In 1963, Philip L. Graham, then the publisher of The Washington Post, gave a speech in which he delivered the memorable characterization of journalism as “a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.” That is still true today. But journalism’s “rough draft” has been increasingly joined over the decades by the memoirs of leading government figures whose tenure in office invariably leads to books that offer their perspective intended to frame the historical measure of their role.
There have always been memoirs of those who held high rank. But in today’s rhythm, the books appear as soon as possible after the official’s departure, while the events described are still of some widespread interest or dispute. The fate of most of these memoirs is short-term notoriety—plus a substantial payout to the author—and a chance to shape the long-term appraisal of their actions. What Graham said of journalism is also the case with hastily written, self-serving memoirs: “Much of it is, of course, pure chaff .... But no one has been able to produce wheat without chaff.”
Now, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has taken the genre a substantial step forward by releasing a highly critical memoir while an administration he served still has three years left. The book has been justifiably praised by some for its depth and quality and vilified by others for its timing. In more than four years at the Pentagon, serving two presidents from opposing parties and overseeing two costly and unresolved wars, Gates earned a reputation for integrity and his ability to handle the intense policy and bureaucratic conflicts that bedevil every administration. When Gates’s book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, landed on media desks in the first days of January (a week before it went on sale) it was an immediate sensation. Its gimlet-eyed portrait of prominent figures in Washington’s power elite at the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon—including many still at the helm—made it a natural hit.