Chronicler of Presidents
To keep up with presidents, you have to share their drive and stamina. Understand that, and you are getting to know Ken Walsh, one of the shrinking corps of reporters whose job is telling the rest of us about the plans, plots and policies of the occupants of the White House.
Walsh has so much drive and stamina that, after a full day writing about presidents for US News & World Report, he comes home to what he calls “my second full-time job,” writing books about presidents.
When neighbors see lights on at the Walsh home “far into the night,” they know Ken’s writing another book. He’s finished five over 15 years, starting with Feeding the Beast: The White House versus the Press, in 1996.
Ken and wife Barclay — a researcher both for Ken’s books and The New York Times — were weekending at their own Chesapeake Country retreat in Shady Side by the time of the arrival of Walsh’s fourth book, From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of Presidents and Their Retreats.
Now Walsh’s fifth book has him on the speaking circuit from the Ford Library and Museum in Michigan to the Shady Side Rural Heritage Society in Chesapeake Country.
The February 1 publication date of Family of Freedom was deliberate, to coincide with Black History Month. The book traces the connecting fates of presidents and African Americans as co-inhabitants of the White House from George Washington — who governed from Philadelphia before the White House was built — to Barack Obama.
‘I write to make leaders understandable and approachable,’ says presidential author Ken Walsh. ‘We want to know presidents share our values and understand our problems.’
The span is a long one, in culture as well as chronology. For the first African Americans connected to the White House were slaves, laboring in Virginia to quarry the marble as well as in the District of Columbia to build the home where an African American now lives as master of the house and president of the nation.
Like Walsh’s other four books, this one seemed so obvious — from his vantage — that he wondered no one else was doing it.
“The thought occurred to me, on election night,” Walsh says. As the votes accumulated to make Barack Obama the first African American president, he wondered “what other African Americans had been in the White House and how presidents dealt with them.”
Soon Walsh realized he was looking not only at who, what, where, when and how but also at why. The theme evolved he says, “as a vehicle for looking at presidents in their moral values and capacity for change.”
A Busman’s Holiday
Walsh is a lot like the dedicated bus driver whose 24-seven-365 love for his job gave English the curious phrase busman’s holiday. The first of five sons of a working-class Irish family, Walsh lived his first decade in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. After the family moved to the Jersey Shore, teachers recognized and nurtured his skill with language.
Kenneth T. Walsh had his first byline at 16, on a three-paragraph article in the Saint Rose school paper about a rare snow holiday that forced the monsignor who ran the school to, Walsh remembers, “give us the day off.” All the while his mother lived in the family home, she kept that article posted in plain view.
By high school, Walsh was filing stories for his local paper, the Asbury Park Press. He earned a journalism degree from Rutgers and a master’s in communication at American University and worked at the Denver Post before coming to US News in 1986, as political correspondent, White House correspondent and now White House columnist.
For Walsh, the routine of traveling with the president grew exhausting. And White House press conferences, he observes, are now made for television. Instead of being part of the pack, these days he cultivates “private access.”
From “concentric circles of sources” Walsh watches the play of the big-stakes game of “taking power, using power and losing power.”
He’s got an insider’s view, but — true to his working class roots — he’s not interested in writing for insiders. His audience is “everyday Americans.”
His goal both in his books and magazine work, Walsh says, is “writing as insightfully as I can to make leaders understandable and approachable. The personal is just as important as the political because so-called character issues have become so important. We want to know presidents share our values and understand our problems.”
Like the busman, Walsh likes his job so much he can’t get enough.
“I enjoy every part of journalism,” he says. “I like reporting, writing and dealing with sources, jousting with officials.”
By day and night, he’s as happy as a busman vacationing by bus.
“Writing a book becomes like wanting to raise a child in the perfect way,” Walsh says. “You’re in control, and you want it to be as good as can be. It takes on a life of its own.”
Family of Freedom
Family of Freedom is Walsh’s most ambitious book to date. His first two — Feeding the Beast and Ronald Reagan: Biography — “stemmed directly from my experiences,” he says. “But the others took enormous amounts of research, scholarship, interviews with people outside my beat.”
Family of Freedom has endnotes like you laboriously compiled for college research papers. Its bibliography of newspaper, magazine and scholarly articles and books extends to 11 pages. Walsh conducted over 100 interviews including an in-person interview with President Obama and email interviews with both presidents Bush.
Most ambitious of all is its serious theme.
‘I was struck by how there seemed to be nothing racial about Obama’s approach to the presidency,’ Walsh writes.
This time around, Walsh didn’t just want to tell stories, though there are plenty of those. You learn how George Washington — who could not tell a lie — connived to keep his slaves in bondage. You learn how our beloved Bill Burton — Baltimore Evening Sun outdoors editor for 35 years and Bay Weekly columnist for the next 15 years until his death in 2009 — chanced in on President George H.W. Bush in his bed. With Barbara, no less.
This time his story reached beyond places, the subject of his book about presidential retreats. And beyond things, the subject of Air Force One, his History of Presidents and Their Planes.
This time his story reaches into the hearts of people at the heights of power and into the abyss of powerlessness.
Every president is judged for how he became a better man or a worse one under the demands of the job — and particularly in dealing with the question of racial justice.
Who’s at the top of the list?
“Lincoln,” says Walsh. “He was forced by circumstances to deal with enormous crises and adjust constantly not just in his presidency but in his life, in his relations with African Americans, in his conduct of the Civil War and how to treat southern states as it became clear the Union would win — and in his understanding of what the country would and should accept in emancipation.”
Lyndon Johnson, “The other breakthrough on racial issues,” Walsh says.
“He came from Texas, a state where he had to deal with segregation in getting elected and reelected as a senator. Yet he partnered with Martin Luther King and others who took the public role of aggressively demonstrating, while he worked through Congress. It took him breaking with his state, but he became a real champion, demonstrating the capacity to change and lead at considerable political risk.”
Walsh gives two chapters to our first African American president, analyzing in large part how his race affects his governing style and judgment.
“I was struck by how there seemed to be nothing at all racial about Obama’s approach to the presidency,” Walsh writes describing an Oval Office interview on problem solving.
“He was describing generic attributes of leadership that transcended race and focused instead on inspiring and mobilizing others and finding the right answers to complex problems under adverse conditions. Few people have those traits … and Obama appeared … to put himself in that special transcendent category.”
The Next Chapter
Within his serious theme, Walsh says he tried “to be a storyteller, tried to make larger points by using characters who are interesting and compelling.”
He succeeds. Book No. Five is a fine read, full of action and drama, detail and human voices. In it, you’ll find characters and learn about character.
While you’re finding all this out in the 224 pages of Family of Freedom, Walsh is dreaming up No. Six.