The Acrid Stench of Politics
If only there were some scientific way to determine whether a political memoir is worth a reader's time. As it is, the best method of selection probably involves a bottle of gin and a fistful of darts. Barack Obama is a perfect example: He's written two books, symbolizing the opposite ends of the poli-memoir spectrum: His first, Dreams from My Father, is a genuinely affecting story of identity and family. His second, The Audacity of Hope, just released in paperback, is little more than a $15 campaign commercial, for hardcore Obama fans only.
Bill Clinton's My Life is another recent bomb. Clinton is too close to his mistakes, and presumably too invested in Hillary's campaign, to divulge any sexy secrets. The general public's sticky fingers were only interested in turning to the anemic Monica Lewinsky passages, but political junkies in search of wonky policy disclosures walked away with even less satisfaction.
From the late 1960s to 2000, Seattle native Ted Van Dyk was a senior adviser to Democratic presidents and presidential candidates, which means that he was privy to all the dirt. The shocking thing is that, in his new memoir, Heroes, Hacks & Fools, Van Dyk is telling us exactly what happened and what he honestly thought about it. It's as pure a political memoir as we're ever likely to see.
Van Dyk's heroes are traditional, policycentric Democrats, men like Tsongas, Humphrey, McCarthy, and Mondale. He's less happy with the marquee names. Lyndon Johnson comes off as exactly the petty jackass that you'd expect—if he didn't wind up in politics, he probably would've murdered somebody for dinging his car in a parking lot. Nixon is the kind of monster who'd negotiate a way to extend the Vietnam War to stay in office. Jimmy Carter seems like an oddly vengeful robot and Van Dyk considers Bill Clinton a snake-oil salesman who gave up on the nation's poorest citizens to remain in everyone else's good graces. He even has a few nasty things to say about Seattle politics in general and Greg Nickels in particular.
One of the book's most vivid passages recalls a time during the 1968 election when Hubert Humphrey "had ridden in a convertible in a night parade. He and all of us in the car were drenched with urine thrown from apartment windows along the parade route." It's the kind of politics that doesn't happen anymore, and it's the kind of filthy detail that most political memoirs are too polite, and too deadly boring, to share.