WASHINGTON – The new tell-all, The Residence, featuring intimate anecdotes collected from past and current White House staff members, is absolutely delicious – and utterly lacking in nutritious content.
Just as desserts should be.
Washington political writers, meanwhile, have been tearing through lists of revealed secrets thinking to themselves: OMG, this is disgusting trash! Why didn’t I write it? Or was that just me?
Written by political journalist Kate Andersen Brower, The Residence (HarperCollins) was a No. 1 best-seller in search of a typist. Now we all get to peek behind the curtain and spy on the world’s most powerful couples – and their children.
Let’s just say, the help have spoken.
Although the book is based on interviews with real people, it has the distinct feel of gossip, mostly because it is. Gossip. We know it when we hear it, listen intently because it would be rude not to; and then grudgingly, we cough it up to someone else with lowered voice and the faux-pained caveat: “But please don’t tell anyone.”
Brower’s book suggests people were happy to talk. From this we may infer that the taint of gossip has diminished, as previously private lives have become public through the social media-driven interplay of exhibitionism and voyeurism. The notion that protecting the president’s privacy is an honor and a privilege ran away with our qualms.
Palace intrigue – or the American equivalent, such as it is – has ever been nectar to the masses. See, the queen has warts! And the king doesn’t bathe except on Sundays!
About 100 interviews were conducted with current and former White House staffers who spoke mostly on the record – how else to get credit? – and surrendered what was theirs to protect. Cheap tricks for the circus crowd?
Maybe. Then again, former first ladies Laura Bush, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter, and several former first children also gave interviews. Who dished on whom, one wonders?
Highlights from the book are easy to find online, so I’ll mention only a few: John F. Kennedy skinny-dipped with secretaries when Jackie was away. It would seem the Earth’s tectonic plates are safe with any fresh dirt on JFK.
Another: Hillary Clinton threw a lamp (they think) at Bill after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Ya reckon? Also, there was cursing. You g—–n b—–d!, Hillary was overheard yelling at her husband. Which, all things considered, seems rather restrained.
White House staff claimed that the Clinton-Lewinsky liaisons were no surprise to them as the two had been cavorting for years before the world learned of their Oval Office encounters.
Except, of course, Lewinsky didn’t work in the White House for “years” but rather just about nine months, before being “transferred” to the Pentagon – a goodly hike from the mansion.
But then, memories play tricks and details are often hard to recall. Sometimes what you remember is an impression of things. Or you remember the episode – a shouting match, a thrown lamp, without the context of the human-ness of the beings involved, their frailties, sorrows, and personal challenges.
All is not scurrilous. We also learn that the Obamas danced their first night in the residence to Mary J. Blige’s Real Love. The staffer apparently felt it obligatory to say he was taken by surprise when he walked in on them, but what was he expecting? Clogging? That the first African-American president and his wife decided to boogey down was, as Cole Porter might say, just one of those things.
We learned, too, that George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush appeared to be the favorites. On the less attractive hand, we hear that Nancy Reagan pitched a fit when some of her items were broken – among other less-than-flattering characterizations.
A former Reagan staffer with whom I spoke about the book seethed with bitterness and pointed out that Nancy had her own difficulties, including breast cancer and the assassination attempt on her husband. “I understand that to those much is given, much is expected. But for the love of God! Are there no limits?”
Yes, there are no limits.
More’s the pity. The president and his family have had only one haven in Washington where they can escape the constant surveillance of the capital’s pathologically curious population. Now the culture of discretion that kept previous staff members from talking out of school can be pronounced officially dead.
Sold for a tuppence, which is considerably less than what I forked over to Amazon for overnight delivery.
Kathleen Parker’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.