This article is part of The DC Brief, TIME’s political bulletin. Register here to get stories like this delivered to your inbox.
Maybe Donald Trump was onto something with these nondisclosure agreements. It just took two of his toughest critics to prove him right, seemingly by bankrupt.
When Trump first ran for president in 2015 and 2016, he demanded that many of his aides sign NDAs preventing them from telling campaign stories. A federal judge has since ruled that at least one was too wide and vague, freeing the former staffer – and likely others – from the muzzle. The Justice Department also dropped its case against a former adviser to Melania Trump over a book the Trump team said also violated its NDA.
The stratagem was not irrational. Trump, in business, in politics and in power, wanted to prevent unflattering facts from leaking out. Against the advice of lawyers, he deployed similar NDAs against White House staffers, seeking to protect his own image and ego, though it remains unclear how badly these tools were widely used or if they can be applied.
Well, looking at the burgeoning bestseller lists right now, two political scorchers prove that former presidents involved in coups aren’t the only ones who want to silence their advisers. Former self-proclaimed Republican hitman Tim Miller and Democratic consultant Lis Smith have each released shockingly transparent memoirs in recent days. miller Why we did it and Smith’s Any Tuesday can simply rewrite the template for what a political memoir can be – and deliver a warning shot to any future candidate that their biggest risk might be opening the door to those already on the payroll.
(Disclosure: I’m friendly to both. I’ve attended their birthday parties and I’m by no means neutral in my admiration for each. Our social circles overlap in a big way and politics has a way of mixing friend-source relationships depending on the electoral cycle and mutual need for access.)
Most of these books are snoozers – and therefore sleepy by design. Aaron Sorkin landed the perfect snark when he observed in a 2002 west wing script that the incumbent president would read his challenger’s latest book as soon as its alleged author did. Actual presidential candidates are releasing their own tomes as predicates of their races, offering a discussion group pablum that advisers hope will build a backbone of justification for a race. They often come across as funny; for example, the only thing I remember now – Vice President Kamala Harris’ The truths we hold This is the awkward moment she had to explain to the world how to say her name.
But Miller and Smith reset that expectation. Miller is a Republican’s party man as they come, a volunteer on campaigns as a teenager before becoming a top spokesman for the Republican National Committee and some of its avatars like Jeb Bush and Jon Huntersman. And Smith’s pedigree is no less plated, having been in contention for the Democratic Governors Association, Obama’s re-election and dozens of other competitive races before settling as the svengali of Cinderella’s presidential campaign. by Pete Buttigieg.
But their charming CVs betray a granularity in their texts. Miller is open about her problematic history with gambling. Smith is transparent about her time with former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and how she lost her job as Bill DeBlasio’s spokesperson to because of the outrageous coverage. But where others would find euphemisms about these episodes, the two lean into it; Miller unflinchingly admits his missteps and Smith half-jokes that she and DeBlasio had wanted to sleep with Spitzer but only one succeeded.
Once accredited as actors in their parties, each fed on the drug of access. The paired books are as much a rule book on how to run — not lead — campaigns as they are a cautionary tale on how not to justify questionable choices. A common thread of regret runs through both books, and candidates would do well to understand the personal toll their choices can inflict on the aide. While politicians must focus on their single goal of winning, the ripple effects reach staff in ways that often last much longer than the FEC quarterback.
An unwritten rule of politics is that the personal never becomes the story. Sure, The war room made minor celebrities from Bill Clinton’s campaign. But this was a rare exception. Typically, campaign staffers divert personal interest from their roles, hoping instead to stay focused on the candidate. If a reporter writes about the staff, chances are the campaign is in trouble. Smith, who got her start in politics after being inspired by The Crisis unit, and Miller reverses this theory. Smith had no qualms about giving a documentary crew access to the inner sanctum of the Buttigieg campaign on his own account Crisis unit-esque documentary, and Miller has fewer secrets than most in his own media identity. Their books only back up their honestly bare narrative of their stories.
In the context of self-promotion, books would be commonplace. Both Miller and Smith present themselves as quasi-heroes, semi-scholars, pseudo-sociologists. But more broadly, they diagnose the ills of the party that has paid for their housing for years. Miller is grimly aware of the sins of the GOP, a party he aided even as it sought to deny her the right to marry her husband. And Smith is no less wary as she looks around her Democratic Party for a boondoggle of ideology and identity that purports to celebrate women’s rights while shaming 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.
Books alone are unlikely to reshape the publishing industry. In fact, they probably shouldn’t. It would be a mistake for the vast majority of activists to think that they should keep a journal in the hope of tracking these exemplary works to any airport bookstore. But both Miller and Smith make major contributions to the field of campaign travel writing. They will also rightly inspire a lot of paranoia among the next cohort of contestants. Miller professes he’s out of the game, but I find it hard to believe his exit is permanent; he’s just too good at the dark arts to stay away. Smith rightly notes that her book probably makes it harder for her to land the next gig, but she also says she probably wouldn’t want to work for a contestant who got goosebumps knowing her conduct might make the subject to similar scrutiny. If only there was an NDA to stop such disclosures…
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the DC Brief newsletter.
More Must-Try Stories from TIME