C-SPAN to Air 'The White House: Inside America's Most Famous Home'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

C-SPAN's two-hour documentary on the White House, which airs tomorrow night, passes by with the stately drama of a roll-call vote on a bill to temporarily modify certain duty rates and make other technical amendments to whatever. Piano music tinkles in the background as the camera pans voluptuously over clocks, rugs, sofas and chairs. Martial tunes swell as the state rooms come into focus. Red carpets and dishware, hand-lettered place cards, chocolate goodies from the pastry chefs -- this is catnip for the political crowd.

Its strength, however, goes well beyond home furnishings and real estate porn. The focus is squarely on how administrations and social history have impacted the meaning and look of the house, from its first occupants -- John and Abigail Adams -- to its current inhabitants, George and Laura Bush, who appear in the film, and in interviews broadcast through the coming week.

Tomorrow's overview is, in many ways, a thumbnail history of the presidency. Abraham Lincoln's time there is credited for creating the White House's public mystique and drama, albeit a tragic one. Theodore Roosevelt swept out decades of dark Victoriana and made it a showplace for a newly confident and increasingly imperial nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt's physical handicap meant that the world had to come to him, so the house became an increasingly powerful center of civic gravity. The Kennedy administration, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in particular, helped establish the house not just as a working government building and a home but also as a carefully curated historical museum.

Tomorrow's film is the opening salvo of 14 hours of C-SPAN programming over the next week, looking at the presidential mansion from every angle, inside and out, from the basement to the roof-top solarium (where Ronald Reagan recuperated after an assassination attempt). Following up on its successful 2006 documentary about the Capitol, C-SPAN's "White House Week" covers 39 administrations, peeks into 40 rooms, and consults the wisdom of 10 historians. If you don't get enough Doris Kearns Goodwin on Sunday mornings, she's in her element here, running before the anecdotal winds under full sail.

"The White House: Inside America's Most Famous Home" acknowledges, from the outset, that what we see today is a shell, surrounding a building that has been gutted twice and much altered since it was finished in 1800. The British did the first remodeling in 1814, when they burned it to the ground. Harry Truman did the second complete makeover, when he stripped the house down to its sandstone walls and rebuilt it with an internal steel frame.

While the film is fascinating and thorough about the public appearance and meaning of the house, it is surprisingly thin on architectural particulars. Theodore Roosevelt didn't just build the West Wing and take down the dark wall paper, stained glass and other 19th-century bric-a-brac; he hired the country's premier architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White, to do the job. But the firm doesn't get a mention. Except for obligatory discussion of James Hoban, the original designer, there isn't much attention paid to other White House architects, including Benjamin Latrobe, who designed the semi-circular South Portico, or Nathan Wyeth, who created the first Oval Office (it was later moved, by FDR).

Although we learn that there was plenty of grousing about Truman's addition of a balcony on the South Portico, we're not told what critics objected to. Truman's addition was certainly beloved by presidential families, and C-SPAN's camera demonstrates that the view there is one of the best in the city. But the Truman Balcony broke the vertical force of the portico's columns, and was decried for its radical departure from the house's historic evolution. Truman even clashed with the city's Fine Arts Commission over the addition, not the last time politicians would ignore expert architectural advice.

But, as Executive Producer Mark Farkas explains, the program's creators had 130 hours of raw footage and not everything could go in. Architectural issues might come up on Monday evening, when viewers can call in to question presidential historian William Seale for an hour. There will also be more detailed looks at particular parts of the house later in the week, including the grounds and gardens (Wednesday), and the "back of house" areas during a segment called "The Working White House" (Tuesday).

The series will also air complete tours of the house given by different occupants. Laura Bush's guided tour is on Monday, as is Jackie Kennedy's 1962 walk-through, which was one of the most watched television events of its time.

"We found a Lady Bird Johnson tour of the house that never actually aired in its entirety," Farkas says. And now it will.

Based on tomorrow's sampling, however, it's obvious that the best nuggets of this week-long feast are all about access. Sure, the state rooms are interesting. Good to know that if you die in office, they lay out your mortal remains in the East Room.

But it is rooms such as the solarium that capture the imagination. Strange how the most remote and private of the living spaces (it was built on the house's attic level) is also the most transparent. This is the very definition of Washington privilege: a private penthouse, like all those glass executive suites tucked back from view of the street and built on the top of this city's faceless office buildings.

The solarium only whets the appetite. What about the private bowling alley? And the movie theater? And where did President Bush choke on that pretzel?

Not all questions are answered, and based on tomorrow's film, the producers are relatively discreet about invading private space. But the Wagnerian length of "White House Week" is admirable in itself, and is unlikely to be matched, in terms of visual access, in a very long time. Given the fact that real people are allowed into a once relatively public building -- Andrew Jackson's supporters trashed the place after his inauguration -- only under the most limited conditions, this is as close as you are likely to get to seeing the presidential china stacked in a pantry off the private kitchen in the second-floor residence.

The White House: Inside America's Most Famous Home (two hours) airs tomorrow evening at 9 on C-SPAN.

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