White House. But what's happening now with this White House seems to be taking it to the next step, and perhaps because the issues are so important and consequential, perhaps because that discipline that they had for so long has frayed under the pressure of terrible poll numbers and the Iraq War and so forth.

NORRIS: Now, there's obvious self-interest in writing these books. They're protecting their own legacy, how history will view these individuals.

Mr. BAKER: Right.

NORRIS: Do you have to read these books with a skeptical eye?

Mr. BAKER: You do, obviously. You have to understand where the person is coming from. I think people try to at least give some sense - a more candid sense in these books than they do at the time. You know, you're no longer under the employ of the president or the White House. I think this also in Scott's case is an example of the journey you take once you leave that sort of White House bubble. You know, the life of a White House aid is so jammed from, you know, meeting to meeting to briefing to briefing that there's rarely time to sort of to sit back and reflect. You know, Scott McClellan and other people have left the White House now and have had a couple of years, in his case, to think about things and see how the rest of the world looks at what happened. And I think that tends to change your perspective.

NORRIS: People who work inside the White House are often discouraged from keeping any kind of record.

Mr. BAKER: Right, right.

NORRIS: So, how is it that they're able to reconstruct these events?

Mr. BAKER: Everybody does things differently. George Stephanopoulos during the Clinton White House had regular conservations with a close friend of his who took notes, and then hid those notes away...

NORRIS: So friend as stenographer almost.

Mr. BAKER: Exactly. And that prevented there being any issue with subpoenas. President Clinton, in effect, did the same thing with Taylor Branch. And you know, are people doing that in this White House? I don't really know that. It's (unintelligible) question. There are rules about what you can bring with you when you leave the White House in terms of your own files and documents. There are rules about what can be put in a book, particularly about classified information. But inevitably they're flawed because inevitably, they do rely a lot on memory and they rely on human perspective and all of us, you know, we don't experience life the same way. You and I will remember this interview in somewhat shaded different ways, you know, and that's certainly true with the big decisions that any presidency is involved in.

NORRIS: Peter Baker, thanks for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you. I appreciate it.

NORRIS: Peter Baker is a writer for The New York Times Magazine.

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