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A vivid, knowing reconstruction of the sociopolitical changes that convulsed the nation's capital just before and during WW II. Washington was something of a backwater before WW II. Isolationist sentiment remained strong on Capitol Hill, and the listless Southern seat of government was largely content to stick to the undemanding business of administering its bureaucracies. Overtaken by events, however, the city underwent an astonishing transformation that, despite geography, made it the hub of the Allies' deadly struggle against the Axis powers. Although he witnessed much of the dramatic metamorphosis as a young radio reporter, Brinkley rarely intrudes on his anecdotal narrative, which runs from the late 1930's through V-J Day. His lively account nonetheless abounds in telling details that put the chaotic times in clear perspectives. To illustrate, he notes without further comment that the ammunition ostentatiously stacked beside White House antiaircraft batteries was the wrong size--a lapse not discovered until years after the war. In like vein, he observes that when Nazi Germany marched on Poland, effectively transferring leadership of the Western world, District of Columbia residents in general and black in particular were still making do with 15,000 privies. By no coincidence, then, the first lunch-counter sit-ins (recounted in the text) occurred in wartime Washington. In the meantime, while Congress shambled along its wayward, typically partisan way, armies of dollar-a-year men, academics, nubile secretaries and others recruited or volunteering to support the war effort invaded the city, doubling its population between 1940 and 1945. The new arrivals faced shortages of every conceivable kind--housing, hotel rooms, cigarettes, decent booze, office space, typewriters, even paper. Against the helter-skelter backdrop of a wartime capital, Brinkley offers sharply etched portraits of the notables and lesser lights who were at the heart of the home-front action. In addition to F.D.R., his dramatis personae include the consequential likes of Cissy Patterson (vindictive publisher of the Times-Herald), Chester Bowles (a genial ad man who made the Office of Price Administration a viable agency), Beardsley Rural (the Macy's economist whose claim to fame rests on devising tax withholding), Evalyn Walsh MacLean (a celebrated hostess of the day), columnist Drew Pearson, Senator Robert A. Taft (a chilly, unrelenting foe of all Democrats), and Sam Rayburn (Speaker of the House). An effective, engrossing evocation of a time and place marked in about equal measure by low comedy and high drama. The published text will have black-and-white photographs (not seen).

Pub Date: April 7th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf