Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: "The Hidden White House"

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a book in this space called "FDR's Funeral Train" by Robert Klara.  Shortly after I finished reading that book, the good folks at Amazon recommended another book by Mr. Klara, "The Hidden White House", which I purchased and immediately read.

This one, as you can see from the subtitle above, is about the reconstruction of the White House that took place during the Administration of President Harry Truman.  "Reconstruction" is putting it mildly, because, essentially, the White House was pretty much torn down and totally rebuilt.  Only the outer walls and the roof were left standing as the iconic building was totally disassembled, gutted, and rebuilt.  I was aware that such a "remodeling" job took place back in Truman's days, but was unaware of the enormity and the scope of the job that was done.

The White House was built in the 1790's, was rebuilt following the burning of the building by the British Army in the War of 1812, was remodeled yet again in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt, and yet again in during the Coolidge Administration.  During WW II, it fell into a state of disrepair to the point that, by the time the Trumans moved in, the place was, quite literally, falling down upon the staff and residents.  The only way to save it, was to complete gut the place and rebuild, and there were some folks who felt that one alternative at the time was to completely level the place, outer walls and all.

Like most things involving the government, there was political bickering, cost overruns, and delays.  A job that was to be completed in 660 days, or slightly less than two years, took three years and three months to complete. Part if the reason was the politics of the time - the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Korean War, the President's plummeting approval ratings - and part of it was just a good old-fashioned government boondoggle. Author Klara has done an unbelievable amount of research into every thing that went into the entire project, some of it is mind-numbing (right down to how many cubic yards of concrete were poured during the reconstruction), but it really is a fascinating story.  

Here's my favorite part of the tale. The project was dragging on so long, that it began to look like the Trumans were never gong to get back into the White House.  The President had decided that he was not going to seek reelection in 1952, and, by God, he wanted to spend his last year in office living in the White House.  So, in January of 1952, Harry called all parties involved in the project into his office and "gave 'em hell".  He was tired of deadlines not being met, so he, the President of the United States, was now going to set one.  The Queen of the Netherlands was going to make a state visit to the USA on April 2, Truman had invited the Royal Family to stay in the White House, so the project had to be done by then.  No ifs ands, or buts.  It was impossible, everyone involved said, but guess what?  The Trumans were back in the White House by the last week of March.

The lesson is that when someone in authority wants something to happen, really WANTS it, it can and does get done.

So, Robert Klara is now two-for-two in writing interesting books about Presidential history.  I can't wait to see what he's going to write about next.

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