Monday, February 13, 2012

The life of a President

Whizzing by The Empire State Building. 11:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, February 13, 2012. Cold, sunny weekend in New York. The snow forecast showed up as flurries. About eleven of them.

On Thursday night I went over to the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College on East 68th Street between Park and Lex where Jodi Kantor, the author of the recently published biography of the President and the First Lady, “The Obamas,” was being interviewed by Kati Marton.

The evening was originally planned for a much smaller public room in Hunter College’s Roosevelt House on East 65th Street across from Restaurant Daniel but the demand for tickets was so great they moved to this auditorium. They filled the the place.

Author Jodi Kantor and interviewer Kati Marton Thursday night at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter.
I know very little about Michelle Obama. I saw her speak at the New-York Historical Society five years ago when her husband’s candidacy was just emerging. I had first heard about the then Senator Obama’s possible candidacy about a year before that, indirectly through someone in his Senate office. Before that I was totally unaware of him.

Remember, at that moment, what distinguished him as a possible candidate to most people was the color of his skin. It reminded me how Jack Kennedy’s “possible candidacy” in his early days was his Roman Catholic religion (people were actually afraid he’d turn the country over to the Pope).

In those early Obama pre-campaign days, I had been told that in considering his possible run, the two issues that had to be addressed beforehand were: 1. His cigarette habit, and 2. His wife – because she was evidently a force of high and accomplished intelligence, and regarded herself as an intellectual equal to her husband. Now this could be put down as hearsay, but is an interesting situation. Actually the way it was put to me at the time was: “she thinks she’s got what it takes to be President herself.”

Frankly, that impressed me. I didn’t comprehend why her being an intellectual equal, or thinking of herself as good enough to be President would be a “problem.” She wouldn’t be the first First Lady we’ve had – even in my lifetime – who had to run things. So when I went to see her speak at the N-YHS, I was looking for clues of that in her.

She was not a fashion plate then. She was rather dowdy, although smartly well dressed. Her look now is fresher and more youthful. She is tall and has a natural commanding presence. She was very self-assured in her public speaking, and very serious – professorial-ish.

I went up to her and introduced myself after she finished, to her to take her picture. She was distracted by all the sudden attention. I got no sense of her personality then. Everything I got was in her speech. I was impressed as you can read:
Kati Marton, Jodi Kantor, and William vanden Heuvel, founding chairman of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.
I haven’t read Jodi Kantor’s book yet. Someone will probably hit me for saying this, but there is a “type” of New York Times reporter that separates them, image-wise, from other journalists. Serious is the word that comes to mind, off the top. That is not to say that image provides any substantial evidence to back it up, but it’ll do for most readers most of the time. Jodi Kantor is earnestly serious. You know she’s a serious student and you know that what she puts down on the page is something she’s thought carefully about reporting. That’s her business.

Kati Marton wrote a book about First Ladies and That Job. She also has a lot of firsthand background experience in the worlds of journalism and Presidential politics, both professionally and through her husbands, the late Peter Jennings and the late Richard Holbrooke.

It has since been reported that Mrs. Obama and the White House starmaking machinery objected to Kantor’s biography. The Obamas did not grant the author interviews although she had access to a number of people in the White House. So, what President and First Lady ever has at this stage of the game, or any time after their term? They've got their own book deals to look after. Early biographies of national figures, like Presidents are always a shot in the dark. Subjects of biographies very often don’t like what is written about them because it is often not how they see themselves. This is true for almost all of us as people, almost all of us never have that experience of being under a universal microscope 24/7. But then, as Harry Truman is said to have said: “if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
Click to order The Obamas.
Images, verbal or photographic, of the Obamas’ White House life is mainly unavailable to the public. This is a choice, and a far cry from the days when we got pictures of the little John-John Kennedy playing hide-and-seek with his father under the desk in the Oval Office. The American people haven’t seen a lot of Presidential life like that at least since the Bush II White House. This is a choice the First Couple has a right to make. Whether or not it is a wise one will be determined at a later date. Perhaps a much later date. After all, for its first century it was referred to as the People’s House and its occupants often filled it thusly.

I was growing up in those years where the Kennedys set the tone. It was very exciting to young Americans. The American people practically moved in with them. We saw them in the house, out of the house, in the sailboat, on the beach, on the tarmac, in the stables, and frequent shots of the President in the Oval Office with his people.
Pablo Casals playing for the Kennedy dinner guests.
These were powerful images, and in many ways they were palliative; they made people feel better about their own lives. Even if for a moment. People used them to form images of their own lives. Jackie invited Pablo Casals to play for the dinner guests. John Travolta danced with Princess Diana in the Reagan White House.

According to Kantor, the Obamas have a very quiet home life and social life which is centered around their family and two couples who are old friends of theirs from Chicago, and Valerie Jarrett. Ms. Jarrett is, if you did not know, an old friend of both the President and the First Lady. She is also an important Presidential advisor, and even looks after social details for them. There is no question to anyone dealing with Ms. Jarrett that she has tremendous access and therefore, presumably, influence on both the President and the First Lady. If anyone were to ask me who is the most interesting person in the White House, I’d guess Valerie Jarrett. There’s the biography waiting for us. For all we know about the Obamas, it may be they think so too.
John Travolta dancing with Princess Diana in the Reagan White House.
The problem for Jodi Kantor, who has been covering the White House during this Administration, is that everything nowadays is image management concocted out of some kind of imagined self-defense. George W. Bush and Laura Bush were much the same: they stayed away from the press and the rest of the media, often spending a lot of time in Crawford where they couldn’t even photograph him. They were criticized for it too, but after a while, it became a big Who Cares?

After the Kantor-Marton discussion, there were some questions. Some of the questioners used the time to express why they thought Mr. Obama was being treated unfairly by his critics. Most people in positions of power tend to feel they are unfairly treated when they are criticized.

Friday night I was a guest of Gale Hayman and Dr. Richard Bockman (Mr./Mrs.) at Swifty’s along with authors Edmund Morris and his wife Sylvia Jukes Morris.

The Morrises are old friends of my hosts. I hadn’t met them before. Mr Morris is the distinguished biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and latterly Ronald Reagan (“Dutch”). Mrs. Morris is also a distinguished biographer --  “Rage to Fame; The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce.”

Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce and her husband Henry Luce ariving at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York in 1954.
With all that “distinguished” around us you might have thought things could get a little dry around the table. Except a lot of writers, and possibly particularly biographers, love to talk, and to talk about people they’ve met, read about, written about, heard about.

Mrs. Morris told me she had originally intended her Luce biography to be one volume. However, as she was nearing completion of her research she discovered a treasure trove of information about her subject’s early life (“she never threw anything away….”) and now she is working on volume II.

Clare Boothe Luce was a very celebrated name in mid-20th century America --  as an editor, reporter, social figure, playwright and the second wife of Henry Luce co-founder of the great Time-Life publishing empire. Time-Life was rich and prestigious and its magazines had the highest circulations in the business, a half century ago. After it was acquired by Steve Ross with his WarnerBros7Arts complex, it lost a lot of that, if not the circulation also. Neither Time nor Life is an important opinion-making magazine today. We can pretty much blame that on firstly television, and mostly the internet.

The Luces too were rich and prestigious, and glamorous. A second marriage for both (Mrs. Luce had been married to George Brokaw), Mrs. Morris told me that after a couple of years of marriage to Luce, Mister couldn’t “perform” with Missus. Why? “Because he held her on such a pedestal ...” An odd response, but anyway .... As good an excuse as any, the two of them went their separate ways fairly frequently, and remained man and wife to the end. We no longer have publishing moguls of Luce’s stature and creative cognizance. They may exist but if so, they are laminated images in their corporate encasements.

Mrs. Luce was also a force of nature. As a young girl she wanted to be an actress. Her early marriage to Brokaw landed her in society. She not only adapted the image for herself but mined its ups and downs and wrote “The Women” for Broadway, with an all-female cast. Its stars were Ilka Chase, Arlene Francis and Margalo Gilmore, and Majorie Main -- all well-known American actresses at the time.

“The Women” opened the day after Christmas in 1936 on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, and ran for two years. In 1939 it was made into an MGM film directed by George Cukor and starring Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and Mary Boland. It was re-made first as a musical film “The Opposite Sex” in 1958 and then again as a “contemporary” version with Jada Pinkett Smith, Meg Ryan and Annette Bening in 2008.

In the mid-1940s, Clare Boothe Luce ran for Congress as a Republican in Connecticut and won, serving one term. In the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower appointed her US Ambassador to Italy, a post she held for three years. After her political career, she continued writing including two more plays and magazine articles. If she were alive today, she would have put more than a little zest and zing into the discussion about the lives of Presidents and their First Ladies and the American people, and what in Luce’s time was called The American Way.
The Treillage way ...

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