Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Thank You, Mr. President: A White House Notebook by A. Merriman Smith

Merriman Smith—what a voice! He had such a light touch; how often do you hear that about a White House correspondent? He was clever, he was funny, his phrasing makes me laugh out loud.

So, of course, for Merriman Smith, things ended badly. Doggone it.

Anyway, back to our story… Here Smith focuses on the presidencies of FDR and Truman, and we get a vivid look at the life of a correspondent during those (rather wild) days, back when average old citizens had access to the White House without having to request a tour 6 months in advance from their senator or representative. And it sounds like liquid lunches were just as common then as in the Mad Men days…

The chapter titled “The Boss” is a terrific portrait of FDR, which acknowledges that the man truly was inscrutable, but then proceeds to convey a clear picture of how Smith perceived him. And Smith was a keen observer of humans, so this character study is a fascinating thing to read.

Smith’s description of the day FDR died is gripping. It’s also strikingly incomplete.

First, the gripping part—Before even hearing the announcement, Smith had grabbed a phone because he knew, having been summoned to the Warm Springs Foundation, that the news was going to be big. His dialogue, calling Washington D.C., to report the news, is interspersed with William Hassett’s announcement of FDR’s death. When Smith screams, “Flash!” into the phone, it’s perfectly shocking. (I am grateful that journalists do what they do. And that they have the fortitude to do this work.)

Here’s the incomplete part—Nowhere does Smith mention that Lucy Mercer was in Warm Springs with FDR when he died. Smith was of that generation of journalists.

Smith is frank about his reaction to Truman’s assuming the presidency—stating that he found it difficult to think of him as the president at first. But he seems to have developed a true appreciation for him. He says that the biggest difference between Roosevelt and Truman could be summed up like this: “Franklin D. Roosevelt was for the people. Harry S. Truman is of the people.” (p. 218) I like that.

Smith went on to be one of the reporters present when JFK was assassinated.

Smith wrote another grand book called Merriman Smith’s Book of the Presidents, which is simply a splendid thing: behind-the-scenes and light in tone.