WASHINGTON — When White House Chief Usher Gary Walters announced his retirement last week -- after 30 years of overseeing first families through seven administrations -- he suggested that he might like to write his memoirs. His book, he insisted, would not be a tell-all.
Oh, please. This is Washington, D.C., kiss-and-tell capital of the world, home to some of the greatest tattlers in the book industry. Angry that your beloved program didn't get its rightful funding? No problem, tell it to Simon & Schuster. Worried that history might judge you asleep at the helm before 9/11? Hey, it's OK, just get into print first, blaming others. As for the Iraq War, well, if you want to cast aspersions on others for that foreign policy misadventure, you'll have to get in line. The bookshelves are already groaning. But maybe you can still bag "60 Minutes." Or at least "Larry King Live."
It used to be that telling tales out of the White House was declasse, even tawdry. Loyalty meant you served your president, suffering in silence. Any mistakes committed by the administration were the result of staff or Cabinet error. A president was held blameless.
Times have changed. These days, book parties have replaced cocktail hours in Washington social circles, and power is no longer measured in proximity to the Oval Office but in phone time with Bob Barnett, book agent to Bob Woodward and other aspiring political literary stars. Things have gotten so bad that the 8 a.m. staff meetings at the White House have reportedly gone chilly, with participants reluctant to express their views for fear someone at the table is taking notes or planning revenge -- by the book.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Tell-all books: An article on Washington, D.C., tell-all books in Tuesday's Calendar said that White House Chief Usher Gary Walters was retiring after 30 years of overseeing first families through seven administrations. He began in the usher's office during the Ford administration, and has seen six presidents from that perch. He also served under President Nixon as a member of the Secret Service.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Tell-all books: An article and photo caption in Tuesday's Calendar section about books written by former members of presidential administrations said that former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill had written "The Price of Loyalty." He was the principal source for the book, but it was written by Ron Suskind.
"Everybody now has to think whenever they say anything about how it will look in the page of a book," said Peter Osnos, a former Washington Post reporter who is founder and editor at large at PublicAffairs Books in New York. "You're saying something with the mike open. Is that a deterrent to free speech? Sure, but that's life."
In "Tempting Faith," the latest insider book from a former White House staffer, David Kuo reports a conversation in the Oval Office in which he told President Bush that no new money had been put into federal budgets for his much-trumpeted initiative to allow faith-based institutions to compete for government contracts. With ministers from around the country gathered in the Old Executive Office Building next door, Bush expressed dismay.
Kuo explained that Congress had earmarked $8 billion from other programs. Bush asked if that was $8 billion in new money.
"No, sir, $8 billion in existing dollars," Kuo replied. "Faith-based groups have been getting that money for years."
"That's what we'll tell them, $8 billion in new funds for faith-based groups. OK, let's go."
The effect of Kuo's kiss-and-tell revelation may not be known until after the election. His disclosure that evangelicals were cynically referred to as "nuts" and "goofy" may further depress turnout among a social conservative constituency that has been key to Republican victories in the last three elections.
But the book's effect on political culture is already clear. Coupled with the proliferation of current affairs books from Washington insiders -- journalists Thomas E. Ricks ("Fiasco") and Bob Woodward ("State of Denial") along with pundits Ann Coulter ("Godless") and James Carville ("Had Enough?") to name but a few -- the shelves are overflowing with political tomes. It's as if the nation is having a political conversation through books, an unexpected print echo of the unrelenting chatter of ranting radio talk show hosts, activist bloggers slamming foes and a 24/7 cable television news cycle.
"The kiss-and-tell is part of the dumbing down of the United States," said Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post. "The public has always been fascinated with gossip."
President Clinton may have posted a record for surviving embarrassing books about his personal habits. Gary Aldrich, an FBI agent assigned to the White House, broke taboos by writing "Unlimited Access," which alleged that the president left the White House grounds occasionally for romantic liaisons. White House aide George Stephanopoulos, in "All Too Human," blamed Clinton for abandoning policy imperatives in favor of outsized appetites. Dick Morris, a political consultant, in "Behind the Oval Office," chronicled Clinton's "dark side." And that was all before "The Starr Report," an official government document repackaged for mass marketing, which divulged the most intimate details of Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.