Some 34 years ago Gerald Kaufman, a former Labour minister who was turfed out of office when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, wrote a book: How to be a Minister. It was, as the name suggested, a guide to doing a difficult job by someone who knew what they were talking about.
This was at a time when not all politicians felt compelled to write memoirs – presidents and prime ministers, perhaps, but mere ministers, secretaries or press advisors? No. Somehow we managed to get by without hearing everyone’s “side of the story”.
This week Leon Panetta has become the latest one-time Obama appointee to spill the beans. In his 498-page opus, Worthy Fights, Panetta explains in great detail why everything would have turned out better if the president had listened to him. It doesn’t quite compare to Robert Gates’s 600-page brick, which had a much higher whinge-to-page ratio but both books seem like a missed opportunity.
There is an arrogance about those who feel that their bleatings about how difficult they found their job and why other people made things so unbearable are worth our money. If you want to slag off former colleagues, write a blog. It will get just as much attention and probably be more widely read. You won’t get paid for it but then as you’ve probably justified in your book by saying how vital it was that we heard “your side of the story”, that shouldn’t actually matter to you, should it?
These two men – Panetta, who has served as defence secretary and CIA chief; Gates, too, a man who has served under eight presidents and knows the Pentagon inside out – could have instead chosen to write their own “How to” guide. It would be a book that is as useful to each man’s successors as Kaufman’s was to those who followed him in Whitehall.
Such a book would be immensely useful. Governing is difficult, particularly if you’ve never done it before. Yet very few politicians get a second chance – if they don’t know what they’re doing first time around they’ll be replaced pretty quickly by someone else who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
But at least once they’re out they’ll be able to write a memoir explaining why they were right all along.
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor of Monocle.