Top critical review
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OK for newcomers to the subject
on May 3, 2016
Since this is the first book I've ever read on the subject, I was not aware of the factual errors that other reviewers have noted. On the other hand, there were places where I wondered whether the book had an editor who was awake or sober (dangling participles; sentences that had no conceivable relationship to the paragraph they were in; repeated prepositions not noticed during revising or proofreading, events alluded to without explanation and then discussed in full later, etc.). I've returned the book to the library, so I can't give each page and mistake.
I was disappointed in the book especially when it got closer to modern times, because often it seemed to be just hitting the highlights of the life of a particular president or the main events - and very few, at that - of his presidency. I was really interested in 'real life in the White House' and felt that it got formulaic after awhile: the arrival of the new first family; kitchen arrangements; prices of parties; who redecorated what part of the house and in what way. OK, fine... but are choices of wallpaper and furniture and how much first ladies spent on dresses 'real life at the White House'?
Almost entirely missing was the 'real life' led by the people who were in the White House from one administration to the next. I mean the servants and other staff. Sure, we heard about Secret Service agents and there's the occasional quote from a chef who is fed up with low-brow presidential taste in meals or an anecdote about how servants behaved, and repeated anecdotes about dishes (sometimes the same information, as though the two writers didn't consult each other about whether they'd already explained something in another chapter). But frankly, I would have been more interested in an account of what really goes on, day to day, in the White House, and especially the perspective of the people who work in close proximity to the families living in the White House. To my mind, 'real life' has to do with real people, really living. If anyone asked me about 'real life' in my house, I would not tell them about wallpaper, plates, clothing budgets and household repairs. I'd talk about people and how they related to each other and what they did from day to day, and I'd give more detail about special occasions than just who was there and how much it cost.
In the end, I feel like I know three things about living in the White House: it has become more and more like a prison; you can expect to shake hands a LOT if you're the president or first lady; there's no privacy. Oh, and also that being president is likely to take years off your life, if it doesn't outright kill you.
I felt that the stories were told from a distance; that the information was probably gleaned from already-published books, with no new research. I didn't have the sense that the writers tried to find first-hand accounts from people who had served in the White House in the 1800s, nor that they had interviewed personally anyone who worked in the White House and could talk about the nuts and bolts of day-to-day life. How, for example, did the WH go from being open to everyone - the people's house - to being so tightly secure that there are spy-holes in the doors of the Oval Office so that the president can't so much as hiccup without someone peeking in on him? In the section on the Clintons, we get two examples from Mrs Clinton about how the staff just sort of appeared and took over when she wanted to cook something personally for her daughter (so, finally, a real 'domestic' detail of family relationships being affected by conditions in the White House, albeit a story that was probably already in the public domain). How did it get to the point that in the private quarters, the First Lady can't even walk into the kitchen to make an omelette without staff bustling in and taking over? And why does the President put up with it? Why does it take 40 vehicles to protect the president if he wants to leave the White House and go for an early-morning jog?
We were told simply how it is, but we didn't get the background of how it got to be that way, and why no president or first lady ever put his or her foot down and said, 'this is ridiculous.' I would like to have heard the reasoning of the Secret Service in being so paranoid about the president's security that he has to have a panic button in the toilet, for heaven's sake: do they really expect an assassin to come up through the toilet bowl?
So I'm still waiting for a book that tells me about 'real life' and not things that I feel I could glean from newspapers or other widely-available public sources.
If you've never read about the White House or life in it, then this is a reasonable place to start. At the very least, it will help you put all the presidents in order in your mind, and give you a broad overview of who the presidents were - I really felt it was more about that than about 'real life' in the White House, despite repeated themes of painting and repairs and rats and redecorating that recurred so predictably as the book became more formulaic.
For people who have read widely in this area, this book will probably tell them nothing new and may even feel like a waste of time.