At Home in 'Presidential Playrooms'
First Children: Growing Up in the White House
By Katherine Leiner
Portraits by Katie Keller
157 pp., $20
''It is my pleasure that my children are free, happy, and unrestricted by parental tyranny."
President Abraham Lincoln said this. He spoiled his children. His youngest son, Tad, didn't mind at all. Particularly after Tad's brother, Willie, who was only three years older, had died unexpectedly. Tad was very lonely.
His father gave him special privileges. He even stopped insisting that Tad had to be tutored. No school!
One time, Tad interrupted an important meeting the president was having with some officers, discussing Civil War problems. Tad knocked on the door using a special code his father knew and said he wanted to go for a drive. The affairs of state were immediately dropped. Off the president and his small son went for a ride in the presidential carriage.
Tad earned himself a nickname, "The Tyrant of the White House," and he lived up to his title. He did all sorts of mischievous things.
In Katherine Leiner's new book, "First Children: Growing Up in the White House," you can read all about Tad's life (and antics) in the presidential house.
The book is illustrated with black and white photographs and unusual "portraits," in a scratchboard technique, by Katie Keller.
By describing actual events, Ms. Leiner gives us glimpses of what it must have been like for children whose lives were interrupted by coming to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington. The children she describes are usually sons or daughters, but sometimes grandchildren of presidents, and even children of White House staff members.
In her introduction, Leiner writes: "Historians tend to agree that it is very hard to grow up in the White House. The White House children are treated as if they were bigger than life." They have, she says, "a lifestyle that few other children in America will ever have."
This is undoubtedly true. These children were in the limelight. But not all have found the White House hard.
Dwight David Eisenhower II was the grandson of President Eisenhower. He did not actually live at the White House, but visited frequently. He had a playroom there. He watched "Grandfather Ike" putting on the green on the South Lawn. "Sometimes David and his sisters" writes Leiner "would ... talk one of the housekeepers into coming to supervise them while they swam in the pool. David would ... practice belly-flops and cannonballs off the edge of the pool, drenching anyone who was near. Often, his grandmother Mimi would bring David and his sisters peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or egg salad with plenty of mayonnaise to enjoy by the pool."
In other words, for David Eisenhower, the White House was special but also gave him the opportunity to do all the ordinary things most grandchildren (with rather wealthy grandparents) would like to do. No wonder that when Ike's second term of office came to an end, David - now age 12 - "wrote 'I will return! Dwight David Eisenhower' on several scraps of paper and hid the papers under rugs and behind paintings." He did return - to get married at the White House to Julie Nixon. Richard Nixon (as the photograph above shows) was Eisenhower's vice president, and became president himself in 1969, until his resignation early in his second term in 1974.
Some parents would not approve of Tad Lincoln's freedom. Once he even "turned a hose on one of his father's secretaries. Another time, in the middle of a White House tour his mother was giving, he drove his team of goats through the East Room, riding on a chair behind them." But if you look in the back of the book, you can find where Leiner tells more about the later lives of the White House children.
She tells us that "after his father was shot, Tad seemed to change overnight from an irresponsible youngster into a serious-minded youth. He studied hard and became his mother's greatest comfort."
Some of the stories Leiner has to tell are sad. Others touch on the different ways in which White House children have learned to cope with their extraordinary lives. One writes a diary. Another hides in a treehouse.
Pranks and playing games and keeping pets were all natural ways in which the kids in the White House not only brought to the place their exuberance, but also made their own lives as normal as possible.
Theodore Roosevelt's large family seems to have been particularly at home. At 4 o'clock every afternoon it was what the president called "The Children's Hour." Roosevelt would read aloud and tell stories.
But even these organized times for the Roosevelt children were not always enough to contain them. One time, two of the brothers, Quentin and Archie, put out all the electric lamps in the White House grounds just after the official lamplighter had gone on his rounds putting them on.
"They were only satisfied when the entire ... grounds stood in complete darkness. When they had just about finished the job, one of the watchmen caught them and sternly marched them home."