“The White House as a Black Box”

The White House as a Black Box: Oral History and the Problem of Evidence in Presidential Sources by Russell Riley explores the varying degree of sources available from the White House in presidential studies. Riley’s main argument is that there is very little direct evidence available to the American public from the white house. Scholars of the field must rely on indirect evidence of outputs. These outputs include, official outputs, the press, internal paperwork, and memoirs. Official outputs include speech and press conferences that reveal very little about actual interactions within the white house. The press is the ultimate shaper of perception because it represents the face of the white house. The press has many implications along with it like low accuracy and no accountability. Next Riley discusses the issues and uses of internal documents/paperwork. For this, they are harder information for the public to see do to the strict accessibility of the E013233 from the Bush administration that required new procedures for president records to gain clearance. This resulted in a large restriction of the press. Following a discussion on the use of memoirs, Riley ends this essay on discussing the important uses of oral histories in this particular field. Since there is such little evidence from inside white house sources, the dependency and reliability of oral histories in conjunction with the available scholarship. However, like any other source there are issues of inaccuracy and biased motives. Regardless, oral histories help to substitute when there is a lack of information available in presidential studies.

Russell L. Riley, “The White House as a Black Box”

Riley begins this article by noting that “the intricacies of White House behavior have always been kept largely out of public view” (188).  He notes that “in this environment, oral history interviews are an especially valuable resource.1 Indeed, presidential oral history is a useful antidote for each of the two major problems now confronting students of the White House: it can serve to fill in substantive gaps in an increasingly sporadic executive paper trail, and it provides to a broad community of scholars new data they can use to refine their thinking about Washington politics while awaiting the opening of the written record”  (188).  Riley then discusses how scholars gain information from speeches, conferences, and various bills, but he notes that “as the black box metaphor suggests, these outputs often say very little, with clarity or precision, about the complexities of decision making inside the White House” (189).  Riley notes that the most common source of knowledge that scholars gain is from the press.  For instance he explains that “the White House presentation of a story – what more commonly today has become known as its‘spin’– may actually conceal more than it reveals” (189).  Next Riley discusses the internal documents that have been located by the scholars.  Typically these documents are just internal paperwork (191).  But as Riley notes, “the most important opening of White House records in recent decades during a president’s term of office has occurred not because of press inquiries or presidential benevolence, but because of investigations of alleged executive wrongdoing – by those armed with the power of subpoena” (192).  Next, Riley discusses that the last source scholars use in order to gain information about the White House is the memoir – recollections of what occurred in the White House (195).  Riley then discusses the values of oral history by stating ” it salvages the only historical source available: individual memories” (195).  Riley does note that even with written records, they  “routinely contain important gaps and omissions” (196).  Lastly, Riley discusses the availability of Presidential Oral History and notes that it depends of which president and the overall presidency itself depends on how much information scholars can retrieve (202).

Post 14- White House Oral History

There is an influx of information being sent out of the White House but it is heavily edited and almost useless to historians who want to recorded the administrations. When looking at the information being put out of the White House it is important to be able to see what is not being mentioned or what is the focus of it. As the administrations keep going it is getting harder to obtain good and insightful information on what is going on in the White House. Reasons for this include officers no longer keeping the same type of notes, changing press, and the back log of information that has been sorted and made available by previous presidents. The issues involving the press and White House history is the problem of determining what news is and how to differentiate rumor from fact. Leaks of information from the White House can be hard to determine as truth or just a rumor that is hear. There also runs the issues of someone overhearing something meant as a joke and thinking it is up to them to tell the public. Because of this the issue of claiming responsibility for the leak and the backlash is an issue. Internal documents are a great source of information for historians to look at to see how the administration worked and processed but can be difficult to get ahold of. Reasons for this include the process to get the documents, which include many legal papers and issues. Thought these can be bypassed when the administration hands over the papers at the end of the president’s service. Though this may look like a solution it causes more issues because of the amount of information that is handed over and then has to be looked through and archived, creating a backlog of papers and information that are hard to look over and must be postponed. In these papers included notes written by staff members, emails, and recordings that have to be handled differently. When the staff know the papers will be handed over they may omit or take out information because they don’t want it to be know eventually or it is not important to them but would have been good information to have in archives for research purposes. Oral histories in the White House are getting more popular due the oral culture of the White House and how people are writing things down less and less. It is important to look at and be able to get the oral recordings of the administration because they may be able to show more than the paper documents. In obtaining the interviews for this thought it can be difficult to not lead the interview with specific questions and to not go in thinking you will get all the information wanted because they narrators could have their own motive and want to keep certain things out.

Post 13- Bergamot Balm

Horticulture in Maine front yards was meant to show a progressive and positive image of the family living there. The popularity of horticulture in these communities was the social and public image to the community that you were a respectable family with connections. For the families that participated in the decoration they did so because of the social implications, easy access to seeds and information. The dedication needed for this activity required the whole family and much of their time. Both male and female members of the household participated in the cultivating. Horticulture could be used to show the class distinctions in a community because of the time needed to make sure their gardens are well taken care of. Through diary entries, it can be read as not an annoying or tedious task but something they enjoyed doing that could be added to the normal list of chores to get done. Social interactions because of the selling and buying of seeds was important to note, providing a reason to talk to neighbors and others from different towns. The plants were also a way of remembrance. For those who moved away or pasted, by keeping the plants or seeds of them as a way to remember them shows the larger implications and meaning to horticulture. It was more than just decorating the house or spending time on your home image but a way to memorialize moments in life and make more connections.

Ornamental Plants

In this class I am learning about all these different histories. It is amazing these fields that are emerging. The reading starts off on this emerging study of ornamental plant culture happening in the 1800’s. There had been a very of sources written about the topic. The ornamental plant were made to make homes look good especially in the midwest. Most the plants gotten were from nurseries around the area since in the 1900s the idea of nurseries blew up from little local shops to big stores. The ornamental plants while simple represented a larger of picture of class and taste. The idea of a well kept lawn with flowers were a good representation for a middle class family. Some of the major families of the text Lawrence, Buell, and Copley were recorded in the dairies. All the dairies talked about this ornamental plant culture. The Lawrences had grown a lot of property and got many acres. The families showed their wealth through the ornamental plants in their front yard. Having ornamental plants was not easy and all the families members had to pitch in. The dairies reflected that family members did not see this as a burden. This also help create social groups like for the ladies to meet and to trade seeds and other items. They were able to trade with other women in the community. Esther Copley used plants to help with her loneliness and to help give meaning. These were not just plants but also held personal meaning.

Blog post 13 -Bergamot Balm and Verbenas: The Public and Private Meaning of Ornamental Plants in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Midwest By Cheryl Lyon-Jenness

In this article, Lyon-Jenness discusses the cultural trend that happened in Michigan during the mid 19th century on people having ornamental plants. She points out that journals such as the Michigan Farmer and others had commented that having ornamental plants can make one’s house visually and aesthetically pleasing, but also they pointed out that “they had a positive moral influence on family members, and that they communicated the family’s virtue to the rest of the community” (Lyon-Jenness 202). In discussing this garden-based culture in Michigan during this time, Lyon-Jenness also emphasizes the social effects that this culture had on the mid 19th century Michigan communities. She points out that this “ornamental plant culture” (Lyon-Jenness 202) mirrored the person’s morality and certain values they hold in society based on how beautiful the front yards looks. One example that are referred to in this article are if a person makes their front yard in a orderly and precise way, then they are seen as having improved their own sense of morality and social values. However, if a person makes their yard in a messy fashion, then that person believed to be not interested in what they are doing. Lyon-Jenness further discusses the social impact that this culture had on Michigan society and in midwestern societies, but also focuses on three families and individuals in order to get a better understanding of its overall importance to society. One of those individuals that she discusses is Esther Lawrence. Lyon-Jennes goes into detail on discussing her life as well as her relationship with her family members and her interest in gardening. One example of her life is her routines in doing gardening and how she likes doing it. Lyon-Jennes near the end of this article points out how Esther related to the death of her plants to her son, Archie leaving her. Esther in turn had felt agony and regret from this, but she eventually looked to plant for contentment. This article overall is a bit intriguing to me as well as interesting to learn about this garden-based culture and its overall impact on society during this time.

“Bergamot Balm and Verbenas”

Bergamot Balm and Verbenas: The Public and Private Meaning of Ornamental Plants in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Midwest by Cheryl Lyon-Jenness explores the social uses of ornamental plants in the homes in mid-western families. To do this, Jenness explores the examples of three individuals/relatives in Michigan in order to evaluate the personal and societal significance of owning ornamental plants. All families shared similar lifestyles and interests in horticultural activities which is found in journals kept by all three families. In these journals/diaries, social life in the mid-west rural region is connected with ornamental plants. Ornamental plants became associated with social class and personal identification through the overall appearance and maintenance of these plants. Lawns represented what a family presented themselves as to society and how they lived their lives (according to “public norms and progressive values”). Maintenance of the lawns and plants required a lot of time and labor. However, rather than a burden, it was often a favorable pastime for these families and was used an aid during difficult times. As well, the exchange of plants among these families and the community built stronger community values and better access to these ornamental plants. However, Jenness argues that these plants symbolize far more personal meaning to the individuals than just simple public appearances.

“Ornamental Plants in Mid-19th c. Midwest” Blog Post

This article discussed how ornamental plants were used among three prominent families in Michigan in the mid nineteenth century. Ornamental plants generally gave off certain messages depending on how they were used in a family’s yard or garden. According to this article, these types of plants could “tell” strangers about the family’s “values.” Because of this, ornamental plants were “quiet yet very public reminders of middle class values and respectability” (Lyon-Jenness, 203). However, these social messages of plants were not as clear in the mid-west, according to the author of this article. While these plants were used to express “refinement, respectability, or progressive tendencies” in the mid-west, the author wanted to figure out the “public and private significance of ornamental plants in the lives of several intertwined Midwestern families” (Lyon-Jenness, 204). To do this, the author studied the Lawrence, Copley, and Buell families, who were long-established families of Volinia Township, Cass County, Michigan.

While this article may not be as riveting as some of the other articles or book chapters read in this class, this one was pretty amusing to read. It was amusing because I never would have thought that something as simple as “pretty little yard plants” could have an extensive backstory in American history. My mother works at a Botanical Garden (administrative work, however) and has some knowledge on certain flowers, shrubs, or trees. Because of this, all I could think about while reading this article is wanting to share it with my mom!


Sarah E Jones

Bergamot Balm and Verbenas

It never occurred to me just how important plants could be or what hidden meanings they could have on a society. Just like most people, I like plants, they certainly know how to make a house, or a room look alive and beautiful. I had no idea however that plants could point out your class in society and they could have certain meanings about the people living on the property they decorated. What was interesting about the reading was the families that it discusses and their lives that heavily revolved around plants. The plants had very special meanings to these families. First off, they were their source of income. The plants were a means of keeping the family working together, from one family splitting the work into male and female roles, to the having the families working together to garden. When the plants were not bringing the family together, the plants were a means of gathering friends. The author Lyon-Jenness mentions the women would often gather together to hand out new seeds to add to their collection of flowers and plants. Plants also held precious memories, and they were often thought of as family members, taken care of and fussed over. To lose one was almost like losing a family member. I never would have thought a simple plant, whether a tree or a tiny flower, could have so much meaning on your status in society, and on ones health. I never realized they could bring a community together as well as a family. Interesting read to say for sure.

Charyl Lyon-Jenness, “Bergamot Balm and Verbenas”

Jenness opens up this article noting how “in 1879 S. Q. Lent, a commentator for the Michigan Pomological Society” noted when traveling through Michigan, one will notice that “it is a rare exception to find a single farm on which something has not been done toward the ornamenting of the premises” (201).   Jenness notes that midwesterners began to write in journals, articles, and newspapers that “ornamental plants were a particularly appropriate way to make home attractive, that they had a positive moral influence on family members, and that they communicated the family’s virtue to the rest of the community” (202).  Jenness continues to discuss how “domestic reformers, horticultural advisers, and commercial nurserymen” would advertise these ornamental plants by “advocating shade trees and flowering shrubs” and would assign “public meaning to ornamental plant culture” (203).  These ornamental plants were thought of as illustrating the intelligence and well-mindedness of the individuals living inside the house (203).  As noted by Jenness, “Flourishing flower beds or stately shade trees, along with well-kept dooryards and neatly mown lawns, were quiet yet very public reminders of middle-class values and respectability” (203).  Jenness then continues by asking “What did ornamental plants mean to the families who cultivated them?” (204).  Jenness discusses two families, the Lawrence and Buell, and the significance behind the diaries left from them describing their daily activities and life regarding cultivating these ornamental plants.  Jenness then notes that “ornamental plant chores not only required a commitment from all family members, but as Esther’s diary revealed, demanded attention throughout the year” (210).  Furthermore, Jenness notes that by looking at the diaries, “in the Lawrence and Buell households, both male and female family members appeared to find ornamental plant care important enough to alter work patterns and family interactions to meet its demands” (212).  Jenness notes how from looking over these diaries and journals, Jenness collected that “over the years, the Lawrence and Buell families not only altered patterns of daily life and neighborhood interactions to accommodate their interest in ornamental plants, but actively used flowers and trees as ways to cement and signify family bonds” (216).  Overall, Jenness notes the importance of ornamental plants not only to the society, but to the families growing these plants themselves.  These plants made connections, strengthened relationships, and built an inter-connected community.