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Piercing the White House Bubble

Kenneth Walsh on how 10 modern-day presidents tried to keep in touch

For more than 25 years, Kenneth Walsh has covered the White House and its chief occupant for U.S. News & World Report, penning more than a dozen books in that time. His latest, Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership, explores the irony that the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, is powerless against the confines of his very office.
    “One can scarcely imagine an environment outside the nation’s penal system that is more isolating than the presidency, which is almost guaranteed to keep America’s commander in chief far removed from his fellow citizens,” Walsh writes. “How can the nation’s leader solve the country’s problems and help everyday people if he is distant from American life and its constant permutations?”
    Keeping in touch with the people, Walsh argues, is what makes a successful presidency — or dooms it to failure. In little more than 200 pages, he explores the successes and shortcomings of 11 presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
    “The bubble is real, intense, hard to pierce, and hard to find your way out of,” explains Jay Carney, press secretary to Barack Obama.
    Walsh explores how each administration has had its own method in trying to escape the White House bubble.
    Some, like Roosevelt and Reagan, had the gift of intuition, which helped them sense the nation’s mood and galvanize public will. Others, like Clinton, relied on polling to keep them abreast of popular opinion. Kennedy was an information junkie, while Roosevelt and Johnson used their relationship with the press to keep informed. All relied on friends, family, colleagues or fellow politicians to gain insights into the American psyche.
    Walsh divides these commanders in chief into three groups: Four Who Lost the People (Johnson, Nixon, Carter and George H.W. Bush); Two Defiant Princes (Kennedy and George W. Bush); and Five Who Stayed Connected (Roosevelt, Truman, Reagan, Clinton and Obama). These profiles and each president’s attempt to pierce the White House bubble are most revealing.
    More pedantic is the section devoted to the evolution of political polling, The Wizards of the White House. All their number-crunching and pulse-reading seems self-serving and disingenuous, leading this reviewer to wonder, if this is the modern-day replacement for actual human contact, where does that leave the Union? That is a question Walsh fails to address

Walsh speaks Friday, May 17, at Captain Avery Museum.