A Presidential Pollyanna

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, September 6, 2005


The Impact of the White House on Their Lives

By Bonnie Angelo

Morrow. 336 pp. $25.95

Right off the top, Bonnie Angelo confesses to a "passion for the White House and the families who pass through it on their way to history," which the reader should take not merely as confession but also as caveat emptor. "First Families," a companion piece of sorts to Angelo's best-selling "First Mothers" (2000), is relentlessly upbeat about the presidents who have occupied the White House and the family members who have accompanied them. Okay, she gives Warren G. Harding a mild whack or two, and among first ladies the imperious Nellie Taft gets an even milder tweak, but the name of Monica Lewinsky is nowhere to be found here, Watergate slides almost noiselessly past, and you'd never know from Angelo's sanitized portrait that -- viz. the Johnson and Nixon tapes -- people cuss up a storm in the Oval Office.

Angelo, who has reported for Time magazine since the dawn of forever, is engaged here not in the writing of history but in mythologizing. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Americans like to believe that presidents and their families are better people than they often are, a belief that Angelo apparently shares, so there's no reason to believe that her rose-colored portraits and anecdotes are composed out of anything except sincerity. It's hard not to wonder, though, how someone who has been assigned to the White House off and on since 1966 could hold on to such an innocent view of its occupants. One can't help thinking that "First Families" isn't reportage, it's wishful thinking.

It's also mostly familiar stuff. Apart from tossing a few puffball questions to a few first ladies and first daughters of fairly recent vintage, Angelo has relied primarily on the work of others. Some of this is useful, in particular the memoirs of J.B. West, who served for many years as chief usher and White House manager, and Lillian Parks, an exceptionally observant housekeeper and attendant. Much of it is highly suspect, most notably the memoirs of presidents and first ladies, which without exception are self-serving and selective, yet which Angelo accepts without apparent skepticism and quotes from at length.

Her title is somewhat misleading. Though attention is given to presidents and their male children, the focus is on first ladies and their daughters. What Angelo says about first ladies is mostly old news -- that they are "democracy's version of a royal consort," that "the role comes with no stated official requirements, no guidelines, no limits, no legal status," that they are stripped of privacy and expected to serve the nation without compensation -- but what she has to say about the daughters is considerably more interesting. Relying primarily on conversations with Lynda Johnson Robb, Luci Baines Johnson Turpin and Susan Ford Bales, she does convey some sense of the difficulties and rewards that come with being plopped into circumstances they didn't seek and may not initially have desired.

In a paragraph all too consistent with her pattern of taking a persistently chipper tone even when the evidence suggests otherwise, Angelo introduces the subject as follows:

"Over the years the offspring most ambivalent about living in the White House have been the Presidents' teenage daughters, forced to deal with its heady mix of glamour and restrictions, of too much publicity and too little privacy, of hurtful criticism and fawning insincerity. But most of them look back on it as a great experience."

Oh? Tell that to Amy Carter, who years after leaving Washington still declines to give interviews and still reacts "against the demands and strictures, the pageantry and publicity that come with the honor of the White House." Tell that to the Johnson daughters, who look back fondly on their White House years but also remember going to sleep to the tune of demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Tell that to the many White House daughters who were infuriated at being accompanied on dates by their Secret Service nannies and to the many whose marriages ended in divorce, since "there is a high rate of failure among the marriages of presidential daughters -- the glamour of the White House may be blinding."

What is surprising, in light of their various unpleasant experiences, is that some White House daughters have gone on to productive and apparently happy post-presidential lives: Caroline Kennedy, Julie Nixon, Susan Ford and Chelsea Clinton perhaps most notable among them. Angelo is at pains to describe the violations of privacy that occupants of the White House must endure -- Ronald Reagan once told his son Michael, "The hardest part is that I wish I could walk right out the door . . . and just walk down Wilshire Boulevard like I used to. . . . That has been taken away from me for the rest of my life" -- but makes no effort to assess its psychological impact on them. Surely one doesn't just walk away from a fishbowl existence without lasting resentments or scars, not to mention a deep sense of entitlement. But these are matters that Angelo declines to explore.

Instead, she is content to portray the White House as a place where, in the words of a 19th-century journalist, "a happy family life" is more the rule than the exception. She quotes Luci Johnson -- "I saw more of my parents in the White House than I'd ever seen before. I think I was sixteen years old before I ever sat down at a table with just the four of us" -- and adds:

"That is the plus side of being a privileged prisoner; the President has more time with his family. Leaving the White House for a personal evening becomes a production; reality conspires to keep Presidents at home, an unanticipated bonus for children brought up with the working nights of parents in politics."

Maybe so, maybe not. If the White House is a president's 24/7 home, it's also his 24/7 office. The duties of his position are never more than a few steps away, and the boot-licking minions who seek his favor are always close at hand. Of necessity, "normal life" is a relative term for anyone living in the White House. One certainly must sympathize with their yearning for an anonymous life such as you and I lead, but apart from the circumstances of the White House itself, a lot of evidence indicates that presidential ambitions are fueled by abnormal if not dysfunctional childhoods, and it seems reasonable to assume that presidents pass some of this along to their own spouses and offspring.

Perhaps a realistic assessment of these questions will be found in William H. Chafe's "Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America," to be published this fall, but it isn't to be found in "First Families." Its author's intentions undoubtedly are the best, but the book rarely rises above cheerleading and too often could pass for public relations. Readers looking for meat will find little except fluff.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company