Commentary
11:54 am
Thu January 16, 2014

The White House and How It Almost Ceased to Be

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Last Sunday afternoon I was reading The Washington Post and found a review for a new book, Robert Klara’s “The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence.” For those of you who are not students of Washington in the 1940s and 1950s, the near collapse of the White House in 1948 may be completely unknown. This new book—which I quickly bought and have been reading with interest—wittily lays out the crisis (and it was a crisis) which President Truman faced after he and his family moved into the presidential mansion following Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. The bad news came quickly. Days after FDR’s funeral, his widow, Eleanor, strolled over to Blair House—where the Trumans were staying during the early days of his presidency—to give them a bit of bad news:

Because of the Depression, and then World War II, she had been too busy to spend much time on household upkeep at the White House. And because the nation was in financial peril, she felt it was in appropriate to do much repair or replacement. A lot of the furniture needed repair. And, oh yes, there was a pest problem. In fact, the house was infested with rats.

The Trumans, who were simple but dignified Midwestern people (Mrs. Truman was from a well-to-do family in Independence, Mo.) accepted their lot but not happily. He compared the White House to a prison. She chose to pack up every June and return with daughter Margaret to Independence, where their comfortable home on Delaware Avenue was far more to her liking. And meanwhile, back in Washington, Harry lay awake at night hearing odd creakings and crackings. Perhaps the White House was haunted, he feared.

Well, perhaps it was. But it was also falling apart. One afternoon, when Bess Truman was receiving members of the Daughters of the American Revolution for a tea in the stately Blue Room, the magnificent chandelier began to swing, for no apparent reason. Upstairs, in the family quarters, Harry Truman was splashing away in the presidential bathtub. The weight of the tub combined with the weakness of the ceiling supports caused a near catastrophe. On another occasion, during a state dinner another chandelier began to swing wildly and the guests scattered. The final straw was in the summer of 1948  when daughter Margaret’s piano leg broke through the ceiling.

What follows is a fascinating story about architecture, historic preservation, politics and Washington personalities (including Harry Truman, one of the most colorful of all our presidents). It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and the pages fly by like a novel.

One of the startling things for me to learn in this book was that the White House almost didn’t survive this calamity. I always thought that the Trumans saw the danger, moved out for a couple of years, and the mansion was gutted and reconstructed without a glitch. I did not know that the White House was a political football, and that no less a voice than The Washington Post editorially called for its demolition and construction of a new, modern home for the president. Fortunately, the Trumans—with the influential support of Eleanor Roosevelt and some of the nation’s leading architects—prevailed. The White House was restored, and it remains, today as it has been since a frigid night in 1800 when John and Abigail Adams first moved in, the president’s residence.

Reading this book reminded me of my own particular affection for what Lincoln called “The Executive Mansion.” I don’t remember knowing much about it before 1962, when, on a very cold January night I was allowed to stay up “late” for the telecast of Mrs. John F. Kennedy’s “Tour of the White House.” I was in the sixth grade, and already a lover of history and politics. The show fascinated me, especially the discussion of how, over the decades, the house had been expanded, changed and modified. Mrs. Kennedy was one of the first preservationists in the modern sense, and her efforts to restore the White House to its historic roots were legendary. (In Kentucky, similar efforts were made by Phyllis George Brown with the 1914 Governor’s Mansion, which celebrates its centenary this year.)

My first visit to the White House occurred on a chilly August day in 1964 (unseasonable, but in a Washington summer that is always welcome) when I went with my younger brother, David, and my parents on a special early-morning tour. It still amazes me that when I was just 13, my parents entrusted me with not only planning our week in Washington, but also with corresponding with our senators and congressman to arrange for all sorts of special opportunities—like lunch in the Senate dining room, the private tour of the White House, and a long tour of the Capitol. For a 13 year old in 2014, sadly, such a trip is impossible. Security has made so much of our official places off-limits. Hard to imagine that it was once true that you could walk right up the Capitol steps with no security and enter the Rotunda and enjoy the beauty of the dome and the magnificent historic paintings without ever encountering any security other than a smiling guard.

For our White House tour in 1964, we had to be at the gate at 7:15 a.m. I was an early riser in those days so I had already been up a while at our hotel, buying copies of both The Washington Post and the old Washington Daily News to read in the coffee shop while my parents dressed and woke my brother. Secret Service agents never checked our records; they didn’t need to clear us in advance; they didn’t know my father’s Social Security number or my date of birth. We just had a letter from Senator John Sherman Cooper, and that was all we needed. Our names all appeared on a piece of paper that the Secret Service agent checked off as we went through the gates.

The night before, we drove around downtown Washington listening to the congressional debate on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on the car radio. Vietnam was heating up, even as President Johnson was seeking election on a peace platform, and I—a very young teen—worried about my future and this war that I already had misgivings about. But I never imagined that the next morning, as I walked through the East Room of the White House, President Johnson himself, along with his First Lady, Lady Bird, would walk right in, shake our hands, and then move outside to a helicopter that would take them somewhere. We watched it all, and I can still remember his gray summer suit, his warm smile, and Lady Bird’s broad grin and hummingbird’s egg blue suit. The image of the two of them has been riveted in my memory for 50 years.

I had other opportunities to return to the White House. In 1979, I was invited to a White House conference on health care, and we were ushered into an auditorium in the old Eisenhower State Department Building. Jimmy Carter came out. We asked questions. He looked pre-occupied. In 1989 I went back to the White House for another briefing for opinion editors and at the end of the day President George H.W. Bush hosted us for cocktails in the Indian Treaty Room. A few years later, Al Gore invited editors up to discuss his plans to restructure government for the Clinton Administration and again we wound up in the Indian Treaty Room.

 Then last winter, shortly after President Obama was elected, I joined a group of Kentucky people on a special tour of the White House, followed by briefings in the old State Department Building next door to the White House, which is now called the Eisenhower Building and is filled with executive branch employees. The White House tour was very special; only a hundred or so people were admitted early one frosty morning. We were able to roam, at our leisure, through all the historic first floor rooms. I wish that I had been able to read Robert Klara’s “The Hidden White House” before I made that visit. I would have paid more attention to the ceiling in the Blue Room, or the walls of the Red Room, which in 1948 were discovered to be full of sawdust from earlier remodeling, only inches away from exposed electrical wires. Or the white marble in the official entryway, which replaced the original plaster in the 1949-50 remodeling so it would be easier for the staff to keep clean and wipe off fingerprints.

My final thoughts about the president’s mansion were warm ones. For all its grandeur, its scale is human and while dignified it is not regal. From the Adamses to the Obamas it has been a fitting place where history is made. The fact that we almost lost it 65 years ago makes it all the more precious.

  Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

He'll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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