An inside story
At a time when Americans speak figuratively of the possibility that the federal government could collapse, author Robert Klara wants to remind them of something he contends most have forgotten, something the White House website doesn't even mention: In 1948, what's arguably the most iconic symbol of the presidency, even the federal government, nearly collapsed — literally.
President Harry S. Truman and his family had known the White House was showing its age since moving into it in 1945, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death. One day in 1948, while Truman was taking a bath upstairs and his wife, Bess, was hosting a Daughters of the American Revolution tea party in the Blue Room directly below, a Blue Room chandelier began to shake and sway worse than it had before, causing alarm.
The president and his bathtub had almost fallen through the Blue Room ceiling, which prompted a White House inspection by a team of top engineers. What they found — including rotten wooden beams, some bearing scorch marks from the British burning of the building during the War of 1812, plus unstable floors and a rapidly sinking foundation — prompted a renovation project that Klara recounts in his new book “The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence” (Thomas Dunne Books, available Tuesday).
The Trumans relocated to Blair House, across Pennsylvania Avenue, for the duration. The White House's outer walls were left standing, but virtually everything inside, above ground and below, was gutted and rebuilt on a steel frame.
Occurring in an atmosphere bordering on hysteria over the Soviet Union exploding its first atomic bomb, which set the tone for America's Cold War mindset, the White House renovation also added something new to the presidential mansion: the supposedly A-bomb-proof underground complex that remains largely shrouded in mystery today. And like most home renovations, the rebuilding of the White House posed schedule and budget challenges.
Drawing on official documents and private diaries of people involved in the project, Klara tells its story with plenty of ironic and humorous aspects. But to him, those efforts' “ultimate legacy ... remains ambiguous,” according to the publisher.
“I was horrified by the fact that, in the haste to finish the renovation, nearly all of the mansion's beautiful, hand-carved interiors — doors, paneling, windowsills, mantelpieces — were either given away or thrown in the dump. ... The truth is that the interior of our country's most treasured national landmark was thrown out and replaced by a replica of itself,” Klara says in comments provided by the publisher.
In fact, while writing the book, Klara was able to acquire discarded pieces of the “old” White House. The Truman administration had sold bricks, foundation stones, wood trim and more to Americans as official souvenirs. Designed to cover its own costs, that program ultimately showed a small profit.
Had Truman not acted when he did, “White House” today might be just a figure of speech alluding to whatever presidential administration holds power, not the name of the stately building at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Presidents come and go, but the White House endures — if only in a form outwardly unchanged but inwardly almost wholly redone from what it once was.
DECADES OF WRITINGS, DECADES OF THEOCRACY
“Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics” by Charles Krauthammer (Crown Forum, available Tuesday) — A collection of some of the best work done over the past 30 years by the winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, this book ranges widely, touching on not just politics and such issues as feminism, evolution and the death penalty, but also on border collies, Halley's Comet, Woody Allen and chess. It includes what the publisher calls “several of Krauthammer's major path-breaking essays — on bioethics, on Jewish destiny and on America's role as the world's superpower — that have profoundly influenced the nation's thoughts and policies.” Usually thought of as a conservative, this syndicated columnist has won both the left-wing People for the American Way's First Amendment Award and the right-wing Bradley Foundation's first $250,000 Bradley Prize. Readers of all political persuasions will find plenty here that's thought-provoking and worthwhile.
“Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences” by James Buchan (Simon & Schuster) — Fluent in Persian (“Farsi” is the form of that language used in Iran), the author first visited Iran as an undergraduate in 1974. The book starts with the origins of the Pahlavi regime in the 1920s and traces Iranian history through the 1979 revolution sparked by Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile, the Iran-Iraq War and Khomeini's death. The author draws on memoirs, diaries, Persian-language news reports, theological tracts, interviews and recently declassified diplomatic documents to illuminate the historical forces that compelled Iranians to revolt against the Shah and why and how their revolution has led to decades of Mideast conflict and the rise of Islamist terrorism. This book provides in-depth background, detail and context about the origins of the regime now conducting high-stakes talks in which America aims to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.
Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@ tribweb.com).
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pirates notebook: Castillo’s debut underscores challenges in Cuban market
- Penn Hills transforms into NYC for Vin Diesel witch movie
- Rossi: At start, are Pens already finished?
- Roberto Clemente story hits Pittsburgh stage in performance
- Identical twins born at West Penn Hospital a rare medical marvel
- Classical music enthusiasts have a variety of choices
- Art Review: ‘Tom McNickle: Time & Place’ at James Gallery
- August Wilson conservator moves to avoid sheriff’s sale
- Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra takes different trips with Mason Bates, Valentina Lisitsa
- Lawyer in Ford case asks judge to lift gag order
- Shady Side Academy’s Berry shines in Allegheny Conference win