An inside story

Alan Wallace
| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

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.


“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

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