“Why am I supposed to be the only person that is unable to tell my story?” asked Donna Brazile, during the early days of her media blitz. Apparently she shouldn’t have worried. Her campaign memoir, Hacks, just debuted at number three on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Still, I suspect Brazile’s urge to speak her truth—and her anger at anyone who might be trying to stop her—is genuine. Being a political operative, even a high-level one, is an act of self-censorship. You don’t express yourself. You help other, more important people express themselves. You forgo the pride of authorship for the chance to make a difference. It’s a reasonable tradeoff.
Until it isn’t. For some of us, there comes a time when our own voices bubble up. We want to be heard. And if we’re lucky enough to find publishers, we write books.
I say this from experience. My own political memoir, Thanks, Obama, came out two months ago. In many ways it’s quite different from Brazile’s. Where she spent decades in the upper echelons of Democratic politics, I entered the White House as a junior-level speechwriter when I was 24 and left as a mid-level one five years later. Also, while far from perfect, my experience in politics was positive, which is bad for book sales but good for mental health.
Even so, I empathize with Brazile’s hunger for self-expression. I know how it feels to decide (or be tricked by your ego into thinking, or both) that you have a story worth telling.
And I know what it’s like to grapple with a new set of responsibilities. It’s a question I thought about constantly while writing Thanks, Obama, and again while reading Hacks. What do operatives-turned-authors owe not just their publishers and readers, but the people and organizations they used to represent?
While the most common answer is “loyalty,” I don’t think that’s correct. I wrote admiringly of President Obama and my former colleagues, but that’s because I genuinely admire them. Brazile writes harshly about the Obama White House and the DNC, two organizations I’ve worked for, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with her sharing her opinions. (When the shoe is on the other foot, and Reince Priebus is ready to turn on his former allies, I’ll almost certainly praise him for coming clean.)
After about a year of writing and rewriting, I came to believe that instead of loyalty, the would-be memoirist owes something both more universal and less straightforward. Judgment. Those writing books about their time in politics have a larger platform than most citizens. But we share the same responsibility: to think critically about our democracy and the role we’ve been lucky enough to play in it.
That’s where Hacks falls short. Regardless of your feelings about its merits as a tell-all, as a book, it’s careless. It feels raw, not in the sense of being powerful, but in the sense of being not yet ready for consumption.
From the very first page, Brazile makes clear that she’s writing about wounds that haven’t yet healed. Her opening anecdote, for example, is about her frustration that Hillary Clinton waited until four months after Election Day to call. When the call finally arrives, and Hillary proves less grateful than expected, it only adds to the pain. “I know she was being as sincere as possible,” Brazile writes. “But I wanted something more from her.”
This pattern—political history as personal insult—repeats itself throughout the book. When the Hillary campaign plans to transfer $2 million instead of $8 million to the DNC, Brazile tells Clinton staffers they’re treating her like Patsey, Lupita N’yongo’s character from 12 Years a Slave. In an early chapter, the DNC chair schedules a Tim Kaine speech without informing Brooklyn. When Clinton’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, storms off after discovering the change, Brazile writes (italics original), “I was thinking, If that bitch ever does anything like that to me again, I will walk.”
Do the author’s personal pain and anger color her broader impressions of the Clinton campaign? Does she think it’s possible Brooklyn had a good reason for wanting to keep the vice presidential candidate away from the scandal-plagued DNC? I don’t know what Brazile thinks about these questions. She never answers them.
She never even asks them. There’s nothing in Brazile’s behavior, or more important in her recounting of it, that suggests introspection has been a priority. Take this moment from chapter one, after WikiLeaks releases DNC emails ahead of the party convention. “I wanted to personally apologize to folks,” Brazile writes. A paragraph later, she recounts the moment:
“I’m a vice chair of the party, and I just want to say on behalf of the DNC, I’m not the chair, but I want to apologize.”
I love this formulation. It’s a perfect 10 in cover-your-ass gymnastics. But that aside, it gets at Brazile’s genuine inability to decide on the role she played in her own story. Was she an important political figure unfairly targeted by the Russians, the Trump campaign, and her old friend Hillary? Or was she a semi-retired political commentator and consultant who had history thrust upon her, a kind of elder-stateswoman-meets-fly-on-the-wall?
You might think not knowing doesn’t matter. But not knowing snowballs. Wrapping up her convention speech, she sums her newfound responsibility: “Work as hard as I could to bring my friend Hillary to victory.” Yet two chapters later, she writes that Obama, Hillary, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz had crippled the DNC. “They had leeched it of its vitality, and were continuing to do so. In my three months I was going to do what I could to bring that life back.” So did she spend three months supporting Clinton, or defending the DNC from her? Those are different books.
Or take the thing Brazile was best-known for during the 2016 campaign—leaking a debate question to the Clinton campaign during the primary. This one should be easy to pin down. After all, Brazile apologized for the leak months ago. But in her book, she goes on exhaustive search for evidence, and then says she can’t find any. She doesn’t deny having sent the email to the Clinton camp. Yet she also doesn’t retract her earlier apology. Shouldn’t this, at least, be something she can take a position on?
Not in the world of Hacks. “It’s impossible to know” is Brazile’s answer to nearly everything. Consider the most explosive charge—that the DNC had rigged the primary to make it impossible for Bernie Sanders to prevail. Page 95: “I would get to the bottom of whether or not Hillary’s team had rigged the party process in her favor.” Page 96: “I had found my proof, and it broke my heart.” Page 159: “Overall the game was not rigged against him.”
Okay then. Glad we got to the bottom of that.
At other times, Brazile substitutes rhetorical questions for conclusions. “Who was going to believe that a grandma with pneumonia would go to her daughter’s house to recover with two vulnerable little ones around?” she writes of Hillary’s fainting spell in September 2016. She’s not accusing the Clinton campaign of covering up a more serious health problem, mind you. She’s just sprinkling doubt onto every major event from the campaign. It’s like reading What Happened, if What Happened had skeptical, thinking-face emojis punctuating every page.
Then there are the moments Brazile just throws ideas against the wall. Discussing DNC staffer Seth Rich’s murder, she writes, “With all that I knew about the Russians’ hacking, I could not help but wonder if they had played some part in his unsolved murder. Besides that, racial tensions were high that summer and I worried that he was murdered for being white on the wrong side of town.” Were Brazile chatting with friends over her beloved Johnny Walker Black, perhaps spitballing murder theories would be acceptable. But this is supposed to be a definite account. There are wrong ideas in brainstorming.
In fact, brainstorming is in and of itself a wrong idea. Were this a more conventional book—a YA novel, or a memoir about a beloved pet—Brazile’s lack of introspection might merely disappoint readers. But with a political memoir like this one, the stakes are higher. If you don’t know what conclusions you hope to draw, a million conspiracy theorists and partisan propagandists will draw one for you.
That’s what happened with Hacks. As an author, Brazile may have hoped to speak her truth, but readers are buying it for its choose-your-own-adventure quality. No matter your preferred conspiracy theory, there’s a line in the book to support it. (There’s also a line in Hacks to refute it, but that can be conveniently ignored.)
Which is why this book continued to bother me, even after Democrats won big in Virginia elections and the national conversation moved on. For those of us who choose to write corridors-of-power memoirs, the one altruistic element of the project—the thing that is supposed to balance out the ego and navel-gazing at the heart of the endeavor— is the idea that we can provide clarity in the mucky world of politics. We don’t necessarily succeed. If we fail, it’s not necessarily our fault. But it is up to us to try.
I don’t think Brazile tried. Instead of contributing to our understanding, Hacks muddies the waters. Instead of warning us about Putin and Trump, it contributes to the post-truth, nothing-matters atmosphere that enable their rise. Yes, Brazile told her story. Yes, she spoke her truth. But her story confuses instead of clarifies, and her truth gives cover to liars.
That’s a serious lapse in judgement. And when you do a job—any job—without fully considering its responsibilities, that doesn’t make you heroic. It makes you hacky.