The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House (2 page)

BOOK: The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House
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As a White House reporter for Bloomberg News, I worked in one of the many tiny windowless cubbies located below the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. The cramped basement space is a constant whirl of activity as reporters race back and forth covering events, talking to sources, and rushing back to their computers to file stories. During my time covering the White House, I traveled around the world on Air Force One and on Air Force Two (the vice president’s plane)—filing reports from Mongolia, Japan, Poland, France, Portugal, China, and Colombia—but the most fascinating story turned out to be right in front of me every day: the men and women who take care of the first family, who share a fierce loyalty to the institution of the American presidency. Each staffer who has served at the White House has borne witness to history, and each has incredible stories to share.

The White House is the country’s most potent and enduring symbol of the presidency. Its 132 rooms, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators are spread across the 6 floors—plus 2 hidden mezzanine levels—all tucked within what appears to be a three-story building. The house is home to just one famous family at a time, but the members of the building’s supporting cast are its permanent tenants.

The residence workers bring a sense of humanity and Old World values to the world’s most famous eighteen acres. Rising at dawn, they sacrifice their personal lives to serve the first family with quiet, awe-inspiring dignity. For them, working in the White House, regardless of position, is a great honor. Elections may bring
new faces, but they stay on from administration to administration and are careful to keep their political beliefs to themselves. They have one job: to make America’s first families comfortable in the country’s most public private home.

In the course of their work, many of these men and women have witnessed presidents and their families during incredibly vulnerable moments, but only a handful of residence workers have published memoirs of their time at the White House. This book marks the first time that so many have shared what it’s like to devote their lives to caring for the first family. Their memories range from small acts of kindness to episodes of anger and private despair, from stories of personal quirks and foibles to moments when their everyday work was transcended by instances of national triumph or tragedy.

From playing with the Kennedy children in the Oval Office to witnessing the first African American president arrive at the White House; from being asked by Nancy Reagan to return each of her twenty-five Limoges boxes to the same exact spot after cleaning, to giving Hillary Clinton a moment of privacy during her husband’s sex scandal and impeachment, the residence staff see sides of the first family no one else ever glimpses.

Though they gave me unprecedented access to their stories, recent and current residence workers follow a long-established code of ethics that values discretion and the protection of the first family’s privacy above all else. Unlike most people in power-obsessed Washington, D.C., who tell each other where they work almost before offering their names, staffers avoid mentioning their extraordinary jobs. They inherited that code of honor from the previous generations who kept FDR’s paralysis private by ushering guests into the room for state dinners only after the president was seated and his wheelchair rolled out of view—and who made sure that stories of JFK’s philandering never left the White House gates.

Residence workers have such privileged access, in fact, that
current White House aides did not want them speaking with me. One former staffer told me in an e-mail, “I think you will find that anyone who is still employed will not want to speak to you because they do not want to lose their job—yes, this is a reality. We were trained to keep what goes on inside the WH, inside the WH.”

But while at first some of them were reluctant to share their experiences working in “the house,” as they call it, all were incredibly gracious. Black and white, men and women, chefs, electricians, and maids, dozens of retired staffers invited me to sit across from them at their kitchen tables or to talk with them on their living room sofas. (I was pregnant with our second child at the time, which prompted lots of kind inquiries into how I was feeling and whether I wanted something to eat.) Before long, they were happily recounting decades of memories working for several presidents and their families. Many seemed oblivious to the fact that they had led remarkable lives with front-row seats to history. Their recollections were not always consistent; where many staffers had fond memories of the families they served, others told less flattering stories.

Getting them to talk wasn’t always easy. Some opened up to me only after I mentioned the names of their colleagues whom I’d already interviewed. Others were guarded until we met in person, like Chief Electrician William “Bill” Cliber, who told me fascinating stories about Richard Nixon in his final days in office, and Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick, who talked about her painful decision to temporarily leave her post because she was sick of taking abuse from a certain first lady.

Some people, like George W. Bush’s favorite butler, James Ramsey, wanted to talk only about their positive experiences. Ramsey even said he was worried that the government would take away the pension he worked his entire life to earn if he shared anything negative (though there is no evidence that that would have happened). He was full of genuine love for the families he served. He passed away
in 2014, but I feel fortunate to have gotten to know him and other staffers who died before they could see their stories told.

I’ve talked to people who worked at the White House during the time known as Camelot—including the first residence staffer to be informed of President Kennedy’s assassination—and to butlers, doormen, and florists who served the Obamas. I’ve listened to the sons and daughters of presidents describe what it’s like to grow up in the White House. And I have had candid conversations with former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, and Laura Bush, as well as many high-level White House aides. Most were genuinely eager to help bring attention to the people who work quietly and diligently behind the scenes.

Despite their sacrifice and hard work, the residence staff assiduously avoids the spotlight—and not just in a metaphorical sense. “There’s an unwritten rule that we stayed in the background. If there was a camera we always ducked under it, over it, or around it,” insisted Usher James W. F. “Skip” Allen. Yet the workers I interviewed had a blend of intelligence and character that made me want to learn more about their lives. Many of them also had a wry, even wicked, sense of humor. After our interview, retired butler James Hall made sure to walk me out—very slowly—through the crowded lobby of his retirement home. He wasn’t just being polite, he admitted; he wanted to make sure everyone saw him with a younger woman. “It’s like
Peyton Place
around here!” he said, laughing.

My research took me beyond Washington and its suburbs. Allen had retired to a sprawling six-thousand-square-foot nineteenth-century farmhouse in Bedford, Pennsylvania. We ate chicken salad sandwiches by his pool during a light drizzle as he described the close relationship between the president and the staff (“It would be nothing out of the ordinary for a president to acknowledge somebody’s birthday”) and the weight of the job (“Name a president. Nobody leaves the White House looking younger than they came in”).

While they are overlooked in the pomp and circumstance of presidential events and state visits, White House workers are vital to the public and private lives of the American presidency. “In a way, my family and I always thought of them as cohosts with the president and the first lady,” Tricia Nixon Cox, the older of President Nixon’s two daughters, told me. “They made everything very beautiful and warm.”

Sometimes they even help the world’s most famous couple weather storms and feel normal again—if only for a few hours. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, several staffers told me, Hillary Clinton appeared tired and depressed. They said they felt sorry for her, knowing she craved the one thing she couldn’t have: privacy. One staffer, Usher Worthington White, recalled clearing tourists out of the White House and keeping her Secret Service agents at bay so that the first lady could enjoy a few short hours of solitude by the pool. Having the chance to help Mrs. Clinton “meant the world to me,” White said.

Residence workers sometimes get to witness the sheer joy a newly inaugurated president feels upon reaching the highest peak in American politics. In 2009, after the inaugural balls were finally over, the Obamas were settling in for their first night in the White House. But they still weren’t quite ready for bed when White was dropping off some late-night papers. When he got upstairs to the second floor he heard something unusual.

“All of a sudden I heard President Obama say, ‘I got this, I got this. I got the inside on this now,’ and suddenly the music picked up and it was Mary J. Blige.” The new residents had shed their formal wear; the president was in shirtsleeves and the first lady was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. The president grabbed the first lady, White recalls, and suddenly “they were dancing together” to Blige’s hit “Real Love.” The usher paused a moment as he told the story. “It was the most beautiful, lovely thing you could imagine.”

“I bet you haven’t seen anything like this in this house, have you?” Obama asked as the first couple danced.

“I can honestly say I’ve never heard
any
Mary J. Blige being played on this floor,” White replied.

He isn’t sure how long the Obamas stayed there dancing, but it was clear that they intended to savor the moment.

M
ANY FIRST FAMILIES
say they think of the residence staff as the true tenants of the White House. President Carter has called them “the glue that holds the house together.” One staffer called his colleagues “a group of people who eat, sleep, and drink the White House.”

The White House employs approximately 96 full-time and 250 part-time residence staff: ushers, chefs, florists, maids, butlers, doormen, painters, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, engineers, and calligraphers. In addition, about two dozen National Park Service staff take care of the White House grounds. The residence workers are federal employees who serve at the pleasure of the president.

The center of activity for the White House staff is the Usher’s Office, located on the State Floor next to the North Portico entrance. The chief usher is in charge of the funds allocated by Congress to run the house, including the cost of heating, lighting, air-conditioning, and the staff’s salaries. In 1941, when there were sixty-two people on the residence staff, the annual budget was just $152,000. Fast-forward through almost seventy-five years of added staff, operational costs, inflation, and more, and the annual budget now hovers around $13 million. (This cost is separate from the $750,000 required to repair and restore the White House every year.)

The job of the chief usher is akin to the general manager of a major hotel, but with only one tenant to serve. He or she manages the entire residence staff, working closely with the first lady. Reporting to
the chief usher is a deputy and a team of ushers responsible for overseeing the various departments or “shops,” such as the Housekeeping Shop or the Flower Shop. The ushers serve as contacts for visitors, including the first family’s house guests, and they keep records of the president’s movements within the house, which eventually get transferred to the presidential libraries for posterity.

The job of chief usher in today’s White House is so complex that it demands the kind of rigor and discipline generally associated with the military. Before U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon was appointed chief usher by George W. Bush in 2007—becoming the eighth person, and the first African American, to serve in the role officially—he sat for eight interviews for the job, driving back and forth to the White House from his Coast Guard station at Norfolk, Virginia. His final interview was with the president in the Oval Office. Bush wondered whether Rochon would be happy with the new, misleadingly modest title.

“What do you think about this chief usher business?” Bush asked him.

Rochon replied: “Well, Mr. President, what’s in a title?”

Apparently, a lot: When Rochon was hired, the post was renamed White House Chief Usher and Director of the Executive Residence, a decidedly more impressive job description. Since October 2011, the job has been held by Angella Reid, the former general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Virginia—the first woman and the second African American to hold the position.

No matter how august the title, the goal is simple: to provide whatever the first family needs. For Chief Usher J. B. West, that included feverishly searching the house for Caroline Kennedy’s lost hamsters and calling in dozens of experts in an unending quest to satisfy President Johnson’s demand for better water pressure in his shower. Jacqueline Kennedy called West “the most powerful man in Washington, next to the president.”

BOOK: The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House
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