This week I’m spotlighting three interesting non-fiction books about the White House, which each reveal three very different narratives about the building, its many presidents, and American politics more widely.
The White House is a symbol for many things in America. It is the home to presidents, their families; it is the workplace of staffers, advisors, journalists and commentators; it is the creche for First Children; it is the beating political heart of a nation. However it also embodies many of the core contradictions of the United States. The White House is a symbol of freedom, and yet it was built by slaves. It represents equality, and yet there have been no female presidents. It embodies honesty and authenticity, despite the years of presidential mishaps, cover-ups and mistakes. It is a symbol which exists out of a desire for the purity it stands for; a desire which has so far outweighed the political reality. Let’s see how the symbolic meaning of the White House continues to develop and change under President #45.
ONE – Prof Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House.
Back in 2011 Prof Clarence Lusane (School of International Service, American University) published a brave new history of the White House. He sought to tell an extensive, all-encompassing history of the African American community’s relationship with the White House and government more widely, from the foundation of the US government through to the Obama presidency.
“The generations of lives, experiences, and voices of marginalized and silenced Americans offer an array of diverse interpretations of U.S. history that have largely gone unheard, unacknowledged, and unrewarded. Without their perspectives, we are presented with an incomplete and incongruent story that is at best a disservice to the historical record and at worst a means of maintaining an unjust status quo.”
Lusane covers an impressive range of subjects in his book, looking at the contemporary impact of slave-ownership on presidents’ reputations and their subsequent legacies; the presence of the abolitionist movement in Washington; the historiography surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction period; the role of the president in combatting, or supporting, Jim Crow laws and other legislation during the Civil Rights Movement; and the historical importance of the Obama presidency, still fresh and untarnished by his successor at the time of publishing.
In an unexpected but delightful change of format, this academic work of history also incorporates first-hand accounts in an unusually direct manner. At the beginning of every chapter, Lusane provides a narrative of different African Americans’ ‘White House Story,’ which includes escaped slaves, activists and even First Lady Michelle Obama herself.
“More than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery.”
If you’re interested in this area, you could also try Constance McLaughlin Green’s The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital. Additionally, Prof Lusane has written extensively in his career, with many of his shorter works and articles available online. Other published works, which may be of interest, include No Easy Victories: Black Americans and the Vote, and African Americans at the Crossroads: The Restructuring of Black Leadership and the 1992 Elections.
Margaret Truman is a prolific author in her own right, having published a charming range of twnty-five murder mysteries known as the Capital Crimes series. She also happens to be the daughter of President Harry Truman, putting her in an inimitable position to write an insider’s account of the White House. In her lifetime she wrote about her own memories of her father, her mother, about her life as the First Daughter, and produced clever non-fiction works about the lives of First Ladies and other women in Washington. This work, however, is a grand undertaking of historical narrative which flits back and forth across her own memories and anecdotes, as well as the history of the White House.
“The White House is far more than the place where presidents and hundreds of staffers work and presidential families live. It is also the place where America’s pride and dignity are displayed … The immense amount of time and effort that is devolved to entertaining visitors is a fascinating and important story. It, too, is part of the White House aura.”
The back-and-forth nature of the memories discussed can make it difficult to read, and her own opinions are spread without restraint throughout: Truman outlines the visitors and historical figures whom she liked, but spends far more time on those she disliked, including the Tafts and the Clintons. The lack of chronological structure is perhaps explained by the thematic chapters, which each deal with distinct elements of White House life. In this book, Truman discusses the growth of the White House building, grounds and gardens since the time of John Adams; the daily routine and culinary experiences of White House visitors, residents and staff; the lives of the children who have lived in the White House; animals and pets associated with presidents and their families; presidential assassinations; and relations between the White House and the media.
It’s not the greatest academic work you’ll ever read, but it is a uniquely folksy, generally warm-hearted way of understanding the lives of the people who have inhabited the White House. It’s more like sitting down with Margaret Truman and getting all of her gossip- it’s interesting, but it’s not going to come out all in order, and it’s going to be pretty skewed. But it is insightful, with her opinions backed up by historical anecdotes and ephemera, seeking to entertain and beguile- what more could you expect from such a prolific writer of mystery novels?
My father, another commonsensical man, was convinced that the old house was haunted. Let me give you an excerpt from a letter he wrote to my mother:
‘Night before last I went to bed at nine o’clock after shutting my doors. At four o’clock I was awakened by three distinct knocks on my bedroom door. I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door and no one was there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked into your room and Margie’s. Still no one there. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I had left open. Jumped up and looked and no one there! Damn place is haunted, sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.’”
You might also enjoy Kate Andersen Brower’s amazing book The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, which is a similarly anecdotal history, which tells the stories of the staff closest to the First Families who lived in the White House.
THREE – Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters
“The job of speechwriter has evolved as television eclipsed radio as the nation’s favourite medium, as the White House staff grew from a handful to a sprawling group of specialized cadres and, of course, as each president has dealt with it in his own way. The rise of presidential speechwriters has also spurred philosophical questions involving whose words the president speaks. And these are issues that not only relate to questions of credit, but can have real world consequences.”
Robert Schlesinger is, again, an author in a unique position, but his book and his writing style is never over-shadowed by expectation. His father, Arthur M Schlesinger jr, was the infamous ‘court historian’ of the Kennedy administration, who wrote extensively about history and politics, and is now regarded as one of the most important American voices of the twentieth century. Robert Schlesinger is not cowed by this, and writes smoothly and fluidly, with such an impressive and strong voice, that you almost forget you are reading a book. It really is like being allowed to hover in the hallways of the White House, or float over the tops of presidential heads and listen in on the amazing relationship between ruler and mouthpiece. Schlesinger is not judgemental, and offers the reader the reigns in weighing up the difficult philosophical quandaries regarding policy and language, and deciding which relationships were appropriate, which were successful, and which were dangerous.
Each chapter is brief, dealing with a unique snapshot of history and the speech that it matches to. Schlesinger deals with administrations from Nixon and onwards, talking far more openly about their character and personable relations with staff than in other chapters. However, throughout this text, Schlesigner spins a revealing and intimate series of tales studded with incredible factual specifics. This kind of behind-the-curtain book is, unusually, never in danger of being sensationalist or flash, because it speaks with so much clarity and includes such detailed minutiae.
If you have ever seen the BBC comedy The Thick of It, or the similar show Veep in the US, with the irreverent but wholly accurate depictions of frantic ministerial aides and last-minute saves for government workers and civil servants alike, then this book will immediately make sense. It is born of the same desire to explain that these people, the writers, the staff and the presidents alike, are human beings. While the speeches are remembered by history for their soaring words and noble sentiments, the writers and the givers were all, once, huddled around a typewriter, chain-smoking cigarettes in a desperate attempt to just finish, like any number of the journalists waiting for them would be doing the next day. Schlesinger tells a fantastic, human story which reminds us of the down to earth reality of government, behind the gilded curtains and presidential seals.
“Richard Nixon and Raymond Price finished working on the inaugural address at around midnight on Saturday, January 18, in Nixon’s Pierre Hotel suite in New York City. Nixon split a bottle of Heineken with his speechwriter and put his feet up on the desk. “Only the short ones are remembered,” he had told Price.”
You might also like Matt Latimer, Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor, or Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era.
Here are all of the books mentioned in this post, including a few that didn’t fit, but definitely deserved to be included:
- Kate Andersen Brower, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House
- Constance McLaughlin Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital
- Robert G. Kaiser, So Much Damn Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government
- Matt Latimer, Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor
- Clarence Lusane, The Black History of the White House
- Clarence Lusane, No Easy Victories: Black Americans and the Vote
- Clarence Lusane, African Americans at the Crossroads: The Restructuring of Black Leadership and the 1992 Elections
- Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era
- Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters
- Margaret Truman, The President’s House: 1800 to the Present- the Secrets and History of the World’s Most Famous Home
- J.B.West, Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies
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If there’s a genre or a theme that you want to see featured in the next Sunday Non-Fiction Spotlight, or any of the other series, then please share your ideas.