Kenneth T. Walsh, Chief White House correspondent for U.S. News, has written yet another important book on the American presidency. Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership. (Paradigm Publishers, Boulder – London. )
Walsh may be this nation’s greatest authority on the modern American presidency. His career as a presidential historian began late, this is his sixth book, but his career as a journalist has given him a front row seat at every White House since Ronald Reagan. Walsh has covered, up-close, five American presidents.
While his books generously quote Doris Kerns Goodwin, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dalek, Larry Sabato and other famous historians, who are also his own personal friends, it is Kenneth T. Walsh, more than any of them, who has had the best access to primary source material.
Walsh has had direct, one on one, ongoing contact with most of the presidents he writes about. No other modern presidential historian has had such access. When president-elect, George W. Bush flew Air Force One from Austin to Washington to assume office, there was only one reporter on the plane. Ken Walsh.
Disraeli described achieving power as “climbing that greasy pole” and it is not much easier for the journalists who cover the process. Balancing the need for a good story with the need for future access requires its own political skill set. Walsh has mastered the process better than any other journalist in our time.
By the way, it is this access that tantalizes. Somehow he has maintained friendships with these presidents long after they leave office. So what is he not telling us?
Ken Walsh is an old school journalist who knows how to find secrets and then knows which ones can be told and which ones must be kept longer or even forever. Even so, his books reveal some of what he hides behind those thick glasses and deflecting questions, for Walsh is the one who is choosing which quotes from Goodwin or Dalek to include and which to discard. If he tells his story through multiple sources, like a good journalist and researcher must, he is surely the one selecting the subject and choosing the questions.
Once again, in Prisoners of the White House, Walsh shares a broad concept that only he can really tell, using the pieces of the puzzle that other presidential historians offer up from their more targeted research. He shows how quickly a leader becomes isolated and how it impacts his performance and political success or failure.
Having worked in a White House I experienced this process first hand. During the campaign we shared everything with the president, every scrap of gossip or fact we could vacuum up. He was informed, over informed, informed beyond the imagination of the politicians and leaders of influence he was meeting.
When he became president, the illusion of being informed continued. There was plenty of paper and it was more grammatically correct. But it was very different. When I wrote a memo to the president it would pass through other hands. It would be stamped “The President Has Seen,” which would make it a legal document, kept in the archives and someday, too soon, released to the public.
There are things you write to a person that sound awful or distorted out of context. Yet it is superfluous to add paragraphs of explanation that the recipient already knows. And do you really want to tell him something about someone else? Something that they will soon be reading? In the end it is too much trouble.
When the Piss Christ scandal surfaced in the George H.W. Bush administration, and it was learned that government funds were used to pay an artist to put a Crucifix in a bottle of urine, we on White House senior staff had known all about it for weeks. Only the president was kept in the dark. He would have to read about it in the newspaper like everybody else.
There was even what I would describe as a “Wead watch” as in “make sure Doug Wead doesn’t tell the president about this.” The staff was hoping for the best, that the crisis would not become public and the president would not be drawn into it on one side or the other. I guess they were afraid of losing the all important anti-Catholic vote. As it was, Pat Buchanan picked it the story and bloodied the president in the primaries. George H.W. Bush, comforted by his high approval ratings and isolated from all things pissy, eventually lost his 1992 re-election bid.
I remember a scene from the 1988 campaign. I was walking into campaign headquarters, a building staffed by hundreds of workers, and the receptionist at the front was talking on the phone with the candidate, George H.W. Bush. I remember thinking, “If this man wins the presidency he will never become isolated like the others before him. He is talking to everybody, all the time.”
But as Kenneth T. Walsh shows in Prisoners of the White House and I was to experience firsthand, it happens to them all.