Getting to Know the President

In honor of last week’s US presidential inauguration. I finally got around to finishing Getting to Know the President: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952–2004, from the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence.

The book, written by one of the CIA staffers who briefed then-Governor Clinton in 1992, is an account of how presidential candidates and presidents-elect since World War Two have received pre-election briefings from the CIA, and how that experience has affected their campaigns and their time in the White House. The author, John Helgerson, studiously avoids any scandalous tittle-tattle, but still manages to produce a characterful portrait about how American politicians—whether national security naifs or consummate insiders—responded to that access to classified information.

Despite the disclaimers, this is an official history, which means there’s some shying away from controversy. The euphemisms fly thick and fast in the section on the George W. Bush presidency, densely enough to make the author’s opinion on the use of intelligence in that administration unclear (which, I suppose, is the point). Still, the official angle means that Helgerson had unparalleled access. What political science professor from Cincinnati (Helgerson’s job before he joined the CIA) would get to interview four former presidents and scores of senior CIA staff, and to go through reams of still-classified paperwork?

Like an increasing number of US federal agencies, the Center for the Study of Intelligence makes its publications available online in PDF. So rather than pay $65 (international price) to buy it from the GPO, you can download and read it for free.

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