Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS by Michael Medved (Times Books, 1979)

Long before his talk show, RIGHT TURNS, Sneak Previews, or the hatching of the first Golden Turkey Award, Michael Medved was a successful author of/contributor to such non-fiction works as WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE CLASS OF '65 and THE PEOPLE'S ALMANAC. THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS is, in many senses, his most ambitious work prior to his recent spate of BIG LIES... books, and one that I wish he would consider updating at some point in the future. Spinning out of Medved's experiences working on the political campaigns of such notables as Robert F. Kennedy, THE SHADOW PRESIDENTS tells the story of the top aides of Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Jimmy Carter: how they came to be so indispensable to their bosses, the kinds of influences that they wielded, and their lives after their days in the White House. Released just a few years after Watergate, the tome undoubtedly tapped into a new level of public fascination with the "powers behind the Presidential throne," but Medved is less interested in "juicy details" than he is in the nuts-and-bolts stories of how the aides did (or, in some cases, failed to do) their work. The result is a fascinating book, with a great deal of information being provided in a little space, though I'm sure that many of the findings have been superseded by the revelation of new information.

In compiling his book, Medved was fortunate enough to be able to personally interview such figures as Sherman Adams, Clark Clifford, Bill Moyers, Ted Sorensen, Dick Cheney... and the just-recently-unjailed H.R. Haldeman, who, if not exactly rehabilitated here, is at least treated in a fair manner. Medved's developing conservatism is on display in his rather rough handling of Colonel Edward M. House (Woodrow Wilson's foreign-policy guru) and Harry Hopkins (the man who "came to dinner" with FDR and stayed for several years) and his "storm warnings" regarding the problems that President Carter was then having with his White House staff. The most interesting parts of the book are Medved's treatments of the much-less-well-known 19th- and early-20th-century aides, starting with Lincoln's secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay. The quality of these ronin run the gamut and then some, from utter venality (Ulysses S. Grant's showy pal Orville Babcock) to remarkable competence (George B. Cortelyou, who served McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt so efficiently that he earned a Cabinet post and was even considered to be a potential Presidential candidate at one time). Dated it may be, but this survey still repays reading today... except for those Cheney-loathers who may be aware of the fact that Medved was one of the first people to predict that Cheney (who straightened up Gerald Ford's slack White House operation) was destined to ascend to high office before long.

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