The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped that “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” It is with that rule in mind that makes reading the memoirs of Bush administration officials, namely former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney, so tiresome. The reflections in Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown and Cheney’s In My Time are so belligerent and decidedly unreflective that one wonders if political memoirs are even relevant reads?
Surely memoirs serve as one’s public defense before they face the judgment of history. But they ought to serve as more than just an accountability tool. Memoirs that can offer a unique insight (or even an explanation) into a particular event or time are far more worthwhile to a reader. Which is what makes former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s new book, No Higher Honor, perhaps the only credible and serious memoir to emerge from the Bush era.
Unlike her former administration colleagues who remain so resolute in the correctness of their decisions and success of their actions, Rice is more thoughtful. She acknowledges many of the administration’s missteps, including the mishandling of the Kyoto climate change treaty and the failure to devise a serious post-invasion plan for Iraq. She even admits her own regret in mishandling the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
But she is articulate in her praise for the administration’s successes, as well as her own role in charting a softer foreign policy in Bush’s second term. Critics of Rice who read No Higher Honor will no doubt carp about her continued defense of the invasion of Iraq; such a stance might be maddening, but it is not altogether surprising. What is surprising, and refreshing from a Bush administration official, is her candor in discussing the White House’s struggle to address Iraq’s rapid descent into violence. It is a level of reflection that truly elevates her memoirs above those of Rumsfeld and Cheney.
Of No Higher Honor’s 766 pages, perhaps the best, and really most moving, discussion is when Rice recounts the panic that gripped the White House in the days and weeks following the September 11 attacks. Again, Rice’s critics will have much to say about the policy decisions made in those early days, but her account of the administration’s struggle to move forward amidst incoming intelligence suggesting more attacks were imminent ought to elicit sympathy from thoughtful readers.
Rice also avoids succumbing to the most distasteful, albeit juicy, aspect of political memoirs: the disparaging of former colleagues. In her discussion of her relationships with Rumsfeld and Cheney, arguably the two most truculent voices in the Cabinet, Rice remains professional and she regards any disagreements with them as business, not personal. Neither Rumsfeld nor Cheney had such scruples in writing their memoirs.
No Higher Honor is certainly Rice’s version of events, but she also has a respect for facts, those stubborn things her colleagues still struggle to accept. Her ability to acknowledge many of the administration’s mistakes and reflect thoughtfully on what might have been done differently will likely serve in her favor when the history of that administration is written.
And as for the readers, instead of the bluster we have come to expect from the Bush crowd, or political memoirs in general, we are granted that extra insight into the pressures the White House woke up to on September 12. Not all political memoirs are worth our time, but this one should be.
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