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.

Not Pretty Enough

The Book of the Week is “Not Pretty Enough, The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown” by Gerri Hirshey, published in 2016.

Born in Arkansas in February 1922, Helen Gurley was ten years old when her father, a government worker and lawyer, passed away unexpectedly in a bizarre elevator accident. Perhaps as a result, she became quite close with her mother and sister throughout their lives, communicating via letters and phone calls when she was no longer living with them.

As was typical for women of her generation, Gurley was conditioned to become a secretary. However, she was sexually sophisticated. The  1960’s office culture could be described thusly: Married male executives exuded sociopathic tendencies and arrogance (not unlike those of today), and harbored the belief that it is morally wrong to allow suckers to keep their money. In that era, engaging in sexual conquests with female subordinates was a way for males to prove their manhood. It is still is, but times are a-changin’. Gurley encouraged her female contemporaries to enjoy themselves.

Gurley played the game with the men to the hilt. She claimed she enjoyed sex and wrote about it extensively in articles and books. In 1959, she married David Brown, a high-level writer and editor.

Thereafter, like the men, she had affairs. She saw nothing wrong with marital infidelity. Besides, she claimed she had a great marriage. The problem is, infidelity smacks of dissatisfaction with marital sex– a spouse is dishonestly seeking satisfaction elsewhere; moreover, it is unclear if the wayward spouse is untrustworthy in other matters. Unless both spouses consent to an “open” marriage– either side can have other sexual partners– marriage is supposed to represent total lifelong commitment.

Anyway, Gurley’s passion and work ethic led her to achieve the positions of advertising copywriter in the 1950’s, and editor in chief of the then-financially struggling Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1960’s. At that time, the Hearst publication’s target readers were single women, between twenty and thirty-four years old.

Notwithstanding the kind of fabulous career that few women achieved in those days, two points must be made: 1) Gurley advanced her career through illicit sex and marrying a powerful man in her field of work; and 2) she was still a slave to the societal pressures of her generation– she had excessive cosmetic surgery and an eating disorder in order to satisfy public expectations of female beauty.

Read the book to learn of the additional factors affecting Gurley’s successes, and of how she influenced a whole generation of women.

Madame President

The Book of the Week is “Madame President, The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf” by Helene Cooper, published in 2017.

In post-Civil War America, (White) slave owners who had secretly fathered offspring were afraid of further racial strife, so they sent manumitted slaves to Liberia. By the late 1860’s, there were 28 different ethnic groups living there.

Ellen Johnson was born in October 1938 in the country’s capital, Monrovia– ironically, a place that discriminates against dark-skinned people. Her mother was unusually lucky. Her mother’s poverty-stricken parents handed her off to foster care, where her fair skin was received favorably throughout her childhood. Johnson got her mother’s color. Her family predicted she would have a lucky life– a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even so, Johnson had to endure the difficulties females faced in her culture. These included: an arranged marriage (that allowed polygamy for the husband), the expectation that she would bear children; physical abuse, and sex imposed by males against the wills of females of all ages.

Fortunately, Johnson bore four sons and her husband was an attorney. He and she had valuable social connections that allowed them the chance to study in the United States. Childcare was handled by extended relatives.

When Johnson-Sirleaf was thirty years old, she had had enough of the barbaric practices heaped upon Liberian people of her gender. She obtained a divorce. Right up until the courtroom hearing finalizing the split, she was phobic that her ex would retaliate yet again with even worse domestic violence than before. Divorcing was a radical step for a Liberian female. But she was exceptional; in her life, every special advantage she got led to another. Yet, most of her later achievements were done on her own merits– not as a result of marriage to a powerful man.

The Liberian government had one political party, the True Whig Party, whose members used the government as their personal piggy bank. By the early 1970’s, there was a very wide income/asset gap between the government officials and military thugs, and the unfortunate Liberian citizens; there was no middle class. The nation had been drained of its major resources, rubber and iron, which had been exported to foreign countries by profiteers.

Johnson was academically skilled and played well with others politically. She got a job with the Liberian Debt Service Department at Treasury, and then the Ministry of Finance while radical changes were afoot. She studied accounting, and later, public administration at Harvard. However, her public speech could be inflammatory, because she told the truth. She called the system a “kleptocracy– corrupt to the core.” At a later time, she warned that a peasant revolt was in the offing.

In 1971, the new nepotistic “president” of the country was switching benefactors, from the United States to the U.S.S.R. Allegedly, he was going to help the downtrodden and eliminate corruption. Yet he practiced cronyism on a royal scale and angered the civilian Liberian people in numerous other ways.

Read the book to learn how the tide turned eventually through the ugly events that transpired; how, more than once, Johnson was very nearly killed but instead encountered a checkered fate; and how the United States played a major part in her and Liberia’s survival, despite having blood on its hands.

My Life So Far

The Book of the Week is “My Life So Far” by Jane Fonda, published in 2005. This insightful autobiography describes an actress, activist and exercise instructor whose childhood family life was psychologically challenged. Throughout her life, she has been continually working through various emotional, moral and gender issues.

Born in the Santa Monica Mountains in December 1937, Fonda was lavishly raised alternately by a nanny and her parents, who were absent on and off. Her father was a famous actor on Broadway and in movies; her mother, until she suicided, was in and out of mental hospitals. Fonda was close with her younger brother, Peter. She became a bulimic and developed an “appeaser” personality.

Although Fonda had a leg up in her career due to her famous father, she chose to engage in activities that she felt were societally beneficial. The media and the U.S. government, however, treated her like a criminal. She was put under surveillance by the FBI, CIA, State Department, IRS and Treasury Department, which created dossiers of thousands upon thousands of pages just about her. In 1979, she settled a lawsuit against them in which the government admitted its guilt.

In 1972, Fonda visited Hanoi to gather information and inform the American people about Nixon’s evil Vietnam-War schemes, a few of which were already in progress. Later that same year at the Academy Awards ceremony when she won a Best Actress Oscar for “Klute,” she maturely did NOT make a political statement, having been told it was the inappropriate place for doing so.

Fonda believed that presidents made war due to their feeling pressure from society to prove their masculinity. She herself was a product of this same environment, judging from her taste in men. Her third husband– media billionaire Ted Turner– “…was unable to experience intimacy because there just wasn’t room in his brain for words other than his own.” He was an emotionally needy narcissist.

Read the book to learn how Jane overcame her eating disorder, achieved success in acting, exercise-business enterprises and political activism, and how she improved her relationships with family and friends.

The Broader Way

The Book of the Week is “The Broader Way” by Sumie Seo Mishima, published in 1953. This is a depressing personal account of the Japanese author’s experiences during and after WWII.

The author studied in the United States at a university in the mid-1920’s. She returned to Japan before the war, married a divorced professor who already had four children. A feminist of sorts, she worked near Tokyo as a teacher and tutor, and could afford to hire a maid. Still, a major strike against her included her gender, especially in the workplace. Women had traditionally held the roles of wife, mother and household maintainer in Japan’s economically feudal system– of inheritance and property ownership by males only.

Toward late 1940, in preparing its people for war, the Japanese government politically divided the country into neighborhood associations on a very local level. This imposed egalitarianism on everyone, as all walks of life were lumped together. During the war, civilians were forced to cooperate in distributing rationed food, as, of course, there were severe shortages, reducing some to subsist on only a cornmeal-like substance for the war’s duration. Black markets sprung up everywhere. Teens were sent to work for the war effort– munitions factories and airfield construction sites for the boys, and quarries and opticals for the girls.

American warplanes flew over Tokyo starting in late 1944, and the destruction of the city reached its peak in March 1945. The homes of many people, including eventually, the author, were hit by bombs. The Japanese people had been miserably deceived by the military leaders. They had been told that the imperial armed forces were superior to the enemy. After the war, the Occupation authorities (i.e., the United States, in Japan’s case– for five years) allowed free discussion of different political views, even Communism. A new National Constitution was drafted, that supposedly was to afford equal rights for men and women. This was a radical change from Japan’s previous political system, whereby males had all the power.

Postwar Japan suffered not only starvation, but skyrocketing inflation. Luxuries included beef, chicken, eggs and apples. The Occupation forces supplied canned ham, bacon, sausage and butter in summer 1946. DDT was sprayed liberally on all buildings and gardens, in an attempt to head off pestilence and epidemics. The year 1947 saw entrepreneurial Japanese civilians become street vendors, which quickly fell victim to organized crime. Many women were forced into prostitution to survive, and they protected their territory through cooperating.

In the summer of 1946, the author worked as a translator at the International Military Tribunal, commuting by tramcar, which was stuffed to the gills all the time. After every ride, her clothes were “… ripped and stained with grimy handmarks… The Japanese people had lost all class distinctions and sunk into practically uniform poverty and sordidness.” Young boys sold newspapers and peanuts on the street and bartering for school supplies was not uncommon, for the lucky few who could afford a basic education. Young girls worked as seamstresses. The author’s family was comparatively wealthy, residing in a house, but even they became a multi-generational household when the kids married.

The concept of Communism was in the air, as its propagandists pointed to the Russians as an example of where the political system was working. Impressionable youths traumatized by the war and deprivation were easily persuaded of its benefits.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on the political, cultural and social changes wrought by WWII in Japan.

The Queen of Katwe

The Book of the Week is “The Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers, published in 2015. This story focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess player in Katwe– a poor area outside of Kampala, Uganda.

Prior to her playing chess, Mutesi was destined for an empty life in which she was likely to die young from a fire, flood, disease, violence or famine, or bear many children starting in her teens, due to dependency on unreliable, polygamous men as providers of the basic necessities of survival. Education in Katwe was sporadic, as children attended only when they could afford the tuition. Not only priced out of schooling, but living a hand-to-mouth existence, Phiona (and her siblings) were compelled to “…walk around the slum, selling maize from a saucepan on her head.” She had to scrounge around for even one meal a day. Additionally, it was a three-hour round trip on foot between her home and the public well. Her family was evicted from numerous hovels due to nonpayment of rent.

Mutesi’s older brother happened to frequent a kids’ soccer program whose director started to also provide a bowl of porridge, and chess instruction. The soccer was introduced by a non-profit initiative called Sports Outreach Institute, started by Russ Carr. His goal was to teach kids “how to fish” and convert them to Christianity.

Around 2009, when she was approximately nine years old, Mutesi tagged along after her brother, walking the five kilometers to the eyesore of a venue, and became obsessed with chess. The food was a major draw for hungry kids. Their mothers, although grateful, were apprehensive that their kids might be kidnapped by the recreation coach who was a white man, according to local gossip.

Read the book to learn the details of Mutesi’s rise in Africa’s competitive chess culture, and the reasons for her uncertain future.

Michelle Obama

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.