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May 25, 2003
Thanks for the Memories (Thomas)

Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President
Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House
(by Helen Thomas)

More wit than wisdom, this is an entertaining and pointed recounting of the kinds of humor that have, and have not, enlivened Thomas's coverage of the Presidency through nine Administrations.

From the charm, passion, and aptitude for the bon mot of Kennedy through the grim and earnest paranoia of Nixon, up to the first year of the current Administration, Thomas shares the jokes, pranks, and foibles of each President as viewed by someone with a front row seat.

This is a reporter's account, so the infamous Gridiron dinners, the National Press Club, and, naturally, presidential press secretaries sit front and center in most of her stories.

Presidential anecdotes aren't lacking, of course. Nor are the moments when Thomas herself was the butt of the joke or on the receiving end of presidential wrath over something she'd written.

This is not a book about politics but you can't write of Washington, or of presidents, without the odd political issue appearing every page or two and it's in those moments that the real value of the book appears.

Who else could frame The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle against the Cuban Missile Crisis to present a brief, poignant picture of the world we've lost, a world where you could drive up to the White House gates with a reasonably expectation of being allowed inside?

L. B. Johnson went down in history as the man who decided to send more troops to Vietnam when he could, instead, have decided to pull us out of the war, and that's how I've always remembered him. And yet, he should also be remembered as the president who fulfilled Kennedy's promise of sending a man to the moon, keeping the space program's funding going strong throughout his administration. And Thomas illustrates, with a simple story of LBJ's family cook, the injustices and inequalities of the world, the discrimination that was outlawed with his signature on the Civil Rights Act.

Nixon...even before Watergate, he was a grim, earnest, and secretive man. Not much humor in his White House but Thomas manages to eke some humor even from that. (The odd little anecdote on pp 86-87, during Watergate, certainly gives one food for thought on how a desperate, unbalanced president could wreak havoc on this county.)

On up through the current Administration, no president or press secretary escapes Thomas's memory or her pen.

It's interesting to note that G. W. Bush's chapter is the only one dignified by an opening quotation.

It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.
--Joseph Stalin
I donít suppose any of us today are unaware of Helen Thomas's opinion of the current Administration.

As I started to say earlier, it's in the inescapable political moments that the real value of the book comes out. We see presidents who are devoutly religious and fiercely determined to maintain the separation between Church and State. We see a man who understood what it meant to serve, and who could make the hard decision to sacrifice career for country. We can see the men behind the job and even, sometimes, spy their passion for this country.

And we see the gradual closing of the White House door. We see how each succeeding presidency becomes more obsessed with manipulating the news that with discussing it. We glimpse how the national media, frustrated by the increasing orchestration, begins to rely ever-more heavily on rumors and unnamed sources to replace the rough-and-tumble honestly of earlier days.

A fascinating, fascinating book.

Posted by AnneZook at 08:18 PM