Over the next month, two of President Barack Obama’s closest first-term advisers will spill insider details on the administration’s handling of the early days of the Great Recession, the White House’s cautious response to the Syrian civil war and the genesis of clandestine talks with Iran.
The back-to-back memoirs from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ex-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will be the latest installments in what has become an often awkward Washington ritual: one-time confidants signing big book contracts to examine a presidency that is still ongoing and policy decisions that are still being implemented.
Clinton and Geithner’s books will be released just four months after former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ memoir landed like a sucker punch in the West Wing. Gates gave political advisers in the White House virtually no warning — and no advance copy — of his headline-generating memoir, which included sharp criticisms of Obama’s decision-making.
However, Obama aides do not appear to be girding for a repeat of their experience with Gates’ book as they await the release of Geithner and Clinton’s memoirs.
While Geithner has not provided the White House with advance copies of his book, “Stress Test,” the text has been reviewed by lawyers at Treasury and the Federal Reserve. And drafts of Clinton’s book, “Hard Choices,” have been circulating for months among a small number of officials in Obama’s National Security Council.
Clinton’s book will be combed for any sign of discord with Obama, the man who defeated her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign and whom she could run to replace in 2016. Clinton has said little about the book, due out June 10, though it is expected to center on the main foreign policy challenges she was involved in during her four-year tenure at the helm of the State Department, including Syria and the start of secret discussions with Iran that led to the current nuclear negotiations.
Discussing the book in March, Clinton said reliving her tumultuous years as secretary of state “has been eye-opening because when you are in the middle of it, you get up every day, you put one foot in front of the other and try to do the best you can.”
Geithner’s book comes out Monday and is expected to focus on the decisions the government made in response to the recession that gripped the United States at the start of Obama’s presidency. Geithner was at the center of the negotiations over the administration’s massive economic stimulus package and controversial Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill.
Clinton, Geithner and Gates occupied the three most powerful positions in Obama’s Cabinet through much of his first term, giving their accounts heightened importance in a literary landscape littered with books about the White House.
Gates was sharply critical of Obama’s decision-making in his book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” He was also unsparing in his critique of Joe Biden, accusing the vice president of having “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Gates’ assessment sent the White House into damage control mode for several days, with officials issuing a statement from Obama defending Biden and staging a photo opportunity of the two men having lunch together.
While former officials are not obligated to share their pending books with the White House, they do typically vet sensitive and potentially classified material with administration lawyers. Gates’ book was vetted by the Pentagon. And chapters in Clinton’s memoir were scoured by national security officials.
While Clinton, Geithner and Gates are hardly the first former officials to publish memoirs, it is unusual for books from three high-level advisers to come in such rapid succession at this stage in the presidency.
Most of former President George W. Bush’s top Cabinet officials waited until after he left office to write about their tenure. Paul O’Neill, Bush’s first Treasury secretary, did work with author Ron Suskind on a scathing 2004 book that accused the president of planning the Iraq war months ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And Scott McClellan, who served as Bush’s press secretary, released a similarly harsh book in 2008, catching many officials off guard.
Tony Fratto, a former Bush Treasury and White House official who was involved in the administration’s response to both books, said his strategy was to put together a team of staffers, split up sections of the book and start looking for potential problems.
“You just take apart the book. What’s the real story on that? What was he talking about here?” Fratto said, adding that no matter how quickly that effort gets underway, “you definitely feel like you’re behind.”
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