The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House (7 page)

BOOK: The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House
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One of the president’s preoccupations, in the early days, was the White House basketball court. During the 2008 campaign, Obama had enjoyed the ritual of playing a pickup game on the days of nominating primaries and caucuses. The two times he didn’t play, in New Hampshire and Nevada, he lost the contests. Not long after taking office, he told Rochon that he wanted the South Lawn tennis court, shrouded in pine trees, to be converted into a full basketball court. Removable basketball hoops were installed, new lines were painted on the court, and basketballs with White House seals were ordered. The effort cost $4,995.

The project took several months to complete. Eventually Obama grew impatient, telling Rochon on their morning walks: “You know, Admiral, this is not rocket science.”

One morning, Rochon didn’t mention the court’s progress. When the president asked him how his “hoops were coming,” he replied: “Well, Mr. President, I’m pleased to report that it will be done by eleven-thirty today.”

Obama’s eyes lit up. By ten-thirty, an hour before it was scheduled to be ready, he was out on the court playing with Love, a onetime forward for the Duke Blue Devils.

M
ICHELLE
O
BAMA

S STYLIST
, Michael “Rahni” Flowers, had done her hair since she was a teenager, and he was the incoming first lady’s choice for the inauguration. Though hairstylists are not officially on the residence staff, they offer a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on the events of that memorable day.

Flowers’s day started at 4:00
A.M.
at Blair House, the elegant town house across the street from the White House, where the president-elect and his family traditionally stay before they officially move into the executive mansion. That morning he styled Michelle, her daughters, and her mother, and he traveled with the
Obamas throughout the day, to Capitol Hill and all ten official inaugural balls that night.

Flowers noticed immediately how excited the mostly African American butlers were about the incoming president. “There was a pride that goes beyond pride—this is something that happened that they never would have dreamed in their lifetime,” said Flowers, who is black himself. “I saw it in the way they talked, the way they walked. You could tell by their smiling faces—it was beyond their wildest dreams.”

Everyone seemed calm that morning, he said, except for Marian Robinson, the first lady’s mother. Robinson was on the verge of a dramatic change: she had just started a track club for seniors in Chicago, and had recently won a track meet, but Michelle had asked her to live with them at the White House, to help with the girls, and now she was leaving her hometown for a new—and very tightly regimented—life.

“She’s a very independent woman,” Flowers says. She might not have chosen the change for herself, he believes, but “she let me know that Michelle wants her to do this, and she’s got the kids to think about.” When she left her beloved Chicago, Robinson said, “They’re dragging me with them, and I’m not that comfortable, but I’m doing exactly what you do. You do what has to be done.”

Yet the incoming president seemed unfazed by the dramatic change. After delivering an ambitious inaugural address—citing policy objectives like health care reform while renewing his broader promise to change the divisive rhetoric in Washington—he asked casually, “How did I do?”

“Barack’s always very calm, his mood is always controlled,” Flowers said. “Michelle’s a more in-the-moment type of person.”

Because of a glitch in the schedule (someone forgot to account for the traditional Capitol luncheon after the oath of office) the Obamas
had only forty-five minutes to prepare for the balls that evening. As they rushed to get ready, the president stopped by the small beauty parlor on the second floor of the White House and asked his wife which bow tie she thought he should wear.

“I want to look my best for you,” he told her.

As he was walking out, Flowers noticed that one of the president’s French cuffs didn’t go through all the way.

“Barack, check your cuffs,” Flowers pointed.

“Oh that’s nice, people care,” Obama said affably.

When the first lady’s wardrobe stylist, Ikram Goldman, whose high-end Chicago boutique Michelle Obama frequented before moving into the White House, heard Flowers call the president “Barack,” she snapped at him. “She suggested that I should call him ‘Mr. President,’” Flowers recalled. “When I called him ‘Barack’ he smiled. I went to their wedding, I’ve met [Michelle’s] dad, he hasn’t changed with me,” Flowers said, still obviously smarting from the rebuke. “That would have been unnatural for me.” That transition—from personal names to formal titles—is a rite of passage for many friends of future presidents. The Kennedys’ social secretary, Letitia Baldrige—who later became an arbiter of etiquette—had known the couple as “Jack and Jackie,” but they became “Mr. President and Mrs. Kennedy” immediately after the presidential election in November 1960. “President and Mrs. Kennedy may have been young, and personal friends from earlier times, but a new aura of great dignity surrounded them now.” Few people call President Obama by his first name anymore.

I
NAUGURATION
D
AY—AN OVERWHELMING
event for any new president—begins hours before the oath of office is administered at noon at the Capitol. In the early morning he gets a national security briefing from the outgoing president’s national security adviser
and his own incoming national security adviser. At the end of the briefing, a senior officer from the White House military office explains the top secret codes used to launch a nuclear strike. Once he is sworn in, an aide with the “football”—a briefcase carrying the codes—will always be close by. (After he is sworn in, the president will be given the card allowing him to actually launch the strikes.) This all happens before a morning church service.

While adjusting to the weight of his new job, the new president must also get used to life in the residence. The day after his inauguration, President Obama came into the East Room to introduce himself to the staff. The president had “a look of surprise,” Florist Bob Scanlan recalled. “It’s like, ‘Wow.’ He didn’t realize that there were that many people just to take care of the house.” The staff Obama greeted that day was responsible not only for servicing the private quarters, but also for maintaining the State Floor, including the constant traffic from public tours.

West Wing staffers, many of whom grew used to a more ad hoc way of life during the campaign, are suddenly thrust into their new roles with little understanding of how things work. For Obama’s personal secretary, Katie Johnson, Inauguration Day itself was “complete chaos.” When she arrived at the White House that morning, she was told she wasn’t cleared for entry. “I was on my own personal crash course,” she says. (Top Obama aide Denis McDonough eventually cleared her through security.) And her problems didn’t stop there. “Looking back on it, the West Wing is tiny,” she says, “but at the time it felt like a maze.” Once she was settled in the “Outer Oval,” her small office located just outside the Oval Office, she spent much of the day getting a hurried tutorial about how to use the “shockingly complicated” phone system. During the first few weeks of the administration, she remembers being unable to transfer a call from a high-level official to the president, who was on board Air Force One. The call never went through and eventually
Obama himself had to call the person directly from the plane. “I was so panicked,” Johnson recalls.

For the residence staff, of course, this was not their first rodeo, and they were able to calm Johnson’s frazzled nerves. The West Wing staff relies on the Usher’s Office to help them settle in, and Johnson kept the ushers busy with one question or another, including where to find the Flower Shop so that she could ask them to refill the gala apples the president keeps in the Oval Office. “I called the Usher’s Office if I had questions about
anything
,” she recalls. “If someone wanted some particular wine in the Oval, I’d call the Usher’s Office and they would find it.”

Sometimes she needed help from the valets and ushers locating important presidential memos, especially when there was a piece of paper the West Wing staff was looking for that nobody could find. “Whenever I was panicked, desperately looking for something—and the president’s traveling so I can’t ask him where it is—and people are telling me there’s a piece of paper that has some important decision on it, and the president says he brought it down to me and I swear I don’t have it, I’d ask them to check,” she says breathlessly. “They’d go look for it, and ninety percent of the time they could find it.”

Reggie Love remembers how patient the ushers were in helping him “navigate the back of the house of the White House.” He says, “There’s a nickname for every hall, there’s a nickname for every room.”

After a few days the Obamas started “moving about the house little by little,” Scanlan recalled, usually after the tourists and most of the residence staff had left for the day. “It’s a process for them too. It’s a process to know almost a hundred people, because they don’t see them all at once. Maybe one housekeeper, one florist at a time. You may only have one chef up there doing the cooking. They don’t know all the other people who are down in those workshops and eventually they do meet them but it’s over a period of time.”

And eventually they get used to the help, or at least learn to live
with it. “I think the White House staff has really figured out how to accommodate families and make them feel as normal as possible, even though there are dozens of people around, dropping off flowers, vacuuming, fixing things up all the time,” Michelle Obama said. “You begin to see them as family in so many ways and that’s the beauty of this place.”

E
ACH FIRST FAMILY
behaves differently around the staff. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the family of Herbert Hoover often preferred to have the workers out of sight; the sounding of three bells would send maids, butlers, and housemen scurrying into closets. FDR and Truman were much more relaxed, telling the staff that it was all right to keep working when they walked into a room.

In modern times, relations between the first family and the staff have grown much more comfortable. Maid Ivaniz Silva said the first lady usually knows everyone’s names within a week—at least those of the dozen or so maids and butlers who regularly work on the second and third floors.

One day, Silva said, she was cleaning when Barbara Bush walked in and stopped her.

“Oh, I haven’t seen you yet,” Mrs. Bush told her.

“But I’m in the book,” she insisted.

“Are you sure?” The First Lady went to go get the book listing the residence staffers prepared by the chief usher. She returned a few minutes later.

“Oh, this is not a good enough picture. That’s why I don’t recognize you!” Bush teased her.

Along with new furniture and paint, each first family brings a different spirit to the White House. The sea change from the Eisenhowers to the Kennedys was both superficial—from grandparents who personified the 1950s to a beautiful young couple with
two small children—and tangible. The staff had to get used to the Kennedys’ more relaxed style of entertaining: black tie instead of white tie, cocktails served before dinner, and smoking allowed everywhere. At formal dinners, the Eisenhowers served six courses and sat their guests at a giant E-shaped banquet table. The Kennedys quickly decided to change the seating to fifteen round tables seating eight or ten apiece, and pared down dinners to four courses.

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