Five Best Political Memoirs

From a Wall Street Journal story by Rory Stewart headlined “Five Best: Political Memoirs”:

Fire and Ashes
By Michael Ignatieff (2013)

1. Michael Ignatieff—documentary maker, novelist, philosopher, biographer and academic—left his chair at Harvard for Canadian electoral politics when he was almost 60, following deliberately in the path of other intellectuals-turned-statesmen, from Vaclav Havel to Mario Vargas Llosa. Mr. Ignatieff was good looking, eloquent and able to integrate his learning and experience into a clear moral framework. Within two years he became the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and by early 2011 looked set to be prime minister.

But brutal attack ads destroyed his lead in the polls; in the subsequent election, his party had its worst showing in its history, crushing Mr. Ignatieff’s political career in the process. “Fire and Ashes” is strangely free of bitterness; it is respectful of the practical compromises and relentless energy of Mr. Ignatieff’s more successful rivals, and wryly observant of the vanity, foibles and game-playing inherent in this would-be-noble profession. Mr. Ignatieff never exempts himself from criticism and somehow transforms his defeat into an optimistic vision of democracy.

The Annals & The Histories
By Tacitus (ca. A.D. 109-116)

2. Most political memoirs are optimistic because politicians either want to believe that they have not wasted their lives or they want the option of a comeback. Tacitus (ca. A.D. 56-120) is the exception: a senior politician (he was a Roman senator, governor and consul) who is unsparingly brutal about political life. He writes in terse epigrams. Vivid scenes of mutiny and political confrontation show his contemporaries’ egotism, ambition, recklessness and rhetorical skill. Tacitus describes how honorable men and women were purged by pusillanimous senators, corrupt officials and sarcastic emperors.

He empathizes with Rome’s enemies and satirizes empire. But he never loses his reverence for Rome: his sense of how serious, noble and dignified its senators could be, and how far his contemporaries fell short. Only a small portion of Tacitus’ memoir survives, but nothing better conveys Rome as it was and wished to be. Those who are struggling to reconcile what they once imagined politics to be with what it has become need a Tacitus.

Known and Unknown
By Donald Rumsfeld (2011)

3. This memoir by one of the most controversial figures in recent history is deft, succinct and highly readable. The life of Donald Rumsfeld (1932-2021) covered a third of the United States’s entire existence. He knew 12 presidents. He was a congressional aide, congressman, ambassador, Middle East envoy, presidential chief of staff, frequent CEO, the youngest defense secretary on record—and, later, the oldest. Most politicians wrestling with such decades—and in his case, tens of thousands of documents—would have produced a multivolume snorefest.

Instead, Rumsfeld tells his story through a few scenes, making some of his more obscure roles the most interesting. He is sympathetic to the McCarthy hearings, but suspicious of U.S. policy toward the Vietnam war. He attacks Lyndon Johnson’s generosity on welfare, but supports him on civil rights. He demonstrates a fierce pride in the U.S. military, but is brutal about American hubris, hypocrisy and inconsistency in Lebanon. He also seems conscious that the same accusations could be leveled at his interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Known and Unknown” is not a comfortable read, but a clear window into some of the most interesting and challenging aspects of the Republican Party, whether you agree with Rumsfeld or not.

My Early Life
By Winston Churchill (1930)

4. “My Early Life” only covers Winston Churchill’s life to the age of 30—his humiliating school career, his polo-playing in India, his adventures on the North-West Frontier of the former British India, his cavalry charge in Sudan and his escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in South Africa—and culminates with his entry into politics. But what might have felt like the letdown of becoming a Tory member of parliament feels to Churchill like a development as dashing as any gallop toward enemy guns. He does not suggest he entered politics to change Britain, address injustice or stem its economic decline.

Instead, his motivation is Arthurian romance, military ambition and noblesse oblige. The memoir was written when he was in his 50s, in the aftermath of his failures in Gallipoli and with the Gold Standard, his alienation from his colleagues, his near bankruptcy—and in the midst of the collapse of his imperial fantasies. But his romanticism is undimmed. The same heroic nostalgia that underpinned his youthful adventures and sustained him through his middle years would be the key to the mature heroism of his war leadership.

This Child Will Be Great

By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2009)

5. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the longtime president of Liberia, was Africa’s first elected female head of state. She was also a finance specialist at the United Nations and the World Bank. Her delicately observed account of growing up in Africa, however, is strikingly free of jargon, abstraction and self-importance. Ms. Sirleaf describes the poverty of her Liberian childhood in the 1940s, her life with an abusive husband and her precarious route—from marriage at 17 and four children—into the Liberian government.

She conveys in spare, powerful words two periods of imprisonment and a military coup in which she was one of only three members of the cabinet not to be executed by firing squad. Horror is balanced with modesty, wisdom and gentle humor. In an age of celebrity politicians and empty sound bites, here is a serious woman, as dignified and grave as a classical hero. The overwhelming sense is of her capacity for sacrifice—her willingness to risk family, liberty and life for her cause.

Selected by Rory Stewart, the author, most recently, of ‘How Not to Be a Politician: A Memoir.’

Speak Your Mind