Thursday, May 2, 2013

Presidential Potboilers

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
This week in history, in 1789, George Washington stood on the balcony of the original Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street to take the oath at America’s first presidential inauguration in New York. This week, Truman’s campaign to unseat General Douglas MacArthur resulted in a 1951 Congressional grilling about missteps involving the Korean ‘police action’. In 1960, a newly-minted president, John F. Kennedy, fidgeted this week about Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane, intercepted and downed by a ground-to-air missile over the Soviet Union; in a spy exchange worthy of John Le CarrĂ©, Powers was finally freed in 1962. 

In 1974 during this week, “Tricky Dick” Nixon began his tribulations with the Watergate tape fiasco that led to his impeachment. And, in 2011, Obama got to tell the public this week that Osama bin Laden had been killed by Navy Seals. All in all, this has been a busy week for American presidents.
Such tidy little sentences belie the routine tribulations that the Executive Office inflicts upon mere mortals. For example, in 1950, Harry Truman was staying down the street from the White House at Blair House, while the Executive Mansion was being renovated (and shored up, it must be said, with a new steel infrastructure and numerous Cold War security devices).
Always natty, Harry S trots his security detail up Pennsylvania Avenue.
On November 1st, 1950, the sixty-six-year-old president awoke at his habitual time of 5:30 a.m., took his habitual brisk walk—he liked to leave at least three of his four Secret Service guys in the dust—breakfasted with Bess as usual, and hunkered down by 8:30 for the usual sixteen-hour day where the buck stopped. At about 2:20 p.m., as he was taking his constitutional nap in his skivvies upstairs with the windows open, because it was an unseasonably hot day, his old World War I artillery nerves were jumpstarted by the sound of gunfire below on the street. The assassination attempt by two Puerto Rican nationals took 38.5 seconds, and they managed to come within about thirty-one feet of the President. One assassin and one White House police officer died; others were wounded. Oscar Collazzo was condemned to death, but President Carter pardoned him in ’79, and he passed away in Puerto Rico in 1994.
Blair House attack in the news; gets Truman's location wrong.
Unbelievably, this was the second attempt on Truman. Now, why would anyone go gunning for Truman? Authors Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr., both widely published novelists and journalists, share their incredulity that a) plainspoken unspectacular Truman elicited such ire, and that b) the event has almost entirely evaporated from public knowledge. Using short choppy chapters to bring in all the characters, they weave a series of vignettes into a snappy recap of events in American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill President Truman—and the Shoot-out That Stopped It (2005). Bainbridge, a journalist, and Washington Post film critic Hunter, who penned at least fifteen novels laced with historical veracity, intentionally roll out the facts and contexts in a sort of slow-mo narrative that manages to reel in and then titillate our curiosity.We gain some surprising perspectives about a forgotten, but definitely contentious phase in the government’s postwar concerns during the Truman years; and we are reminded about the bitter anger that rankled Puerto Rican patriots as they fought to keep their country segregated from the United States. We learn about the training of police and Secret Service guys, including the one who died of his wounds. It all sounds rather contemporary in an eerily deja vu way.
Merely six years later, war hero Ike Eisenhower is in office, grappling with some very familiar tensions in the Middle East: the high price of oil; territorial disputes and betrayed alliances; the dodgy state of the region’s governmental regimes. Israel invaded Egypt; Nasser’s leadership is both adored and questioned; post-colonial tensions with the British and French who used the Suez Canal to export oil were ramping up. Eisenhower pressed the United Nations to demand a ceasefire. And Ike had just survived a heart attack in 1955 and gut surgery in 1956, so don’t think this was not a stressful epoch.
Eisenhower specialist David Nichols amps up the suspense of the era—also forgotten by a majority of Americans— in Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis (2011), which focuses on the Suez Canal crisis. Informed by hundreds of declassified documents, like top secret minutes from the National Security Council, the sense that the nation was again facing global conflict so shortly after yet another harrowing war to ‘end all wars’ [again] … It is truly dizzying to contemplate how regularly human beings feel the need to agitate and exterminate rather than negotiate.
Nichols, who also published on Lincoln, writes in a straightforward manner, but his academic roots make Eisenhower 1956 a little more dense than the kind of reading you might usually take to the beach. Truth be told, there are footnotes and an index to behold. Nevertheless, if you were around in ’56, your knuckles will turn just as white as all the individuals who scurried about trying to avoid conflict while facing the brink of war [again]. And if you weren’t around yet, you will be stunned by the parallels to current tensions in contemporary news.
Finally, slightly lighter presidential fare reaches us in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch’s interviews with Bill Clinton, in The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President (2009). Branch, who received high acclaim for his 3,000-page, three-volume opus on Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as works on Watergate, civil rights, and the NCAA’s management style (see The Cartel), received a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 1991 for the King books, among other impeccable accolades.
Branch with Clinton in the Oval Office
In The Clinton Tapes, Branch describes many details about the president’s daily life and decision-making processes, drawing upon what he called a ‘bucketful’ of tapes containing 79 oral histories that Clinton recorded from 1993 to 2001. Naturally, the content of the interviews had to be treated with top secrecy as Clinton navigated through the Vince Foster suicide, the Lewinsky and Tripp circus, and the Whitewater scandals. Branch had to pretend he was working with other material for a few years. Ultimately, he gifts us with a swiftly-moving roster of happenings overseen by a president who is often considered to be one of America’s most intelligent leaders, despite his undeniable tendency to ambush himself with stupid personal choices. Branch, who felt treated like family by Bill, Hillary and Chelsea, ably paints from all the palettes that color Clinton’s tenure, bouncing from the Israeli-Palestinian tensions to someone spraying Pennsylvania Avenue with bullets (anyone remember Francisco Duran?) to the vagaries of political spin to Saddam Hussein’s bullish rhetoric to wrangling for peace in Kosovo to helping Chelsea with a Frankenstein essay for school between tense sessions with the National Security Council.
Branch's dad made the Clintons a Jefferson Memorial birdhouse! Pip pip!
That's Branch's finesse: just as the glaze is about to set in for the reader, Branch deftly throws in a personal anecdote here or there, tells us how many Excedrins Clinton needs to get through the day, explains Chelsea’s tale about almost setting her Stanford dorm room on fire, or mentions how thrilled Hillary was to sit next to Sean Connery during the Kennedy Center Awards, “like she’d died and gone to heaven,” Bill recalled. Ultimately, Branch presents the hues and outlines of an individual who is just as complicated, politically shrewd, annoying and endearing as the character played by John Travolta in Primary Colors. Just when the details threaten to become mind-boggling, respite enters a few paragraphs down, couched in personal terms. This results in a pleasing, entertaining mixture about a real man and the Leader of the Free World rolled into one big ball of Clintonian impulses.
Emma Thompson as Hillary and Travolta as Bill, yucking it up in Primary Colors (1998)!
Hail to the Chiefs! Heck, what makes them even want the job in this kind of world?


  1. Why would anyone want President Truman killed? Oh gosh, maybe it was his desegregation of the Armed Forces, or his immediate support of the nation of Israel, or his wranglings with the steel strikers, or the coal industry, or the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan...whatever!?
    I've always favored Truman because he was an autodidact who never went to Harvard/Yale and never seemed to miss it.
    President Clinton's shift will be remembered for being the comic relief between the two harrowing Bush adventures.

  2. Does anyone else think the picture of Richard Nixon makes him look like he has a mullet?

  3. ... or Jack Nicholson's character in "The Witches of Eastwick."

  4. Yes, was all this for Truman and more, but the two attempts were all about Puerto Rican freedom. As for Nixon...definitely one of the least photogenic guys in recent history. I think Atlantic featured an eggplant on the cover that actually looked like him in profile...Karen

    1. I knew about the shooting attempt, but the first attempt I thought was a letterbomb sent to Truman by a Zionist gang. The bomb or bombs were defused and never reached the White House.
      But doesn't that just illustrate how fraught with peril is this most difficult job on the planet? More motives abound than in any episode of Hercule Poirot!

    2. P. S.: You're doing a fabulous job as guest blogger.

  5. the suspense of the era—also forgotten by a majority of Americans—

    Evan Thomas's recent book Ike's Bluff does a good job of pointing out that the supposedly dull and boring 1950s in fact provided the president with one crisis after another: a coup in Iran (August 1953); three days earlier, Russia exploded its first hydrogen bomb (August 1953); events in a faraway country called Vietnam (January 1954); a coup in Guatemala, (June 1954); the Taiwan Strait crisis, involving Quemoy and Matsu (September 1954); the Suez Canal crisis (October 1956); six days earlier, the Russian invasion of Hungary (October 1956); the Russian launch of Sputnik (October 1957), and so on.

    p.s. For some reason (it must be past lunchtime) the word 'potboilers' made me think of cooking. On a lighter note, remember when everyone made it such a big deal that President Ford knew how to use a toaster?

    1. You've reminded me that President Ford, too, had his moment of peril, when a Manson disciple, Squeaky Fromme, pointed a gun in his direction, for no plausible reason--except maybe to get noticed.

  6. From Karen: Glad you appreciate the guest blogz, Gioconda! As for Squeaky, wasn't she doing it to bring the plight of Charles Manson back to the fore? Remember that other member of the Tate gang who went underground as a housewife until her late '40s or something? Deviouser and deviouser. I think it's important to be reminded by the historians that the turmoil that seems present today is often, mostly, just the human condition.

  7. I have a weird love for American presidential history, but it's never first on the reading list, so I appreciate these little snip-its. But instead of making an actual intelligent comment on this post, I have to say that Travolta and Thompson make for a horrible Bill & Hillary comparison.

  8. Here is the great blog about phone hacking systems.