Books That Explode Presidential Myths
By Ronald Kessler
Wall Street Journal January 9, 2010
No executive privilege here: These books memorably explode presidential myths, says Ronald Kessler
1. The Twilight of the Presidency
By George E. Reedy
Disillusioned by President Lyndon Johnson's arrogance, George E. Reedy, LBJ's former press secretary, brilliantly analyzes in "The Twilight of the Presidency" how presidents become consumed by the office. "The atmosphere of the White House is a heady one," Reedy warns. "By the 20th century, the presidency had taken on all the regalia of monarchy except robes, a scepter, and a crown." Obsequious aides and members of Congress are afraid to challenge the president directly. When the aides leave the White House and get their nerve back, Reedy says, they often denounce the president. The commander in chief soon comes to mistrust all around him. "No nation of free men should ever permit itself to be governed from a hallowed shrine where the meanest lust for power can be sanctified and the dullest wit greeted with reverential awe."
2. JFK: Reckless Youth
By Nigel Hamilton
Random House, 1992
In "Reckless Youth," Nigel Hamilton peels back myths about President John F. Kennedy, revealing his insatiable sexual appetite, his affair with pro-Nazi beauty Inga Arvad, and the importance of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, in financing and orchestrating his campaigns. "We're going to sell Jack like snow flakes," the former ambassador said before his son first ran for Congress. Later Joe lamented that "with the money I spent"—$250,000 according to Hamilton—"I could have elected my chauffeur."
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 1992
Just as they did with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the sages of the news media made great sport of portraying Harry Truman as a dunce. Reagan and Bush have their own defenders; David McCullough sticks up for Truman. This biography of the 33rd president concludes that Truman was an exceptionally wise leader, one who "stands forth now—especially now in the aftermath of the Cold War—as a figure of utmost importance." Truman's greatness as president is defined by his unshakable focus on national security, but his character—as delineated by McCullough—is most impressive. "Ambitious by nature," McCullough writes, "he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear." If today's presidential candidates were judged against that yardstick, we would all be blessed.
4. The Warren Commission Report
Only about one in 10 Americans believes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy. That is largely due to conspiracy theorists, like movie director Oliver Stone, who have so confused the issue that most Americans say we will never know the truth about the terrible events in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. The widespread doubts amount to another sort of "presidential myth," and it is a tragic one. Over the years, experts have attempted to allay suspicions about JFK's assassination, but there is still no better answer to skeptics than the 888-page report of the Warren Commission. Based on the FBI's meticulous investigation, the report presents compelling evidence that Oswald did indeed act alone. Like the 9/11 Commission, the Warren Commission presented a richly detailed account as spellbinding as the best mystery novels. As the investigation found, Kennedy might have been spared if he had simply heeded warnings about possible violence in Dallas. The president told the Secret Service that he did not want agents standing on the small running boards at the rear of his limousine. If agents had been on the rear running boards, they almost certainly would have jumped on Kennedy after the first shot—which was not fatal—and probably would have saved his life.
5. All the President's Men
By Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Simon & Schuster, 1974
As with any cataclysmic event, revisionists and conspiracy theorists have played down and even denied President Richard Nixon's complicity in the Watergate cover-up, as well as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's role in helping to reveal what went on. This is an emerging myth that needs rebutting. Woodward and Bernstein's "All the President's Men" does an excellent job of it. I sat next to Bernstein at the Washington Post during Watergate. Almost every evening I heard his arguments with Woodward while they compared sources and hashed out their stories for each day's paper. I witnessed the best in investigative journalism. Their book tells a gripping, honest story of two reporters who helped unravel an epic abuse of power. In doing so, the book provides a cautionary tale about how easily an administration can conceal abuses from the press and the public.
Mr. Kessler is the author of In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.