Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership. By Kenneth T. Walsh. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2013. 244 pp.
Harry Truman felt "detached and cut off' in the White House (p. 100). Bill Clinton referred to it as "the crown jewel of the federal prison system" (p. 1). In his seminal 1970 work, The Twilight of the Presidency, former Lyndon Johnson press secretary George Reedy argued that "the most important, and least examined, problem of the presidency is that of maintaining contact with reality" (The Twilight of the Presidency [New York: New American Library, 1970], p. 17).
Since Reedy wrote, elements of this problem have attracted a goodly number of political scientists, journalists, and professional pollsters. Veteran White House reporter Kenneth Walsh is among the latest and best credentialed to offer a contribution. Reedy's challenge and Walsh's response suggest a conundrum at the heart of presidential leadership: presidents must understand their constituencies in order to represent them, yet they must know when, and how far, to move beyond the public in exercising leadership.
Unlike Reedy, who viewed White House staff sycophancy as the main culprit, Walsh focuses on information gathering as the key. He reviews most of the modem presidents, reporting on their use of a range of devices, from mail correspondence to the travels of first ladies to insights from their personal backgrounds, to find out what people are thinking, experiencing, and wanting from their leaders. Primarily, though, he is interested in polling, which first entered the White House in a serious way in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and which was an institutionalized feature of modern White Houses by the time of Richard Nixon.
Assessing their ability to keep in touch, Walsh sorts presidents into three groups. Those who succeeded in staying connected were FDR, Truman, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, and Barack Obama. By contrast, those who "lost the people" were Johnson, Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush are characterized as "defiant princes," scions of privilege who resisted the imperative to connect with the people (though JFK may have been evolving). Oddly, neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Gerald Ford is considered at all. None of these judgments will surprise scholars familiar with those presidencies.
The chapters vary in length (from six pages on George W. Bush...