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OPINION

Mattis shows admirable restraint in memoir

By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: September 19, 2019

Jim Mattis takes only nine words in the prologue of his newly published memoir to make clear he has no intention of revealing juicy behind-the-scenes details of his tumultuous two years as President Donald Trump’s defense secretary.

“I’m old fashioned,” the retired Marine general writes in “Call Sign Chaos.” “I don’t write about sitting presidents.” The closest he comes to criticism is to write that, “We all know that we are better than our current politics” (though a former aide, Guy Snodgrass, promises more in his own forthcoming volume).

What a refreshing contrast. For more than four decades, countless presidential appointees have failed to wait until their benefactor left office before going public and cashing in with details about his foibles and the infighting among colleagues. They’ve done so despite the disrespect and disloyalty to the presidents who made them public figures.

From James Fallows, a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, to Omarosa Manigault Newman, a self-promoter inexplicably given a White House job by Trump, presidential aides have broken with what was once standard practice: waiting until their boss left office to reveal his inner secrets.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had been dead for nearly a decade before publication of the “secret diaries” of his interior secretary, Harold Ickes, laid out the behind-the-scenes disputes of his three-plus terms.

President Richard M. Nixon had been out of office more than three years when his former chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, published his account of the Watergate scandals that landed several top aides, including himself, in jail.

But Carter was just midway through his only term when Fallows, his onetime chief speechwriter, described “The Passionless Presidency” in the Atlantic magazine. Among other things, it revealed Carter to be so much of a micromanager he decided who could use the White House tennis courts and when.

“He is a stable, personally confident man, whose quirks are few,” Fallows wrote. “Carter is usually patient, less vindictive than the political norm, blessed with a sense of perspective about the chanciness of life and the transience of its glories and pursuits.”

After three paragraphs of praise came the delineation of the “gifts he lacks.” Carter, he wrote, lacked “sophistication,” “the ability to explain his goals” and “the passion to convert himself from a good man into an effective one.”

Fallows then described in excruciating detail Carter’s managerial flaws, from over-reliance on his Cabinet appointees to his determination to make all decisions, big and small, himself, including to “personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court.”

That factoid remains part of Carter administration history, along with the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David accord and the Panama Canal treaty.

And it opened the floodgates. Ronald Reagan was still president when his onetime press spokesman, Larry Speakes, wrote a memoir claiming he made up Reagan quotes during his 1985 Geneva summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

And he was still there when Don Regan — fired as chief of staff after the Iran-contra scandal — disclosed first lady Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer to determine White House scheduling.

While neither likely made a financial killing, President Bill Clinton’s communications director, George Stephanopoulos, did. He sold his inside account of Clinton’s first term for a reported $2.75 million advance and became an anchor and analyst for ABC News at an annual salary of over $15 million.

By contrast, Scott McClellan, the second press secretary for President George W. Bush, had difficulty finding a job after publishing “What Happened?” a highly critical account of Bush’s presidency.

Trump sought to prevent this sort of thing by requiring campaign and administration appointees to sign nondisclosure agreements barring them from disclosing things they learned during their service. Though they are widely believed to be unenforceable, few former aides have yet tested that.

They include Omarosa, who apparently recorded White House meetings to which she invited herself; former midlevel press aide Cliff Sims, whose suit to bar Trump from enforcing a nondisclosure agreement is still pending in federal court; and Anthony Scaramucci, for 11 days the communications director.

Of course, the Trump White House has been a sieve of daily information, evident in the very detailed reportage of major newspapers, wire services and television stations. The president habitually labels it “fake news,” but most has proved accurate, leaving less for later “insider” revelations.

Top aides seemed to exercise little restraint from talking at length to noted Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, whose “Fear: Trump in the White House” was published in September 2018, and Michael Wolff, a New York magazine writer who seemingly roamed the White House at will compiling his “Fire and Fury,” published in January 2018, and “Siege,” a June 2019 follow-up.

Still, any reporter who has covered the White House knows that, even in such a leaky environment, a lot only becomes evident when the histories are written years later.

That’s what makes Mattis’ example of loyalty and restraint so admirable. Judging from his exemplary career, anything else would have been a surprise.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.

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