Inside the White House, Ronald Kessler

Pocket, 1995, 302 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-87920-0

Sometimes, a book reviewer’s first priority is a warning: That book you’re picking up is not the book you think you’re going to get.  While I don’t think that warning people about a non-fiction book sixteen years and three presidents later counts as a valuable customer service, it’s a bit of a red flag regarding the author… which may be useful given that he’s still out there writing similar things.

A quick glance at Ronald Kessler’s Inside the White House promises a look at “the hidden lives of the modern presidents and the secrets of the world’s most powerful institutions”.  This may lead you to expect a flint-eyed examination of how the White House operates, perhaps a journalistic description of day-to-day operations within the building, maybe even a few anecdotes regarding the past few presidents.  So be prepared for a highly partisan collage of presidential gossip, complaints about the White House’s budget and a cursory look at the isolation of presidents from everyday life.

Don’t worry if Kessler uses the term “White House” very loosely: As it quickly becomes clear, Kessler’s really writing a high-end gossip rag about presidents from Johnson to Clinton.  The reported rumours start early and low on the first page, the second sentence including the words “…having sex on a sofa in the Oval Office, with one of the handful of gorgeous young secretaries…”  Things don’t necessarily get more graceful after that, with Kennedy’s extramarital affairs trotted out once more alongside Johnson’s similar exploits.  From affairs to blatant exploitation of the public purse and presidential misconduct including gratuitous abuse of staff, Kessler trots out decade-old gossip in lieu of reporting.

It certainly doesn’t stop there: If you believe everything included here, every president since then has been an awful human being, their personal weaknesses magnified by absolute power.  Interviewing (on record!) staff members from previous White Houses and more vaguely sourced current ones, Kessler cherry-picks decades of history for purely titillating anecdotes about runaway presidential children, ungrateful spouses, thefts, paranoia and worse (or better: If ever you’ve been looking for reference material regarding presidential flatulence, then your quest ends here).  Much of it sounded familiar until I realized that Kessler re-used much of the same material in writing the similar 2009 book In the President’s Secret Service.

It’s all entertaining, and if you want to be particularly nice to the end result, all of it ends up reinforcing Kessler’s overall theme of a White House disconnected from the rest of the nation.  The Presidency has become a quasi-imperial position because the American public demands it (would the nation tolerate presidents having to take time away from running the nation to wash dishes or make grocery runs?), but the price to pay is that the occupant of the White House always loses touch with life as lived by most Americans.  The vast excesses available to presidents end up letting their worst instincts run wild.

There’s more substantial material in Inside the White House about the carefully-obfuscated costs of running the White House.  Thanks to decades of presidential manoeuvres, the true operating costs of the White House are dispersed in-between dozen organizations, never acknowledged in full lest their magnitude become apparent to the taxpayers.  As a result, financial accountability is low; mini-empires grow unchecked; everyone tries to get assigned a prestigious “White House job” and few people ever fully understand how it all works.

But that’s pretty much all there is to say about the substantial content in Inside the White House.  The gossip takes up much of the rest, and through accumulation it’s hard not to notice that Kessler is a lot kinder to Republicans than Democrats.  Republicans Ford, Reagan and Bush (the first) practically come across as saints compared to their Democratic counterparts, but the hilarious part of the book begins once Clinton takes power: Suddenly, Kessler doesn’t hide behind quotes from interview subjects to attack the president: Words like “childish” and “rudely” and “indolence” suddenly find their way in the main body of the text and Kessler, afflicted by a bad case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome, whips himself up in a fury describing incidents that seem well in-line with what other presidents have done.  No surprise if a quick look at Kessler’s Wikipedia page shows a writer now associated with right-wing sites, and known for erroneous reports about Barack Obama.  (With a special bonus as Kessler attempted to remove mentions of the controversy from his Wikipedia page)  Partisan writer writes partisan account of presidents?  What a surprise!

The result, alas, isn’t a serious piece of journalism as much as it’s an opinion piece wrapped in anecdotes with dubious credibility.  While I’m impressed that some of the more outrageous statements in the book are directly sourced to interviewees, I’m not exactly convinced that they amount to a significant indictment of those who stayed at the White House over the past fifty years.  Once Kessler’s partisan nature becomes obvious, his indignation becomes less convincing, and readers may start thirsting for a better spokesperson in matters of presidential accountability.  There’s an interesting thesis in Inside the White House that few people will dismiss: too bad that its execution undermines it.

On the other hand, if what you want is a National Enquirer book-length special about American presidents…

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