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Maybe Donald Trump was onto something with those non-disclosure agreements. It just took two of his harshest critics to prove him right, seemingly by bankshot.
When Trump first ran for President back in 2015 and 2016, he demanded many of his aides sign NDAs preventing them from telling stories about the campaign. A federal judge has since ruled at least one was overly broad and vague, releasing the ex-staffer—and likely others—from the muzzle. The Justice Department similarly dropped its case against a former Melania Trump adviser over a book the Trump team believed also violated her NDA.
The stratagem wasn’t irrational. Trump, in business and in politics and in power, wanted to keep unflattering facts from leaking. Against the advice of lawyers, he deployed similar NDAs against White House staffers, looking to protect his own image and ego, although it’s still unclear just how widely those tools were used or if they can be enforced.
Well, looking at the nascent best-seller lists right now, two political scorchers prove former Presidents involved in coups aren’t the only ones who might want to seek silence from their counselors. Former self-described Republican hitman Tim Miller and Democratic consultant Lis Smith each have published in recent days transparently scandalous memoirs. Miller’s Why We Did It and Smith’s Any Given Tuesday may just rewrite the template for what a political memoir can be—and level a warning shot for any future candidate that their greatest risk may be in opening the door to those already on the payroll.
(Disclosure: I am friendly with both. I’ve attended their birthday parties and am by no means neutral in my admiration of each. Our social circles overlap in mighty big ways and politics has a way of blending friend-source relationships depending on the election cycle and mutual need for access.)
Most such books are snoozers—and so sleepy by design. Aaron Sorkin landed the perfect snark when he observed in a 2002 West Wing script that the incumbent President would read his challenger’s latest book as soon as its purported author had. Real-life presidential candidates release their own tomes as predicates to their runs, offering up focus-grouped pablum that advisers hope will build a spine of rationale for a run. They often come across as droll; for instance, the only thing I recall from now-Vice President Kamala Harris’ The Truths We Hold is the awkward moment she had explaining to the world how to say her name.
But Miller and Smith reset that expectation. Miller is as party man of a Republican as they come, a volunteer on campaigns as a teen before becoming a top spokesman for the Republican National Committee and some of its avatars like Jeb Bush and Jon Huntsman. And Smith’s pedigree is no less plated, having been on the line spinning for the Democratic Governors Association, the Obama re-elect, and scores of other competitive races before settling in as the svengali of Pete Buttigieg’s Cinderella presidential campaign.
But their charmed resumes betray a grittiness in their texts. Miller is open about his problematic history with gambling. Smith is transparent about her time dating former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and how she lost her job as Bill DeBlasio’s top spokeswoman because of the scandalous coverage. But where others would find euphemisms to paper over those episodes, both lean into them; Miller unflinchingly admits to his missteps and Smith half-jokes that both she and DeBlasio had wanted to get into bed with Spitzer but only one succeeded.
Once credentialed as players in their parties, each fed on the drug of access. The books as a pair are as much a rulebook for how to run—and not run—campaigns as they are a cautionary tale for how not to justify dubious choices. A running thread of regret bleeds through both books, and candidates would do well to understand the personal toll their choices can inflict on the help. While politicians need to focus on their singular goal of winning, the ripple effects reach the staff in ways that often last far longer than the FEC quarter.
An unwritten rule of politics is that the staff never becomes the story. Sure, The War Room made minor celebrities of the Bill Clinton campaign. But that was a rare exception. Usually, staffers on a campaign deflect any personal interest in their roles, instead hoping to keep focus on the candidate. If a reporter is writing about the staff, it’s a pretty good bet that the campaign is in trouble. Smith, who got her start in politics after being inspired by The War Room, and Miller turn that theory on its head. Smith had zero qualms about giving a documentary crew access to the Buttigieg campaign’s inner sanctum for its own War Room-esque documentary, and Miller has fewer secrets than most in his own media identity. Their books only back up their nakedly honest accounting of their histories.
As a matter of self-promotion, the books would be unremarkable. Both Miller and Smith come off as quasi-heros, semi-savants, pseudo-sociologists. But more broadly, they are diagnosing the ills of the party that paid their housing for years. Miller is darkly aware of the sins of the GOP, a party that he helped even as it sought to deny his right to marry his husband. And Smith is no less circumspect when she looks around her Democratic Party to find a mess of ideology and identity that purports to celebrate women’s rights while slutshaming one of its most talented communicators. That doesn’t make their diagnoses any easier to swallow, especially for the establishment wings of their respective parties.
The books, on their own, probably won’t remake the publishing industry. In fact, they probably shouldn’t. It would be a mistake for the vast majority of campaign hands to think they should keep a journal in the hopes of following these exemplary works into any airport bookstore. But Miller and Smith both make major contributions to the field of campaign travelogues. They also will rightly inspire plenty of paranoia among the next cohort of candidates. Miller professes he’s out of The Game, but I have trouble believing that his exit is permanent; he’s just too good at the Dark Arts to stay sidelined. Smith rightly notes that her book probably makes it tougher for her to land the next gig, but she also says she probably wouldn’t want to work for a candidate who got squeamish knowing his or her conduct might face a similar scrutiny. If only there were an NDA to stop such disclosures…
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