Everyone knows the White House. Everyone should know the Presidents. And the rooms themselves are a national treasure!
Paul Brandus is a long time Washingtonian POTUS expert, and happily for all, a fellow who understands his audience. He does not write tomes; he does not include a book-in-itself of citations and references. He does not seek to pontificate. In other words, he makes history a delight to learn (which, of course, it is). Especially for those who know very little about history, or have been turned-off while trying.
Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency offers a birds-eye view of twenty-one rooms in the White House (some repeated and redecorated over the generations), and the importance of those rooms in context with a particular administration. Some are a little surprising. For instance, Brandus leads off with the State Dining Room to pair with John Adams’ Presidency. One might have expected the great East Room which was famously used to hang their laundry. But no, Brandus chose the State Dining Room, which was not used as a dining room at all during Adams’ brief tenure in the White House. The State Dining Room was chosen to “tell the Adams story” because it is where the equally famous Adams “blessing” is immortalized on the fireplace mantel, courtesy of Franklin Roosevelt. Nice touch!
Rooms of course change as do administrations and generations. What was once a President’s study becomes another President’s bedroom. What was once a small dining room is turned into a guest room. What was once blue becomes yellow, then green, then back to blue again. And what was once considered the height of fashion becomes dowdy over time. Not all First Ladies (who are usually credited with the decor) are blessed with Mrs. Kennedy’s good taste in furnishings.
Interspersed with all the delicious tidbits that the author interjects for our amusement, delight, amazement, etc., are some serious moments of history that come alive. Widowed President John Tyler, for example, held a state funeral service in the White House for the victims of the explosion on the gunboat Princeton; months later, he married the daughter of one of the victims. Woodrow Wilson spent the last eighteen months of his Presidency semi-confined to his bedroom following a massive stroke – the details of which, for all intents and purposes, was concealed from public officialdom as well as from the public.
It is, of course, the stories of history that are usually the most memorable. School children still learn about Abigail Adams’ laundry story in the un-completed East Room of the un-completed Executive Mansion and how Dolley Madison “saved” the portrait of George Washington only hours before the White House was burned during the War of 1812. Those stories will be remembered far longer than tariff bills and civil service reform legislation. (Do not misunderstand. Tariffs and civil service are important – but they are memorable only to the serious scholars, and usually do not inspire a deep love of history in the masses.)
Journalist Paul Brandus tells a good story, and a good “history-light,” which is exactly what is needed to narrow the great chasm that has existed for nearly three generations: all-or-nothing. Either a total oblivion/disparagement about history, or i-dotting and t-crossing everything to congratulate scholastic and research prowess. There is plenty of room in history to include both Willie Nelson and Pavarotti.
What is particularly interesting about Brandus’ approach, is that he effectively ties the essences of some Presidential administrations to a particular room (or rooms) in the White House. Or not. William McKinley, for instance, a “war” President during a short and jingoistic war, turned a room into an actual “war room” – where maps were hung and telegraph and telephone wires were installed for whatever moment-to-moment information was possible – in 1898. On the flip side, Abraham Lincoln never slept in the “Lincoln bedroom” or even in the “Lincoln bed” which his wife purchased especially to accommodate his 6’4″ frame. But his son Robert did!
Then we learn about “building stuff.” The stables erected by Andrew Jackson, no longer needed, of course. The conservatory, make that conservatories of flower gardens and nurseries and the demolishment of same to make way for the West Wing built by Theodore Roosevelt. The various updates and modernizations, some very good, some very bad, led to the complete overhaul of the old mansion during the Truman Administration.
But more than anything Under This Roof is a story of a particular house, and an assortment of occupants, paid for by the American public. The occupants were real people dealing with real situations. They lived here; some died here. Some had joyous experiences; some poignant and sorrowful, and some were out-and-out funny. Some Presidents were great; some merely did the best they could under the circumstances, and a few achieved greatness because of the huge responsibilities that fell (sometimes suddenly) upon their shoulders.
Under This Roof is a quick-moving read. It is almost like having a guided tour of the White House itself! It brings history alive, and that is no small accomplishment! It is a perfect gift for the Holiday season. And you might enjoy it yourself!
UNDER THIS ROOF: The White House and the Presidency, by Paul Brandus