The Tradition of Telling All

From ancient Greece to modern Washington, political memoirs have been irresistible source of gossip about great leaders

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The tell-all memoir has been a feature of American politics ever since Raymond Moley, an ex-aide to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, published his excoriating book “After Seven Years” while FDR was still in office. What makes the Trump administration unusual is the speed at which such accounts are appearing—most recently, “Unhinged,” by Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former political aide to the president.

Spilling the beans on one’s boss may be disloyal, but it has a long pedigree. Alexander the Great is thought to have inspired the genre. His great run of military victories, beginning with the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., was so unprecedented that several of his generals felt the urge—unknown in Greek literature before then—to record their experiences for posterity.

Unfortunately, their accounts didn’t survive, save for the memoir of Ptolemy Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, which exists in fragments. The great majority of Roman political memoirs have also disappeared—many by official suppression. Historians particularly regret the loss of the memoirs of Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero, who once boasted that she could bring down the entire imperial family with her revelations.

The Heian period (794-1185) in Japan produced four notable court memoirs, all by noblewomen. Dissatisfaction with their lot was a major factor behind these accounts—particularly for the anonymous author of ‘The Gossamer Years,” written around 974. The author was married to Fujiwara no Kane’ie, the regent for the Emperor Ichijo. Her exalted position at court masked a deeply unhappy private life; she was made miserable by her husband’s serial philandering, describing herself as “rich only in loneliness and sorrow.”

In Europe, the first modern political memoir was written by the Duc de Saint-Simon (1675-1755), a frustrated courtier at Versailles who took revenge on Louis XIV with his pen. Saint-Simon’s tales hilariously reveal the drama, gossip and intrigue that surrounded a king whose intellect, in his view, was “beneath mediocrity.”

But even Saint-Simon’s memoirs pale next to those of the Korean noblewoman Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816), wife of Crown Prince Sado of the Joseon Dynasty. Her book, “Memoirs Written in Silence,” tells shocking tales of murder and madness at the heart of the Korean court. Sado, she writes, was a homicidal psychopath who went on a bloody killing spree that was only stopped by the intervention of his father King Yeongjo. Unwilling to see his son publicly executed, Yeongjo had the prince locked inside a rice chest and left to die. Understandably, Hyegyeong’s memoirs caused a huge sensation in Korea when they were first published in 1939, following the death of the last Emperor in 1926.

Fortunately, the Washington political memoir has been free of this kind of violence. Still, it isn’t just Roman emperors who have tried to silence uncomfortable voices. According to the historian Michael Beschloss, President John F. Kennedy had the White House household staff sign agreements to refrain from writing any memoirs. But eventually, of course, even Kennedy’s secrets came out. Perhaps every political leader should be given a plaque that reads: “Just remember, your underlings will have the last word.”

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Perils of Cultural Purity

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…

“Netflix Review: ‘The Ascent of Woman’ — Making Women Part of the Narrative” – Women’s Voices for Change

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In the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, Alexander’s wife Eliza begs him, “Let me be a part of the narrative.” This heartbreaking scene has to do with their marriage and his obsessive work on behalf of the new country he’s helping to build. But, it can also be interpreted as a broader plea. In the American Revolution, as in France’s and later Russia’s, women worked alongside their husbands to attain independence, only to find that when the dust settled, they were back where they started. One patriarchy had simply been replaced by another.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Tax Evasion’s Bite, From the Ancient World to Modern Days

PHOTO: ANDREAS SOLARO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: ANDREAS SOLARO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Despite nearly a half-dozen elections in as many years, the Greeks are still no closer to solving their debt crisis. The newly re-elected government under Alexis Tsipras must fix a country that has over 25% unemployment, an economy that has shrunk by about 30% since 2008 and a national debt that amounts to almost 200% of gross domestic product.

One issue stands out: tax evasion. Nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP is off the books. State revenue for 2015 is already $4.5 billion below target. This is nothing new for the Greeks, who have been dodging taxes for centuries, nonpayment having been a sign of patriotism during Ottoman rule (1453-1821).

Tax evasion has been around since ancient Mesopotamia, when the Sumerians were cheerfully working the black market. A 19th-century B.C. Sumerian cuneiform tablet warns that a trader named Pushuken has been imprisoned for receiving smuggled goods. “The guards are strong,” continues the writer of the tablet, “please don’t smuggle anything else.”

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