She never wrote a memoir, but she did do this…

Jacqueline Kennedy:
Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy: Interviews with Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr., 1964
(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
It’s a book, it’s an audiobook, it’s one of the coolest things ever.

This is exactly the kind of historic record that I’ve been know to
pray will appear on the scene during
my lifetime. And it’s fabulous.
Arthur Schlesinger was part of JFK’s brain trust, and it sounds
from these recordings, like Jackie was reasonably comfortable with him. At any
rate, she’s rather candid, and there are things she talked about that later she
said she didn’t want to have shared.
Of course, these are the good
Such as: There were kids’ bath toys lined up along the edge of the
bathtub in JFK’s bathroom—the one their visitors to the family quarters would
use—because John, Jr., would hang out in there while his dad was in the tub.
And, of course, when she speaks of her husband, Jackie idealizes
him completely unrealistically. Of course
this is what a wife would do. It was up to her to set the tone for his
legacy. And besides, the man had just been assassinated mere months before. So
of course she’s going to make him sound like a saint.
But, beyond the perfected version of things that she presents, there
are some little glimpses of both of them as real humans, such as when she says
he’d sometimes call her “Kid,” and when she describes how he wept after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. And that he ate breakfast in a
t-shirt and underwear, on a tray in his bedroom.    
These tapes are also completely fascinating as a relic of the-way-(some)-marriages-were.
She provides a very clear view of how she saw her role as a wife, and it’s
old-fashioned-y stuff: Don’t ask your husband about his work day unless he
offers information; Make sure the children are in a good mood when your husband
gets home; First and foremost, provide a comfortable home life for your
The intimacy of listening to the actual interviews is pretty darn
amazing—of course, there’s her famously breathy voice, but there’s all kinds of
wonderful background noise, too: ice cubes clinking in a glass, cigarettes
being lit, airplanes overhead, and John, Jr., tearing into the room.
This is good enough stuff that probably even the Normal (non-Kennedy-obsessed) out there will
find it worth a listen.
Also—it comes with a book that has helpful footnotes (to remind us
who Douglas Dillon was) and some good photos.

(Coincidence? Or not? Today is the 51st anniversary of John, Jr.’s birth. Just realized that when I looked at the date.)

Look book, with presidents

The President’s
Photographer: Fifty Years Inside the Oval Office
by John
Oh, this is so much my
kind of book. There’s presidents and there’s pictures and there’s
behind-the-scenes info. Oooo oooo ooooooooo!
Going in, I expected this thing to have an introductory essay,
followed by nothing but photos and captions. But it’s got a full-on text going
on. And it’s a great thing to read. (So often, these look books don’t have
interesting texts accompanying them. It’s tragic.)
The other thing that might make one suspicious that this book
would not be up to snuff is that it’s a companion book to a National
Geographic/PBS video. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been sadly disappointed
in the past by those companion books.
But this one… This one could stand alone just fine. The writing is zippy and what it conveys is fascinating. 
So the book’s good on its own, but the PBS program is pretty darn fabulous, too. And it’s available to watch online for free!
But the interesting thing is that the book itself describes why
still photography, rather than video, is vital to capturing the essence of a
presidency—because a photographer can be in a room to take a photo without also
capturing the conversation that is taking place. So the photographer is granted
greater access. Plus, there’s something about a photograph—the way it captures
a single moment in time—that somehow speaks to us differently than a video
This scene took place in Decorah, Iowa – I know that place!
(photo credit: White House; photo by Pete Souza)
The book’s primary focus is Pete Souza, the current White House
photographer, but it also includes plenty of photos of previous presidents, as
the role of the White House photographer has evolved.
(Pete Souza’s the photographer who took that famous photo of then-Senator Obama running up the steps of the Capitol)
One of my favorite lines in the book is this one, which follows a photo of the Fords at the breakfast table at their
home in Alexandria,
in the days before they moved into the White House. Betty Ford’s wearing a
shower cap and robe, and their dining room looks so much like the (hideous) 1970s decor I remember from my younger days. (They were real people, the Fords!) Anyway, here’s John Bredar’s brilliant
accompanying text: 
“This is about as pedestrian an image as you can imagine, an
utterly American morning, right down to the round wooden dining table, with a
condiment-jammed lazy Susan at its center. When will the teenager drag in and
begin grazing? The idea of substituting Richard and Pat Nixon into this tableau
isn’t just weird, it’s a little scary.” (pp. 135) 
I like it when photography
books  make me laugh.

(photo credit: White House; photo by Pete Souza)
If you, too, are a sucker
for the historic photos as they happen,
here’s a nifty little thing— if you “Like” The White House on The Face, you’ll get the Photo of the Day tossed your way daily. It’s actually kind of

OK, here’s one more for the road.
That’s the president blocking a shot by Reggie Love, his body man. And given Mr. Love’s background, that’s nothing short of impressive.
I love this stuff. 

Presidential vacational reading

OK, so my first thought upon hearing President Obama was going on vacation was:
I wonder what he’s gonna read?
During his vacation last year, word got out that he was reading an ARC of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and I was all happy to know about his reading life.
So this little piece from the Daily Beast was well-timed. It’s a list of all the books President Obama has read since he was elected.
It’s a pretty good list. I was glad to see a few novels in there–a guy in a high-pressure job needs a little bit of a break.
And stumbling across the Daily Beast list made me Google to find out what he’s reading this year, and yes, guys, it’s out there!
So, yes, I’m a snoop. The man’s trying to be vacationing, and I’m all scrutinizing his reading material. But it’s interesting, you know?

A close call

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber
Who knew there wasn’t a book—until now—about the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan? I guess I never thought to look for such a thing.
But now it exists, and it’s a darn good book, especially for the presidential history geeks among us.
Del Quentin Wilber, a journalist at the Washington Post [pause here for impassioned shouts of adoration for said newspaper] did all the good investigative stuff journalists do, and he pieces together an account of the events of March 30, 1981, and the weeks that followed.
And he tells it in that engaging journalistic style that makes you feel like you were there.
The NPR story that alerted me to this book includes an excerpt from the Secret Service radio recording at the moment when Jerry Parr, the lead agent on the scene, realized that Reagan had been shot. (They were already in the car, headed for the White House.) When you hear the calm in Parr’s voice, it really makes a person glad the Secret Service exists.
We all know the folklore about Reagan’s jocularity following the assassination attempt.
But the thing we didn’t know at the time was how close the bullet was to Reagan’s heart. That whole scene could have turned out much worse for him, and now, 30 years later, we’re just getting a better sense of that.
Anyway, to the human interest story…
Keeping in mind that I’m not exactly a fan of Reagan’s policies, I really have to confess I like the guy as a human.
Not only because he walked himself into the hospital with a bullet in his chest, but because he responded with such grace and humor to that terrifying situation. Wilber reminds us how reassuring that was to a freaked-out American public.
His son Ron later said that his father was so jovial during those dire moments following his shooting because he was a performer at heart. Ronald Reagan seemed to confirm this when he said during a 1985 interview, “There was a crowd standing around. Somebody ought to entertain them some way.” (p. 219) I am so weirdly charmed by this.
Plus, the man was just witty, you know? Parr was the Secret Service agent who shoved Reagan into the car and jumped on top of him during the assassination attempt. When Parr retired in 1985, he visited Reagan in the Oval Office. Wilber tells us, “When the president saw him, he said, ‘You’re not going to throw me over the couch, are you?’” (p. 224)
This book was one of my Read-a-Thon choices, which means I read it from start to finish. Since I usually have 5+ books on the go at a time, it’s rare that I (happily) read a book straight through. This one fit the bill.

The young LBJ

(photo credit: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum)

The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1)

People! I just read the 750+ page first volume of a multi-volume biography of LBJ, and I’m having bliss-out fits over it.

I know.

You’re fleeing from the blog, and I kinda understand.

But I can explain. 

This book is so ding-dang good I nearly got weepy at several points. And once my heart almost burst in joy.

That, my friends, is a sign of good writing. Robert A. Caro is a pure marvel.

We’ll begin with the sentence that darn-near caused a heart explosion. Here ’tis:

“And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.” (p. 217)

So, the context. Caro spends the long first paragraph of that chapter describing the scenery—the columns and pillars of the Capitol—witnessed by the 23-year-old LBJ as he walked (ran!) to his office when he worked as an aide to a Congressman. That glorious sentence ends the paragraph, and it’s the perfect capstone.

The weepy thing happened when I read about how LBJ, as a young Congressman during the Great Depression, helped bring electricity to the Texas Hill Country from whence he came. After reading the description of the lives people led before electricity, it makes sense that it was during this time that people began naming their sons for Lyndon Johnson. Caro describes how farm women could see the workers coming toward her house with the line of electrical poles, and when the workers arrived, they’d find the finest meal the family could provide, served on their best dishes.

We get a good view of Lady Bird here, and one is given to believe that she truly was as sainted as Margaret Truman suggested in First Ladies. Despite her innate goodness, still (thankfully) she’s interesting. One of my favoritest quotes of all time is this, by Lady Bird to a friend: “Lyndon and I committed matrimony last night.” (p. 302) Doesn’t it just sound innocently naughty?

This book is detailed, in the best way. So you get a solid sense of who the supporting characters are. For years now, I’ve been saying the words “Rayburn House Office Building” in response to library patrons’ requests for the addresses of their representatives in Congress. And only in this book did I learn who Sam Rayburn was. And I confess now I adore him just a lot. He was honest. Need I say more? Yet I will. Here (we’ll let Caro say it): “Years later, when someone mentioned that Rayburn’s father had not left him much of an inheritance, Rayburn quickly corrected him—his father, he said, ‘gave me my untarnished name.’” (p. 301) He was as honest as LBJ was fluid with the truth.

This book covers Johnson’s early years—from birth to age 36. His ambition is striking. It’s exhausting even to read about.

The projected 3-volume Caro biography (with the 4th volume in the works) is known as the warts-and-all version of LBJ’s life story. I’m doing OK with it. I’ve known forever that the guy was earthy, and why sugarcoat the truth?

Also, gotta confess: major (major!) authorcrush on Mr. Caro. Not only is he a genius, but he’s also cute as a button.

Next up: Volume 2!

Do you doodle?

Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles and Scrawls from the Oval Office from the creators of Cabinet Magazine
Quick! Name a president who’s a known doodler.
If you named darn near any president, you got this one right.
But the big names in this area are Hoover, FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Reagan.
For the lover of random presidential trivia (me, me, me!) this book is pure gold.
Some of the doodles are unsurprising; for example, one would guess that FDR and JFK would be prone to draw sailboats, given their love of the sea—and Reagan drew horses (especially when he was super bored, apparently).
But who’d’ve thunk that Hoover would be such a doodler? I gotta say: I was shocked.
And he was known as a doodler even in his day. In fact, his doodles were transferred onto fabric and sold as “Hoover Scribble Rompers.” That is crazy, dude. (And actually, the rompers are frighteningly cute.)
The authors/compilers of this book stretched the definition of “doodle” a little bit, and I’m glad they did. Here’s what I mean: they also include illustrated notes and letters sent by presidents to their loved ones. And the notes written by Ronald Reagan to Nancy just about break my heart, they’re so cute. Like him or not, that man loved his wife.
This is the sort of book you can pick up and open to any random page and find something interesting. Hugely browse-able… if you can put it down.

Real Short Re-Cap: The Audacity of Hope

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream by Barack Obama
Does this count as reading? I listened to the abridged audiobook, read by the author. (I like to think that the author’s voice makes up for the abridgement.)
I laughed when he described some of the indignities of campaigning and cried when he described his meeting with Senator Byrd. And I liked the last chapter, “Family,” best—it sounded more like talking and less like a speech.

Historical Fiction: One down…

The President’s Lady: A Novel about Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Irving Stone
Guys, I’m participating in a study of historical fiction. It just may do me in. (Why do I find historical fiction so difficult? WHY?)
Whining session now concluded…. I survived my first book of the bunch!
(image credit: Library of Congress)I chose something by Irving Stone because he’s one of those authors I’ve always thought I should have read. And I can see why he made a name for himself. First, he chose provocative subjects.
In this instance, the marriage of Rachel and Andrew Jackson, which was a big old scandal because not only was she a divorcee in a day when divorce just did not happen, but her scoundrel of a first husband failed to complete the divorce, so she was actually married to Andrew Jackson before her first marriage officially ended. And that ain’t good.
The whole mess of it haunted them throughout their entire marriage. It would have even haunted them in the White House, except that Rachel died of a heart attack shortly after Jackson’s election to the presidency and before his inauguration.
Despite their hardships, the Jacksons seem to have had a loving marriage, and theirs is a great love story. But it kind of sucks how the story ends, you know?
Anyway, back to Irving Stone. I found the writing to be workmanlike; it got the point across, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. I think Stone’s strength instead is in the depth of his research. He includes a list of sources at the end of the book, and it’s quite a list. I trust his version of the story to be based on facts.
And really, what more can you ask?

Kennedy. Again.

The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence by Gerald Blaine with Lisa McCubbin
First off, if you’re looking for scandal, skip this book. This guy is not spilling any of those kinds of secrets. Also, if you’re looking for conspiracy theories (which I find oh-so-tiresome), skip it.
If, however, you’re looking for the behind-the-scenes story of what it was like to protect the Kennedy family, this is your book.
The fellows assigned to protect the Kennedys were the first and only Secret Service agents to see a president assassinated on their watch. And really, there probably wasn’t a doggone thing they could have done about it. Kennedy himself said, on the morning of November 22, 1963, that if someone wanted to kill him, it would be easy to do from an upper-story window.
And—the part that the Secret Service did not speak of at the time (because they did not want to sound as though they were blaming JFK for his death)— is that Kennedy had asked, earlier that month, that the agents remain further away from his car so spectators could see him. This request had been passed through the chain of command, so that day in Dallas, the agents were not as close to the president as they would have liked to have been. (And yes, there’s all kinds of discussion of whether or not this is true. All right, already!)
The amazing thing is that the agents never talked about the assassination in the days and years following Kennedy’s death.

Since so much already has been written about the assassination, the thing about this book that will stick with me most is the information about the protection of Mrs. Kennedy and the children. The fellows on the “Kiddie Detail” seem like truly remarkable humans. Blaine describes how Caroline Kennedy rolled down the car window during the funeral cortege so she could hold the hand of special agent Bob Foster.
Even though this is just one more take on the old story we know so well, it’s fascinating to read.

Camelot rages on

Portrait of Camelot: A Thousand Days in the Kennedy White House by Richard Reeves
While visiting the Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum (witness flipped-out-with-bliss, wind-blown weirdo above) I saw this book in the gift shop (damn, I love presidential library gift shops!) And the DVD included with the book was running on the little TV screen there, and I knew I had to experience this thing.
This book is one of those timeless numbers. It’s completely a look book (that’s coffee table book in Unruly lingo), with photos by Cecil Stoughton, the president’s photographer (who was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa! It’s true! He was an Osky boy).
Small digression: On PBS, there’s a fully great documentary called The President’s Photographer, which follows President Obama’s photographer Pete Souza. At the time I’m posting this, the documentary can be viewed online. (I love that.)
Back to JFK—Cecil Stoughton was a master of capturing real moments; it’s really quite a lovely thing. And he’d become enough a part of the Kennedys’ lives that he was able to capture images of them that probably are about as natural as you’re going to get.

If you’re a Kennedy geek like me, here’s the thing to do with this book: Open to a page, do not look at the caption, and scan the photo to see how many people you can identify. Then check the caption to see how many faces you correctly identified. If you can correctly identify JFK’s sisters by name, you get bonus points. I tell you, it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys (which has always sounded to me like no-fun-at-all, actually; why’d you put monkeys in a barrel, anyway?) For some of the speech photos and bill-signing photos, not all people are identified. But a person eventually recognizes McGeorge Bundy well enough to know it’s really him.

(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Library & Museum)

This book has a picture—or several—on every page. It is a feast for the eyes, and a veritable smorgasbord for the JFK geeks among us.
If I were a book buyer, I’d have to own this book. I actually may eventually break down and buy it, which is nothing short of a miracle—and very high praise for any book.

(Hey look! We’re watching them watch Alan Shepard getting launched! [wild squealing commences] Look at how messy Evelyn Lincoln’s office was! Look at Schlesinger, geeking out as only he could do!])

(photo credit: John F. Kennedy Library & Museum)