Front Row At the White House

The Book of the Week is “Front Row At the White House, My Life and Times” by Helen Thomas, published in 1999. The cover of this volume hints at a career memoir, but the contents are mostly about other people and topics– namely, U.S. president-related information meant to entertain as much as inform, targeted at female readers.

Born in 1920, Thomas grew up in Detroit in a family of nine children. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English, she hired on at United Press, a news wire service, assisting with radio broadcasts. When men went off to fight WWII, opportunities became available for women in journalism.

However, in the 1950’s, female journalists were forced to form their own press club; for, until 1971, they were banned from the National Press Club. Thomas was president of the women’s group for the 1959-1960 term. In 1975, she was the first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club. It is known mostly for having an annual dinner that roasts elective officeholders.

At the very end of 1960, the author was assigned to cover the White House. She did this for 38 years. It appears that she gathered “soft” news until around the Reagan Era, when her male bosses allowed her to do what the men had been doing. Nevertheless, she built a reputation for herself as a hard-hitting reporter (figuratively).

Initially, Thomas interviewed store owners that sold goods and services to Jackie Kennedy, and wrote about Jackie’s children. Acquiring such information was more difficult than it looked, as Jackie actively hid herself and her children from the media. The tabloid gossip during Lyndon Johnson’s administration included Thomas’ scoop on his daughter’s engagement.

Thomas wasn’t allowed to cover serious political issues until the 1980’s. Yet, ironically, here in the double-digit 2000’s, “journalism” has come full circle. The media is allowed to cover whatever they want. Yet, increasingly, in recent decades, they have continued to insult viewers’, readers’ and listeners’ intelligence. There used to be people called journalists who reported facts. And they checked them.

Now there are people on TV reading Teleprompters, on the radio reading scripts, and providing screen-based text stating their opinions on: the first lady’s clothing, the president’s diet, and all manner of comments from narcissistic attention whores on Twitter. Other outlets are commenting on the fact that their competitors are covering this stupid trivia. Ad nauseam.

Anyway, the author rambled on about press secretaries of Kennedy onward. She described the renovations done to the White House and Air Force One, and the food served in them. She also provided a detailed account of a Washington, D.C. busybody who got involved with the Watergate scandal.

Martha Mitchell (the wife of President Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and Justice Department head, John Mitchell) complained that Nixon wanted her husband to take the rap for the coverup. She also knew Nixon was evil and said– this was about a year and a half before it actually happened– the president should resign.  In August 1974, finally vindicated, she went on the talk-show circuit.

Thomas delved into the personal lives of the first ladies, and how they stood by their men. She showed how President Ronald Reagan’s best friends were plausible denial and willful ignorance.

Read the book to learn much more about trivial White House goings-on from JFK to Bill Clinton, but also– a summary of hard political and historical facts on each president’s administration. Perhaps the latter should have become a separate book– as it could be a valuable resource for a unit on American presidents for a high school social studies class.

The Nudist on the Late Shift – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Nudist on the Late Shift, and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley” by Po Bronson, published in 1999.  The author provided NO specific source notes and NO index, but he was a journalist who interviewed numerous, various individuals directly.

Anyway, the interviewees aspired to get rich quick in Silicon Valley in the 1990’s. Most were technology gurus; the others, sellers of high-tech products. Some became multi-millionaires; others, who also possessed irrepressible optimism, moved on to the next project.

Bronson described the trials and tribulations suffered by parties involved in an IPO– the subject tech company’s directors and officers, the SEC, the local business printer, bankers in various major U. S. cities, etc.– on the precarious first day of trading on a Friday in the summer of 1998.

The author spoke extensively with the supremely confident co-creator of the software that became Hotmail, the world’s first Web-based email service– which was free and global, later sold to Microsoft in late 1997 for about $400 million. At the book’s writing, the service had more than 26 million users.

One of countless interesting aspects of the World Wide Web is that its advent weeded out the sloppy computer-code developers. The reason is that the code is required to be on a global rather than a local-area network– with the potential for millions of users with diverse hardware, software and settings– and thus the potential for crashing much more easily.

Read the book to learn about the then-options available to entrepreneurs seeking funding for their projects.

Sons of Wichita

The Book of the Week is “Sons of Wichita, How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty” by Daniel Schulman, published in 2014.

Born in Texas in 1900, Fred Koch was of Dutch ancestry. He pronounced his name “coke” instead of the way the late former mayor of New York City (Ed “cotch”) did. He and his wife Mary bore four sons– Fred Jr., Charles, and David and Bill (fraternal twins), starting in 1933.

Fred was a chemical engineer who moved to Wichita, Kansas and became wealthy in the oil-refining industry. In the early 1930’s, he did business with the U.S.S.R. At the dawn of the 1940’s, he switched to ranching due to legal action over patents that Universal Oil launched against Fred’s company, Winkler-Koch, and also Root Refining. His oil company broke up in 1944.

In 1958, Koch joined the new John Birch Society, a rabidly anti-Communist group who saw Communists everywhere it looked, including those in unions, in charge of government financial programs, and in the United Nations. And the Boy Scouts. It aggressively spread hysteria about these people who were a threat to the American way. Fred had seen the political system in the Soviet Union when he was there, and realized it oppressed people.

Fred, Jr. took after his mother and upon reaching adulthood, moved to New York City and ran with the theater crowd. Charles, his father’s favorite, was groomed to take over the family business, which became Koch Industries. He did so in late 1967, when Fred passed away. The business made acquisitions in the oil industry and its sole goal was growth.

Charles had previously acquired extensive education in chemical and nuclear engineering. In the early 1970’s, he became interested in acquiring knowledge on the political ideology of libertarianism. He became a convert to it in its most extreme form. It espouses the belief that a purely capitalist society is the best economic system. This means total deregulation, no entitlements such as government-administered retirement or medical plans, no unions, no socialism of any kind, no income tax, and a government whose role is only to protect citizens and property from each other and outsiders, and from fraud.

In 1980, David Koch ran for American president on the Libertarian ticket. He knew he couldn’t possibly win but the goal was to plant seeds for future acceptance of his political ideology.

In early 1997, Charles co-founded the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. He and his brother David poured money into front groups that aggressively lobbied to reduce the size of government and expand the public’s freedoms. In 2008, the brothers opposed the taxpayer bailouts of companies bankrupted by the subprime mortgage crisis, and opposed deficit spending. They also denied allying with the Tea Party politicians but were secretly supporting them. About a year later, Charles and his henchmen launched fierce opposition to President Barack Obama’s national health care plan.

During his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama viewed the Koch brothers as a bigger threat than his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Obama copied the Kochs’ above actions (forming propagandizing front groups) to counteract the libertarians. Successfully.

As a result of their political mentality, Charles and David could have cared less about the environmental destruction and wrongful deaths their company caused due to poorly maintained oil and gas pipelines. Perhaps to salve his conscience, David made huge donations to cultural institutions, especially in New York City. The liberals (hypocritically) gratefully accepted the money, notwithstanding David’s political activities that led to rack and ruin. He also heavily funded medical research on prostate cancer, presumably to enhance the chances of his own physical survival.

Read the book to learn of the lawsuits that started in 1982 that Bill launched against Charles on various causes of action; the details of the Koch Industries’ legal troubles; the brothers’ sibling rivalry; the corporate culture of market-based management that Charles instituted in the family business; and what the siblings did for fun and profit; etc., etc., etc.