Picks and Pans Review: The President's House
12/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
by William Seale
These books are devoted to a peripheral sort of history, yet they offer an unusually personal, humanizing view of the American Presidency. Kirk, a historian who has taught at Southern Methodist University, provides a colorfully detailed chronicle of the presidents' interest, and sometimes total disinterest, in popular and classical music. She notes that Millard Fillmore liked to belt out a few choruses of Old Folks at Home, accompanied on piano by his daughter Mary Abigail. Among more recent presidents, she suggests it was Dwight Eisenhower who first perceived the political value of inviting performers to the White House and Lyndon Johnson whose real love of music opened the building to a variety of personalities, including Duke Ellington and Carol Channing. Kirk's book (University of Illinois Press, $24.95) includes some annoying mistakes, calling blues singer Joe Williams "Jo" for instance. Her tone is often on the reverential side too, but she does observe some uncomfortable moments: the Captain and Tennille singing their dopey, suggestive Muskrat Love before the Fords and Queen Elizabeth II, or singer Carol Feraci, during a Ray Conniff-directed choral number performed for the Nixons, suddenly shouting, "Stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation!" Seale's two-volume work (White House Historical Association/ Abrams, $40) ends with the Truman Administration. (Relevant papers of succeeding presidents are still sealed.) Seale, a historian, is former curator of American Culture for the Smithsonian Institution. He writes vividly of the house that American presidents occupied since John Adams moved in on Nov. 3, 1800 and wrote his wife, Abigail (who was in Quincy, Mass.), "May none but honest and wise men rule under this roof." Seale has an eye for the arresting incident. He records that architect Benjamin Latrobe, working on refining the White House under Jefferson, sneered at the President's own plans, writing a friend, "I am cramped in this design by his prejudices in favor of the architecture of the old French books, out of which he fishes everything." The author writes that Andrew Jackson kept a 1,400-pound cheese, a gift from admirers, in the White House entrance hall for two years; the smell and grease stain lasted longer. Seale also is up to more dramatic moments, such as the lighting of the national Christmas tree in December 1941, when Winston Churchill was in Washington to confer with Franklin Roosevelt: "On the south portico, just after dark on the eve of the first Christmas of the war, the Roosevelts, Churchill, and guests looked out toward a crowd of some 15,000 whom they, for the darkness, could not see. Before them, toward the far end of the grounds, stood the tree, itself seeming little more than a hulking shadow, set slightly to the east, off axis with the house. It would be lighted, and Roosevelt and Churchill would speak. The President touched a button, which sounded a signal in a dugout on the lawn below the great tree, where an electrician made the tree blaze with light, reflecting colors on the White House and on the faces of thousands of spectators, who burst into singing."