Kristi Noem and the truth about self-destruction

For many years, journalists have analysed public figures through a simple, cynical lens: why is this lying bastard lying to me? But maybe we also need to ask the opposite: why are they telling us the truth? 

Exhibit one: Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota. She had been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate for Donald Trump. So, as American politicians insist on doing, she is publishing an autobiography. Unfortunately for her, the book has already proved a little too honest. 

Noem recounts how she shot her puppy Cricket, because he was apparently untrainable and had bitten people. “I hated that dog,” she writes, disastrously misjudging the instincts of a country that spends $137bn a year on petcare. Noem adds that she shot her pet goat dead. She even details that the goat survived the first shot, so she had to dispatch him at the second attempt in the same gravel pit.

Had someone else come up with this story, Noem could do the usual Republican thing and blame the media. But no, it’s in her own book, and she actually tweeted approvingly of the extract, telling followers to pre-order the memoir “if you want more real, honest, and politically INcorrect stories that’ll have the media gasping”.

Voters are likely to decide that the book is a lot more putdownable than the pets. In one poll, 81 per cent of those who were told of her actions disapproved of them. Noem’s memoir is entitled No Going Back, and there really isn’t. 

Footballer John Terry, who has spoken about refusing to fly until the Chelsea manager agreed to move him to first-class in place of younger players © Getty Images Europe

But Noem is not alone in self-sabotaging. Former Chelsea footballer John Terry recently went on the type of podcast that is intended to make old pros look like legends. Terry, a hard-man central defender, is an acquired taste — the sort you might acquire after, say, a head injury. On the Up Front podcast, he recounted how, on a pre-season flight, Chelsea’s then new manager André Villas-Boas had seated senior players in economy class, and young players in first. Terry boasts that he threw a tantrum until the seats were swapped: otherwise “I promise you the plane wasn’t going”. If you didn’t know how arrogant he was, you do now. 

There have been other baffling own goals. Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan wrote in his memoir The Insider how he was told how phone-hacking worked and how he paid an investigator who stole documents from Elton John’s bin. Five months ago, the book was cited in a High Court judgment, which concluded, against Morgan’s denials, that he knew about illegal practices. 

Similarly, Boris Johnson’s aides leaked details of his birthday party in June 2020, seeing it as good colour about government during Covid. In fact, it was the seed of the scandal that would bring down his premiership. 

More darkly, former Rolling Stones bass guitarist Bill Wyman admitted in his autobiography that he met his future wife Mandy Smith when she was underage: “She was a woman at 13.” 

What explains such disclosures? Clearly, the context is often different when these things are written. But another key point is that books are much less edited than, say, newspaper columns. In the books world, the author is assumed to be responsible for their own words; the publisher does not see its own reputation at stake in the same way that a newspaper does. If the author wants to embarrass themselves, that’s on them. Podcasts have even less of a filter. 

The overconfidence and lack of self-awareness of some public figures should also not be underestimated. When Gary Hart, the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic nomination, faced questions of extramarital affairs, he told a journalist: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” In fact, the Miami Herald was already tailing Hart, and soon caught him in the act. In its story, it quoted his own invitation against him.

In other cases, self-incrimination can be a deliberate strategy. Barack Obama admitted in his book Dreams From My Father that he had taken marijuana and cocaine. It fit his narrative of troubled youth. It defused the ability of his opponents to weaponise his drug use, once he was on the campaign trail. 

Even outright gaffes are a strategy if they are the price of being interesting. Better to say some interesting things — and have a few of them backfire — than be so bland that no one wants to listen to you. Trump and Joe Biden get away with gaffes, because they build up enough credit with their supporters through their other comments. The interesting things you say act like stabilisers that help you to endure turbulence. (Someone please inform Keir Starmer.)

Noem was aiming for something similar. She has argued that the pet-killing anecdotes show her ability to take “difficult, messy and ugly” decisions. “I can understand why some people are upset,” she wrote last week, once her misjudgement became clear. “Whether running the ranch or in politics, I have never passed on my responsibilities to anyone else to handle.”

She picked the wrong issue for honesty. The “shoot-a-dog” lobby in US politics is not a big one: 62 per cent have a pet, and 97 per cent of those say the pet is part of their family

US president Teddy Roosevelt, out hunting on horseback in 1910, knew there were limits to which animals to shoot dead © Getty Images

South Dakota is the state with the second-biggest proportion of licensed hunters — nearly one in four people — which may explain Noem’s myopia. But the best hunters don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Even Teddy Roosevelt, the most trigger-happy US president, knew that there are limits to which animals voters want you to shoot dead. Famously, on one hunting trip, he spared a captured bear, sparking the craze for “Teddy bears”.

Equally famously, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns were deflated by his admission that, during a 12-hour family car journey, he’d put their pet dog in a carrier on the roof-rack. Romney, like Noem, probably thought his pet-keeping would reflect well on him. “He’d built a windshield for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog,” said the initial report in the Boston Globe.

If Noem really wanted to show her ability to take difficult decisions, she could start by standing up to Trump. Still, her experience provides a useful lesson: when people tell you who they are, it’s sometimes worth believing them. 

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