At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Book offers a wealth of anecdotes about life in the White House
Boston — A little tip to all those presidential aspirants lining up for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: It might be good to have a talk with William Seale first. Mr. Seale, a historian and preservationist, spent the past decade mining from yellowed White House papers - ``bales and bales'' of them - a wonderfully readable two-volume history of the most famous house in America, titled ``The President's House'' (Harry N. Abrams, $39.95).
What one gains from Seale, through his wealth of anecdotes, is a needed bit of historical perspective on life at that illustrious address. Today's happenings in and around the White House, one learns, have their antecedents.
Take, for instance, the Iran-Contra affair, which boiled up from the White House basement.
``You have these periods of intrigue,'' the genial historian explained during a recent visit to Boston. Relishing his subject, he launches into a brief recounting of a very different kind of scandal, though one certainly no less embarrassing to the chief executive involved. It was the celebrated ``Peggy O'Neale Affair,'' which rattled Andrew Jackson's administration in 1829.
Miss O'Neale (at the time, actually, Mrs. Eaton) was the wife of Old Hickory's secretary of war. A socially ambitious woman spurned because of a reputation for moral looseness, she became the focal point of a struggle between two top Jackson advisers. Both men wanted to control the aging President, and one realized that Jackson's friendship for Mrs. Eaton could be exploited. His rival's wife, you see, was among those who scorned the woman.
What followed, eventually, was a spirited presidential defense of Mrs. Eaton before an astounded Cabinet - a development that set the capital abuzz. The break with his Cabinet widened, and the feisty chief executive came to rely more and more on an informal ``kitchen cabinet'' of trusted intimates.
In Lincoln's time too, Seale continues, rumors of scandal and intrigue rippled out from the White House. Most sprang from Mrs. Lincoln's close familial ties to the South. Her loyalty to the Union was constantly suspect, according to the historian. To complicate things further, the White House staff was suspect also. In one notable case, a gardener swiped and sold one of Lincoln's sensitive memos.
The post-Civil War years under Ulysses S. Grant saw some of the worst scandals in American history. The basic reason, Seale observes, was that Grant was ``a national hero, but those around him brought trouble to him. Grant tended to trust everybody.'' That has a certain familiar ring, with all that's been said lately about the dangers of presidents who too freely delegate responsibility.
And what about tension between the White House and the press, another current fountain of commentary?
Grover Cleveland, for one, hated the press, says Seale. The robust, mustachioed Cleveland held his private life sacred and did what he could to avoid reporters. After his June, 1886, marriage to the much younger Francis Folsom, Cleveland's passion for privacy intensified, neck and neck with the reporters' passion to know more about the couple. The President tried to impose a news blackout - no notice of where he was going or when and no information about who was meeting with the President. Predictably, this backfired, and the trade in rumors prospered.
In one celebrated confrontation with newsmen, Cleveland gave in to an impulse many other presidents may have felt and squelched. He let fly the rather poetic epithet, ``O, those ghouls of the press!''
Since the occupancy of John Adams, the most public of American dwellings has had a private dimension too - the personal and family lives that have gone on alongside policymaking and diplomacy. Seale's work, published last year by the White House Historical Association in cooperation with the National Geographic Society, reminds us that White House occupants have included not only presidents, both famous and largely forgotten, but first ladies of varying charm and perspicacity, presidential children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
First ladies have always been the individuals closest to presidents, says Seale, and hence have frequently had the kind of substantial behind-the-scenes influence attributed today to Nancy Reagan.
Mary Todd Lincoln, a high-strung person with a knack for spending money, may have been among the least successful of first ladies. For her, the White House meant frustration and tragedy - constant bickering over the staff and the loss of one son and her husband.
Dolly Madison, by contrast, was one of the most successful, the ``first real live first lady,'' as Seale puts it. She had an uncanny instinct for the social side of politics and was a tremendous asset to her rather dour husband, James Madison.
Presidential secretaries - a position that evolved into the present chief of staff - were often influential figures, too. And the widely reported friction between Mrs. Reagan and Donald Regan had its counter parts in history. Mrs. Lincoln, for example, was constantly at odds with John Nicolay, Lincoln's personal secretary.
As one administration gave way to another, improvements and expansions altered White House architecture and procedures. Sarah Polk initiated the musical salute ``Hail to the Chief'' in the 1840s when she realized that her unimposing looking husband, President James K. Polk, often went unrecognized when he entered a room.
It was Polk, by the way, who instituted a voucher system as a means of narrowing the huge volume of requests and petitions finding their way to the President. Nearly a century later, Herbert Hoover - a man who ``loved meetings,'' says Seale - took another giant step toward efficiency. He became the first President to use the telephone for official business.
Mrs. Polk, whom Seale describes as a ``very mannish woman,'' also brought the first gas lighting to the White House.
Central heating of a sort, as well as running water, had arrived in the 1830s. The first water closets were installed way back in Jefferson's day. They were ``formidable things,'' says Seale, that sent water flying down from vats on the White House roof and finally out into the street. It wasn't until 1902 that each bedroom had its own bath.
Electric lighting came during Benjamin Harrison's term, in 1889. The Harrisons were unnerved by the new technology, Seale chuckles. ``It scared 'em to death - they wouldn't turn it off or on.''
The building itself went through a steady evolution, expanding as the country itself expanded. But the core structure - the magnificent stone monument approved by George Washington himself - survives to our time, enduring even the torching by British troops during the War of 1812 and the massive repairs undertaken nearly a century and a half later by President Harry Truman.