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Donald Trump might have been onto something with his non-disclosure arrangements. He was proved right by two of his most harsh critics, apparently via bankshot.
Trump signed NDAs to prevent his associates from sharing information about the campaign when he was first running for president. This happened in both 2015 and 2016. A federal judge has since ruled at least one was overly broad and vague, releasing the ex-staffer—and likely others—from the muzzle. A case was also dropped by the Justice Department against Melania Trump’s former adviser due to a book that Trump and his team thought violated her NDA.
The stratagem wasn’t irrational. Trump wanted unflattering information to stay secret, both in politics, business, and power. 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. Recent revelations by Lis Smith, a Democratic consultant and Tim Miller, a self-described Republican hitman, have revealed shockingly embarrassing memoirs. Miller’s We Did it! and Smith’s Every 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’m friendly with them both. I’ve attended their birthday parties and am by no means neutral in my admiration of each. We have a lot in common and our social circles can overlap tremendously. Politics has the ability to blend friend-source relationships depending upon election cycles and mutual needs.
Most such books are snoozers—and so sleepy by design. Aaron Sorkin found the perfect spot for snark in 2002 when he spotted it in a 2002 book. West Wing script that the incumbent President would read his challenger’s latest book as soon as its purported author had. As predicates for their campaigns, real-life presidential candidates publish their tomes. They offer up focus-grouped pablum advisers hope will provide a foundation of reason to run. They often come across as droll; for instance, the only thing I recall from now-Vice President Kamala Harris’ We Believe These TruthsThe awkward moment when she explained to the entire world how to pronounce her name.
Miller and Smith have rewritten that expectation. Miller, who was a teenager volunteer for campaigns before becoming the Republican National Committee’s top spokesperson and some of its avatars such as Jon Huntsman and Jeb Bush, is as Republican party man as you can get. 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.
However, their charming resumes reveal a gritty quality in their text. Miller has been open about his gambling history. Smith has been open about the time she spent with a former governor of New York. Eliot Spitzer and how she lost her job as Bill DeBlasio’s top spokeswoman because of the scandalous coverage. While others might resort to euphemisms in order to hide these episodes, they both embrace them. Miller openly confesses his mistakes and Smith jokes that Smith and DeBlasio both wanted Spitzer to be their partner. However, only one of them succeeded.
Each one was granted access to the drugs of access once they were credentialed players in their respective parties. 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. The books have a common thread of regret that runs through them both. Candidates would be wise to consider the impact their actions can have on others. The ripple effects that reach the staff often outlast the FEC quarter, and politicians must remain focused on the singular goal of winning.
One rule in politics is that staff are not the main story. Sure, The War RoomBill Clinton’s campaign made him a minor star. That was rare. Staffers working on campaigns tend to avoid personal interests and instead focus their attention on the candidate. If a reporter is writing about the staff, it’s a pretty good bet that the campaign is in trouble. Smith is a politician who was inspired by Smith. The War RoomMiller, and Smith, turn this theory around. Smith had zero qualms about giving a documentary crew access to the Buttigieg campaign’s inner sanctum for its own War RoomMiller’s documentary is documentary-esque, with fewer secrets than others in his media identity. The books they have created only support their honest and transparent accounts of their history.
The books are not remarkable as self-promotion. Miller and Smith are both described as semi-savants, quasi-heros, pseudo-sociologists. More broadly they diagnose the failings of the party who paid their housing costs for many years. Miller knows all too well the sins committed by the GOP. He supported it even though it denied him the right to wed his wife. 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. The majority of campaign workers would make a terrible mistake if they thought that keeping a journal was necessary in order to follow these examples into airport bookstores. Smith and Miller make significant contributions to the field. You can be sure that they will inspire lots of paranoia from the next batch 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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