WHAT do Taoiseach Enda Kenny and General David Petraeus have in common?
No, not the marital infidelity thing. Perish the thought and you’re a disgrace for thinking it, so you are.
What they actually have in common is that each was approached by a writer with a view to co-operating on an account of their life. Such co-operation carries a rake of advantages for the public figure. It allows them to explain the rationale behind decisions, to correct misapprehensions and — by virtue of regular contact with the writer — to exercise some level of control over the telling of their story. Unless the public figure plans to pen their autobiography in the immediate future and doesn’t want to help the competition, helping the writer has a lot going for it.
David Petraeus, understandably, said yes. Enda Kenny said "Let’s meet". Which may have seeded a little hope in the heart of John Downing, the man commissioned to produce the first biographical volume about the Mayo man. As it turned out, the purpose of the meeting was for the Taoiseach to tell Mr Downing face to face that Enda Kenny would not co-operate and didn’t have any interest in writing or contributing to a book-length account of his life. Ever.
Co-operating would mean sharing his opinions about people and secrets of his operational style. It might also drag him into talking about the tragic death of his father. He made it clear to the writer that he wasn’t into the sort of sharing the book would require and was happy it would be written without his help.
In turning down the chance to influence and inform the book, Kenny also turned down the quintessential flattery of having a journalist attend upon him, bearing, on each visit, the free gift of absolute attention. Yet the Taoiseach said thanks, but no thanks. You can see where this has to lead, can’t you? Downing, who has published millions of thoughtful, well-informed column inches and an earlier biography, is going to be offended by rejection and will start his task with negative bias.
On the other hand Petraeus’s biographer, Paula Broadwell, who is less qualified in terms of published writings but has a military background so can be assumed to be positive towards her subject, is going to write a hugely positive book about Petraeus, published at precisely the time when it can be of most help to his new non-military career as head of the CIA.
In fact, Downing took rejection equably and wrote a balanced book that leans towards the positive when dealing with its subject. Since yesterday’s Sunday Times poll puts the Taoiseach only a notch behind Micheál Martin, who comes in as most popular party leader, it would seem that staying away from a biographer has done him no harm at all.
What happened to Petraeus, in sharp contrast, is a bit like what occurs in Alice Through the Looking Glass, where Alice is progressing towards somewhere or other when the path she’s walking on suddenly takes a hissy fit, shakes itself like a snake and lands her facing the other way altogether. Petraeus co-operating perhaps a little too enthusiastically with his biographer has landed him face down. In mud.
"The costs have been stunning," says Time magazine. "Marriages and reputations have been fractured. Multiple careers, including those of the CIA director and a four-star general, have been damaged or destroyed….The U.S.’s entire security apparatus seems rattled. And every news cycle brings new questions about the judgment, morals, methods and command focus of some of America’s most powerful public servants."
The book about Petraeus was selling well up to recently, and can be expected to do twice as well in the coming weeks, given the amount of publicity it’s been getting.
Some of that publicity has sideswiped the book, which has been condemned as hagiography. Of course, if you were Petraeus, what’s not to like about hagiography? The problem, for Petraeus, isn’t the book. The problem is the relationship between the writer and the subject, which is so skewed, from the outset, that it’s a surprise more of the scribes and subjects don’t end up in bed together, physically, since the task demands that they go to bed together, spiritually.
The writer tends to self-select, based on pre-existing interest in the man or woman to be portrayed. Alternatively, they may be commissioned to write about a particular man or woman by a publisher who, when picking the writer, establishes in advance that the two are reasonably compatible.
The writer then gets access to the person, in person. To their life, hopes and dreams, passions and pain, their triumphs and disasters. Across all of which it is the writer’s job to throw stardust with a view to everybody living happily ever after. It’s at that last fence the fall sometimes happens.
In 1983, for example, journalist Joe McGinnis, famous for a bestseller about Nixon, The Selling of the President, did an interview for his newspaper with a military man named Jeffrey MacDonald, then accused of having murdered his wife and their two young daughters. In that first encounter, the two established enough of a relationship to cause MacDonald to suggest that McGinnis write the story of the case for publication in book form. The accused man didn’t just assume that McGinnis would find him innocent of the crime. His legal team came to a specific agreement with the journalist which would allow some of the book’s royalties to go to MacDonald’s defence.
WHEN MacDonald was found guilty, McGinnis wrote to him, his letter carrying the implication that the as-yet unpublished book would help free him.
"It’s a hell of a thing," McGinnis opined in that letter, "spend the summer making a new friend and the bastards come and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey."
When the book came out, to the convicted man’s astonishment, it portrayed him as being guilty as sin. The writer he thought would throw him a life belt tossed him a lead weight instead and 42 years later, despite repeated appeals, MacDonald is still in prison in Wilmington, North Carolina. His team successfully sued McGinnis, with the judge in the case describing the writer as "a con man".
The author of a classic study of the case, Janet Malcolm, generalised that description to any journalist who collaborates with a murderer, a general or a politician, as "a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse".
While Paula Broadwell did not betray Petraeus in her book, the betrayal, nonetheless, is as profound as that experienced by MacDonald at the hands of McGinnis. And was contributed to in much the same way by the book’s subject.
The Taoiseach’s "publish and be damned" attitude isn’t bad, when it comes to risk management.