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 First Fixer-Upper: A Look at White House Renovations

Rude visitors, sinking pianos and dismayed presidential residents

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This year marks the bicentennial of the public reopening of the White House after the War of 1812, when the British burned the executive mansion and sent President James Madison fleeing. Though the grand house has legions of devotees today, its occupants haven’t always loved the place.

The problems began in the 1790s, as the Founding Fathers struggled with the question of how grand such a residence should be for an elected president in a popular government. Was the building to be a government office with sleeping arrangements, a private home, the people’s palace or all of the above? Frequent name changes reflected the confusion: President’s Palace, President’s House and Executive Mansion. The president made its official name the White House only in 1901.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A History of the Unloved Electoral College

Opponents have ranged from John Adams to Richard Nixon. Why has the system survived?

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

The 2016 election results caused plenty of bitterness—not the least of which had to do with the Electoral College. Donald Trump won the presidency a year ago this week but lost the popular vote—something that has happened a handful of times in the republic’s history and twice in the past two decades. In a December press conference, President Barack Obama declared the system to be past its sell-by date: “It’s a carry-over from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work.”

What were the Founding Fathers thinking? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they created a unique system for choosing the president. Each state got a number of electors based on the total of its U.S. senators (two) and U.S. representatives (as set by census). Each state legislature could decide the method of picking electors, but if the electors’ vote was inconclusive, the choice would be sent to the House of Representatives. “The original idea,” wrote Federal Election Commission official William C. Kimberling in 1992, “was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.” Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Protest in Sports

From angry gladiators to Suffragette sabotage

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Sports and protest often go together: As soon as someone makes a call, somebody else is disputing it. But in recent weeks, the really big clashes have happened off the playing fields, as President Donald Trump and others criticized football players kneeling during the national anthem. Such mixing of sports, politics and protest has ancient roots—on the part of both spectators and players.

An early protest by a player comes down to us in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.). An unnamed gladiator once refused to fight in front of the Emperor Caligula. Then, the gladiator, seeing he would die anyway, grabbed his trident and killed his would-be victors.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A British Milestone in the Fight for Freedom

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMON

The British officially abolished slavery throughout their empire on Aug. 1, 1834, freeing some 800,000 Africans from bondage. The date should be forever commemorated—but so should slavery’s own history of resistance and rebellion.

That slaves have always found ways to rebel is reflected in the earliest surviving legal texts. In the 21st century B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, proclaimed that “if a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.”

As slavery became more deeply ingrained in society, so did the nature of the resistance. The Greeks were severe toward rebellious slaves. But no society was as cruel or inventive as Sparta. Having subjugated the neighboring Messenians into helotry in the seventh century B.C. (helots were the property of the state), the Spartans inflicted a reign of terror on them: During annual culls, young warriors were encouraged to hunt and kill the strongest helots.

A catastrophic earthquake in 464 B.C. prompted a short-lived rebellion, but the helots remained trapped in their wretched existence for another century. Finally, another opportunity to revolt came in 371 B.C. after the city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra. Aided by the victorious Thebans, the Messenians rose up and drove the Spartans from their land.

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The Sunday Times: Slowly and stealthily, Republicans are making abortion legal but impossible

Photo: Verne Ho

Photo: Verne Ho

What would you do if you lived in a country where in order to obtain an abortion you, or a woman you know, had to consent to being raped by a stranger before the procedure could take place? Where this year the majority party tried to pass a bill that would force women to carry a dead foetus to term. Where four months ago a woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for charges including “foeticide”.

Where your access to birth control is subject to the whim of local politicians and your chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth is at least three times higher than in any “civilised” country.

I suspect you would look longingly at the West and wish there was some way of getting there. You might even end up as one of the thousands of illegal immigrants who risk their lives to enter America. In which case you would have wasted a great deal of money and effort, since the country I’m describing is America.

Did your brain just do a flip? It seems hard to credit, doesn’t it, when most countries that have draconian sexual reproduction laws also tend to lack indoor plumbing or women drivers. When people think of sexual perverts who use religious ideology as a smokescreen for abusing women they usually have the Taliban in mind. It turns out Americans don’t need to go so far afield; we have our own version right here at home.

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The Sunday Times: These shootings reveal an America still shackled to the ghosts of slavery

Photo: John Mark Arnold

Photo: John Mark Arnold

In 2009, a few months after President Barack Obama took office, Jiverly Wong shot dead 13 people at a community centre for immigrants and refugees. Later that year Nidal Hasan killed 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas. In 2011, Jared Loughner shot dead six people outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. The next year James Holmes killed 12 people in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado; followed by Michael Page who killed six in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; followed by Adam Lanza who killed 26 people — 20 of them children — in a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. In 2013 Aaron Alexis killed 12 inside the Navy Yard in Washington.

The next year, Fort Hood was attacked again when Ivan Lopez killed three. This year, Craig Hicks killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and this month Dylann Roof shot dead nine members of a Bible study group at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

These are just the massacres that gained international attention. In fact, since the Sandy Hook Elementary School atrocity 2½ years ago, there have been 72 mass shootings — involving three or more people being shot — with at least 226 being killed.

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The Sunday Times: Here’s a trigger warning for all campus censors: I shall fight you

Photo: Leeroy

Photo: Leeroy

I stopped watching HBO’s Rape of Thrones — sorry, Game of Thrones — three years ago. I appreciated the plotlines and strong characters and I’ve had both women and men explain to me why it’s necessary for the actresses to play hyper-­‐sexualised roles. But at the end  of the day, to me it’s a sleazy peep show about tits and bums gussied up with high production values and clever dialogue.

There’s a level of crude objectification, a cinematic revelling in the humiliation of women that speaks to something else. It disgusts me on many levels, not least because I believe that “something else” is modern society’s continuing toleration of sexual inequality.

So what’s an angry feminist to do? Well, watch a different programme, for a start. But more effective: complain, debate and generally participate in the marketplace of ideas to try to persuade others that “edgy” entertainment doesn’t have to mean taboo-busting depictions of women being degraded.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The First Ladies and Their Predecessors

Photo: CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

Dolley Madison was born this month in 1768. One of the greatest first ladies in U.S. history, she had a style and energy that brought a uniquely American twist to the role of political spouse. She transformed the White House, not only giving the interiors a much-needed face-lift but also making the presidential residence the social epicenter of Washington, D.C. Among her many gifts to the nation was her insistence that George Washington’s portrait be rescued when the British burned the city in 1814.

But Dolley Madison’s greatest achievement was in creating the role of first lady. President Zachary Taylor used the term for the first time at her funeral in 1849. After her time in the White House, Americans expected first ladies to play a public part, one that was above day-to-day politics and often national in its scope.

The idea of the political spouse has deep historical roots. Livia Drusilla, the ruthless and powerful wife of Caesar Augustus, was instrumental in shaping the destiny of the Roman Empire. Yet even she was imitating a role model that had its original expression in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

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