When Eleanor Roosevelt delivered her White House memoirs, her editor replied, ‘You have written this too hastily as though you were composing it on a bicycle while pedalling your way to a fire.’ Roosevelt declined the offer of a ghostwriter and took her book to another publisher where, with the help of an army of researchers, she produced a bestseller.
Contemporary political memoirs are rarely produced without editorial support—the unacknowledged ghostwriter, the credited co-author, advisers, researchers, fact checkers and a legion of loyal staff. The ‘author’ is what semioticians might call an ‘unstable’ category, an unusually capacious term that permits a looser definition than other genres. The political memoir might be the result of contemporaneous and copious notes or journal entries (Mark Latham’s Diaries or Gareth Evans’ Cabinet Diary), a collaboration between a politician and a colleague (Greg Combet’s The Fights of My Life, co-authored with his adviser Mark Davis), the result of a lengthy process of forensic interviewing (Steve Bracks with Ellen Whinnett), a dialogue between political allies (Peter Costello and Peter Coleman), or an extended conversation that produces a hybrid of memoir and biography (Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons).
The process of persuading, or occasionally dissuading, a politician to write their memoir is interesting. Most are initially flattered by the invitation, then intimidated by the word length. They frequently feel ambivalence towards their colleagues and restrained by party loyalties. Memoirs in Australia have usually been penned in defeat or retirement, in the gloomy after-life beyond the heady pressures of the political maelstrom. Whether retirement has been imposed or chosen, the process of writing one’s memoir seems to involve picking at scabs. Point scoring is an art not always easy to resist. Revenge might well be a dish best served cold, but politicians seem to have remarkably long and detailed memories for the failings of others, insults, slights and frustrations.
Labor politicians tend to be equal-opportunity avengers: enemies in their own party are as worthy of exposure as those across the ideological divide. That said, Gareth Evans proved to have a light touch when elucidating his colleagues’ inadequacies. Their counterparts, Liberal politicians, by contrast usually ‘play nice’ to their own. Perhaps it is the cheery clubbishness of a private-school education, but Liberal politicians share a conviction that theirs is the natural party of government and the enemy without is their focus.
The British Labour politician Denis Healey in the 1980s compared managing the foreign secretary to ‘the strain of acting as psychiatric nurse to a patient who was often violent’. Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff revealed disturbingly, in For the Record, that the first lady’s astrologer influenced the president’s encounters with the public. But then it has also been suggested that Reagan thought Forest Gump was a documentary.
The memoir is an opportunity to secure one’s place in history. Delusional perhaps, but this is often the politician’s last chance to seize the microphone, to record their achievements for posterity. As Winston Churchill is believed to have opined, ‘history will be kind to me for I intend to write it’. It is a truism that political memoirs are an unreliable first draft of history. But it is precisely their unreliability that makes for riveting reading for the political junkie.
The reader who imagines the memoir will be objective, fair or even accurate is naive. The political memoir is unabashedly myopic, subjective and reflexively partisan. Read with this caveat, the genre continues to deliver riches. Mark Latham’s Diaries offended most of his colleagues and party loyalists. For those beyond the beltway, however, the Diaries provided an extraordinarily passionate account of Labor Party culture at a particular moment in the early part of the twenty-first century. It is axiomatic that like all memoirists, Latham’s analysis of the politics and personalities of the period is contestable. But for students of parliamentary politics, his Diaries will remain a remarkable primary source.
One of the limitations of modern political memoirs is the compulsion to caution. Almost inevitably during the editing process, the former politician will increasingly self-censor and take care not to offend, betray confidences or divulge internal party differences. I hope former treasurer Peter Costello will not object if I mention his lawyerly caution as successive drafts emerged. It is understandable—memoirists are documenting the past but they work in the present and are writing with one eye on the future. Memoirists know that words in print have a long shelf life, whether they sell well or not. Books endure, despite the ephemeral nature of the digital era. Politicians learn the hard way that bland is best; they rarely repress that instinct when it comes to publication.
Publishers in the last century accepted that politicians’ memoirs would be the result of a long period of gestation. In this century the politician signs a book deal before leaving the public eye or immediately thereafter. Bob Hawke’s bestselling memoir was published in the mid 1990s, three years after he left office. John Howard’s commercially successful, but critically panned, memoir was also published three years after he lost the seat of Bennelong. These days the political memoir will often be published within a year or so of the writer leaving office. Julia Gillard’s memoir was published a mere fifteen months after her resignation. It is not obvious that the pressure to publish immediately delivers a better book or greater sales. It certainly reflects the ravenous appetite of the media and the short attention span of the electorate that publishers doubt the longevity of the genre.
In the United States, memoirs are now integral to political campaigns. In Australia our politicians, to date, have remained slightly more coy. They worry a book will be a signal of intent, will reveal their leadership ambitions.
The political memoir is a genre with widely acknowledged conventions. Titles are almost uniformly uninspiring since it is the ‘author’s’ name that sells the book. Cover design is another predicable element. For male politicians the rubric is a dark suit. Occasionally rolled up sleeves will be permitted as a sign of the politician at work. The politician’s body is often a challenge. Hands are a particular conundrum—in pockets (too casual?) or clasped (twee?), arms folded (defensive?). Should he be sitting at the desk or in front of the desk? Should he gaze benevolently at the book buyer or slightly off camera as the visionary leader he once was? The choices are endless. By comparison the rare female politician worthy of a memoir is inevitably represented as accessible, never intimidating, with all human imperfections magically removed. Female politicians’ memoirs signal: ‘after an all too brief opportunity to sit at the top table let me share my story with you’. Male and female memoirists struggle with the tension between the intimate and personal account their publishers want and their own preoccupation with legacy building. Rarely are these divergent motives reconciled.
After Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013, I spent some time in Hatchards, one of Britain’s finest bookshops with a superb catalogue of front- and backlist titles. Arriving at the extensive ‘true crime’ section I discovered Thatcher’s memoir prominently displayed. Clearly the British sense of irony continues to flourish. But it also struck me that the fate of this memoirist’s tome might well serve as a cautionary tale for those considering taking up the challenge in the future.