Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Fall of Truman's White House

Robert Klara, The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence

Harry Truman never wanted to be President. A wartime compromise Veep candidate, he inherited the Presidency only 89 days into FDR’s fourth term, and made history, sometimes against his will. But besides a formidable job in dangerous times, Truman also inherited a dilapidated White House. Political historian Robert Klara infuses humor, insight, and panache into his novel-like tale of how Truman rebuilt the Executive Mansion.

Truman received an essentially 18th Century house, suffering terrible subsidence and a rat problem. The Roosevelts, resident at 1600 Pennsylvania for thirteen years, refused their $50,000 annual refurbishment budget as unpatriotic during the Depression and WWII. The resulting neglect, coupled with over a century of haphazard upgrades, conflicting Presidential personalities, and fire during the War of 1812, left Truman a White House ready to collapse.

America’s unlikeliest President, and his struggles to restore America’s most prestigious residence, have been largely forgotten, but make astonishingly gripping reading. With its high-stakes political wrangling, famous names, and cast of thousands, Klara’s narrative resembles a Tom Clancy thriller. That’s no mere hyperbole, since it includes assassination attempts, appalling idealistic intransigence, and the Soviet nuclear research program.

Irish-American architect James Hoban designed the White House as a gentleman’s urban manor, but he built it on spongy reclaimed swampland, erecting its massive sandstone edifice on foundations only eight feet deep. As the Presidential role evolved, an elaborate Georgian mansion appeared increasingly extravagant. Hoban’s interior, built of untreated local lumber, wasn’t updated substantially between 1817 and 1949, and rotted badly.

Klara embroiders what could have been tedious architectural discursions with anecdotes that enliven his story: the time Truman, naked in the tub, nearly fell through the floor, into a formal Blue Room reception below. The precarious antique chandelier that jeopardized a concert pianist’s life. The many fabled White House ghosts which proved to be the sound of rotten superstructure settling. This makes Klara’s tale moving, humane, and often very funny.

More than a building history, Klara writes a biography of Truman’s fraught relationship to the White House. Truman’s wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, notoriously hated the house. Bess hated the official secrecy that ended her longstanding partnership in her husband’s career. Margaret nearly died when a floor joist collapsed beneath her beloved piano. Truman’s women fled to Missouri every summer, driving a wedge into a formerly close family.

Plagued by professional pressures and the nascent Cold War, Truman spent increasing time in Key West. His centrist views, plainspoken manner, and Midwestern thrift alienated an aristocratic Congress. After a Republican upset in the 1946 midterms, he couldn’t admit his White House was collapsing; the political implications for the “fall” of Democracy’s home address would have been lethal. So he began refurbishments surreptitiously, paying out of pocket.

But Truman’s ferocious re-election brought enough political capital to demand significant upgrades. Just in time, too: as Stalin’s scientists detonated their first plutonium bomb, the President’s role evolved, and with it, his house needs. No longer democracy’s showplace, Truman needed his White House to serve as command center, fortress, and bomb shelter. His architects gutted the old monument, transforming the house and everything within.

Klara combines journalism with deft storytelling, unpacking scorched roof beams and sagging brick foundations so the White House becomes a storied character, rich with events and hidden implications. She proves rife with secrets that reflect her evolving status, and repurposing her for the Nuclear Age reveals secrets throughout American history. Klara’s storytelling manages breathless urgency without resorting to naked hyperbole, no mean feat in political history.

Simultaneously, Klara keeps focus where it belongs. He doesn’t attempt a sweeping Truman biography; rather, his notes direct readers to David McCullough’s renowned Truman for more details. Klara limits himself to how world events, and powerful personalities, transformed one prestigious building. This focus keeps Klara’s story concise, energetic, and readable. His history moves with brisk, novelistic pace and a flair for images and characters.

As history does, Klara’s story brims with multiple players telling multiple stories, some entering and leaving with little explanation. Unlike novelists, who streamline events and characters, Klara remains true to events, meaning readers might feel confused by his constantly evolving dramatis personae. This does require active readership, and good readers might make notes on the endpaper.

Yet Klara’s story never feels cluttered, and rewards eager, curious audiences. Klara’s Truman recognizes his Presidency’s role in changing America, and his White House makes a powerful intersection between America’s elegant past and its post-war world leadership duty. Klara shows Truman renovating America for a new age.

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