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June 01, 2003
Front Row at the White House (Thomas)

Front Row at the White House (by Helen Thomas)

It's a testament to the grief of the nation that although I was really too young to understand what a "President" was for, one of my most enduring early childhood memories is of the day F. Kennedy was assassinated and the days of mourning that followed.

LBJ I didn't understand at all but in my child's mind he was inextricably linked with something called'vietnamwar' which seemed to be a very bad thing indeed, so I determined that he must be a Bad Man and thought no more about politics until the day when Richard Nixon, with the pale, desperate face of a guilty man, shocked me by resigning the Presidency.

There was a lot happening politically during those intervening years. This book doesn't pretend to be a history of the country, but it taught me some of those things.

Helen's turf is (was) the White House-her focus the President, and she manages to provide the reader with a vivid, memorable snapshot of the historic occasions she's had the privilege to witness in her coverage of each Administration. Material that lets us glimpse the private man behind the President's public face isn't lacking and these glimpses add a warm, human dimension to some of the stories.

"Some of" the stories. Helen Thomas was, after all, a reporter during those years, and a reporter trained in the old school. (She may have "just the facts, ma'am" stenciled across her heart, for all I know.) There are times when the book is frustrating, when I'm certain that she should have been able to include a few opinions or a personal impression or two to add clarification or context to an event . . . but she doesn’t, because she's a reporter.

What she does offer is of amazing value. She discusses major policy moves of each Administration in the context of that Administration. She gives her opinion (briefly) of each man's commitment to the office.

And she stirs up memories. In the 80s, the 90s, and even today, I hear people speak about the wave of conservatism Reagan brought to the country and about his "legacy" in the way he changed politics and the White House, but looking back even farther, to the Nixon years, one finds the real roots of the "dirty tricks," secret agendas, and organized lying that characterize the White House today. Even more, I see LBJ, an admirable, a laudable leader on domestic social programs, instituting and sustaining a desperate disinformation campaign when it came to foreign policy-and Vietnam.

LBJ did more than any other president in the last 50 years for the poor and minority citizens of this country, but his lies about Vietnam brought him down.

Again and again, Thomas shows up how Presidents, no matter how worthy or how able, are brought low by the desperate lies they tell out of fear that the citizens of this country cannot understand or will not forgive human frailty. This lesson makes absorbing and thought-provoking reading for 400 solid pages.

There are incidents in the book I'd forgotten, and things I'd never known.

The coverage of the First Ladies was well-worth reading, as were the stories of the trials and tribulations of press secretaries.

Many events do not make an appearance in the book, as though these events in no way touched the political atmosphere in which she lived. (Kent State and the Challenger disaster are two. The Oklahoma City bombing rates a couple of short mentions. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, significant, I think, as the first act of international terrorism on USofA soil, may as well not have happened at all, although I'll admit that it's possible that that event looks more significant today, in the wake of 9/11, than it might have in 1999 when she was writing.)

What she does cover, she covers with precision and without undue awe for the fallible men who have occupied the White House. Her respect for the country's institutions never wavers, even when she's detailing the worst of crimes committed by those in power.

In the end, the book is not a political analysis. It's exactly what the title says it is. Helen's view of the White House from JFK through the Clinton years.

It's a remarkable record.

Posted by AnneZook at 10:45 AM