This fall's cornucopia of political books features two kinds: campaign-style autobiographies from people running for president and personal memoirs from former topsiders in the Trump administration.
The latest entry, Nikki Haley's With All Due Respect, bids fair to be both.
Haley served six years as the outspoken governor of South Carolina — she was the state's first female governor and its first Indian-American one — and two as Trump's even-more-outspoken ambassador to the United Nations. She explains her sudden retirement by saying that this year has been her first in 14 as just an ordinary private citizen, liberated to "sleep in" and "get to read books again."
She scoffs at media speculation that she might challenge her former boss for the Republican nomination for president ("I can promise you ..."). She does not mention the speculation about her replacing Vice President Mike Pence on the ticket. At the same time, she allows that all her life she has pushed through doors and found herself on the other side.
"If God has another door for me," she adds, "He will show it."
The other question people ask about this sort of book is, What does she say about President Trump? The answer: Mostly good stuff about the relationship she had with him. She admits to "reservations" about him during the primaries (she preferred Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, her mother was a Trump supporter before she was) but adds that she had far greater reservations about Hillary Clinton.
Having signed on to work for Trump, she liked the way he took her calls and heard her out. She especially liked the respect he showed her in meetings of the National Security Council: "He would listen to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary [Rex] Tillerson, and then usually he would ask for my opinion. I would tell him directly and honestly. This seemed to annoy Rex, particularly when I disagreed with him, which I often did."
In, perhaps, the book's newsiest nugget, Haley has Tillerson and John Kelly, the former chief of staff, asking her to help them "save the country" from Trump — an entreaty she says she rebuffed and denounces as "undermining the Constitution."
Tillerson left the administration months before Haley did, but he reappears often in her memoir in an unflattering light. She portrays him as dismissive, seeing himself as preeminent in foreign policy and impatient with her competitive access to the president.
She also shares that shortly after Trump was elected, the president-elect sounded her out about being secretary of state — a job she says she did not quite feel prepared to do. This implies, without quite saying, that Tillerson was not the president's first choice. (He has since been succeeded by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.)
Haley tells us that she and the president "have different styles." She opens her prologue with a 2017 poolside scene at Trump's Bedminster country club, where the president uses language she apparently feels she must both report and disguise ("f------"). She says he can be charming and disarming, but she also faults him for having "equivocated" at times — including on the racist violence in Charlottesville, Va.
She also says she was "very uncomfortable" about Trump's Helsinki news conference, in which he sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community with regard to Russian interference in the 2016 election. She tells us that she spoke to the president about it ("I was always honest with the president, even when others around him weren't") and that he "soon issued additional remarks."
Her repeated pledges of allegiance may surprise readers who thought Haley had left the administration halfway through her term as some sort of protest. After all, before joining the Trump administration, Haley was best known for her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol. She recounts in detail her pitched battles with the state legislature and the difficulty of beating back the state's longtime attachment to this emblem of its heritage. Perhaps the most moving part of her memoir deals with the tragedy that occasioned the flag's removal, the 2015 massacre of nine parishioners inside a historic black church in Charleston.
The Charleston chapters are the most passionate in the book. But then the author is caught up in the Republican nomination wars of 2016. She first endorses Rubio, a fellow member of the Tea Party class of 2010, but then gravitates to Trump — the winner. She comes back to the Charleston episode thereafter, but it recedes as her narrative proceeds.
Haley's previous book, a 2012 memoir titled Can't Is Not an Option, focuses on her family and her rise to be the first female and nonwhite governor of South Carolina. This new book (the subtitle of which is Defending America With Grit and Grace) is largely devoted to detailing her lengthy battles with America's critics in the United Nations. In With All Due Respect, she salutes a predecessor, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who fought many of the same battles during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Like Kirkpatrick, Haley responds with high dudgeon when other countries' ambassadors denigrate the U.S., "which is by far the largest contributor to the support of the U.N."
Haley repeatedly claims her affinity with the typical hardworking Americans forgotten by the political elite, the people she grew up with in the small town of Bamberg, S.C. These are the people whom "Washington, Hollywood and the media" do not understand — "the people we in Bamberg would call real people." She presents herself as a tribune for these citizens, a natural product of populist roots transplanted to the wilds of the U.N., where she is a fighter for plain-spoken common sense against the "mobs" of the foreign delegations.
These fights often feature a defense of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, as well as Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. She also stresses her stringent objections to the Assad regime in Syria, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
While seeming to be on board for most of her boss' foreign policy, Haley relates that her difficult moments with administration teammates persisted. In February 2018, she made a statement about fresh sanctions on Russia during a Sunday morning news program. White House adviser Larry Kudlow went on TV calling this a "moment of confusion." Haley's reaction on TV and elsewhere ("I don't get confused") reappears here as the title of a chapter. In it, she puts such intramural spats in the context of the pervasive, dismissive sexism that she and other women face. She references the #MeToo movement.
But Haley does not critique the president himself on that subject. She has nothing but nice things to say about their exit interview and the news photo op where her departure was made official.
With varying degrees of subtlety, Haley implies that her loyalty is less to Trump the man than to the voters who made him president. Her own rise to the South Carolina governorship in 2010 elections — against the will of her state's party establishment — presages Trump's emergence. It is also strikingly similar to the rise of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who two years earlier, in 2008, had been the Republican nominee for vice president. Haley had been polling poorly in the GOP's gubernatorial field that spring before winning an endorsement from Palin and sweeping to the nomination three weeks later.
Although Haley does not mention Palin in this volume, her writing style recalls the sassy punch of Palin's iconic convention speech. Haley deals in short, staccato sentences, with unrestrained reliance on the first-person pronoun. Such language is natural in a memoir, of course, but here a typical page will have "I" or "me" (or both) in nearly every sentence, sometimes several times per sentence.
Haley finishes up with subtantive chapters outlining her stand on issues. Here she may disappoint those who imagined her a moderate alternative to her party's current direction. Although the daughter of immigrants and an admirer of what immigrants have achieved, she sides with Trump on the need for greater restrictions and more selectivity. She is "no fan of tariffs" or their costs for consumers, but she appreciates Trump's confrontational strategy with China. (Haley shows a pattern here: China draws her disapproval for its domestic repression, the behavior of its U.N. delegation and also its relations with India.)
In the end, memoir becomes manifesto. Haley accepts and praises Trump without fully embracing him. But she is absolutely unequivocal in proclaiming her bond with his voters and her bona fides on the issues she knows matter to them.
Early on, Haley recounts a childhood playground experience. She was told there were two teams, one white and one black. She recalls yelling: "Well, I'm neither! I'm brown!" Tellingly, she adds: "I grabbed the ball and ran toward the field." The anecdote is all too obviously analogous to the life story she puts forward in With All Due Respect. Haley has been pushing all her life. It is difficult to imagine she has finished.