The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House (8 page)

BOOK: The Residence - Inside the Private World of The White House
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Jackie Kennedy, who was used to being surrounded by servants and wealth, was eager to delve right into running the 132-room mansion. The morning after her husband’s inauguration, she approached Chief Usher J. B. West. “I’d like to meet all the staff today,” she told him. “Could you please take me around the White House to meet them at their work?”

Reluctant to present the first lady to the staff workshops without advance warning, West suggested bringing the staff to her in groups of three instead. Each group, from the ushers and butlers to the maids and cooks, were incredibly nervous about the formal inspection. When they got off the elevator, they were startled to see the first lady wearing pants (a particularly shocking sight at the time) and brown boots, standing there with disheveled hair. As the staffers introduced themselves one by one, West recalled, Jackie tried to think of ways to memorize their names. She repeated each of them slowly and though she didn’t take notes she remembered all of them. One of the maids who met her that day, Lucinda Morman, was a skilled seamstress; the first lady would later ask her to tailor her one-of-a-kind Oleg Cassini gowns.

Jackie Kennedy was a perfectionist and was deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the residence. At night she scribbled notes to herself, checking off each item as it was completed throughout the day. She also wrote West daily notes on a yellow pad she carried everywhere.

“She always had a list for me,” recalled West. “Each person that had any authority over anything, she had their name, and under it
there would be all the things that she wanted to discuss with each person.”

Mrs. Kennedy also noticed that some of the residence workers were nervous around the first family. She wrote a note about the maids: “They are so terrified of being in W.H.—of First Family, etc., that they are rigid with fear and get panicky—even Lucinda who knows me well still apologizes 10 minutes if she drops a pin.” To help them overcome their fears, she suggested that they come to the second and third floors more often so that they get used to being around her family. “I can’t teach them anything—nor have time—when they are that scared.”

D
OORMAN
P
RESTON
B
RUCE
was used to the predictability of the Eisenhowers, who typically went to bed at ten o’clock. When the Kennedys returned from the inaugural balls at two o’clock in the morning, Bruce was sure they would be exhausted. Instead, they brought friends back to the White House to continue the party on the second floor—unaware that the residence workers had to stay until the first couple were safely in bed. At 3:15
A.M.
Bruce escorted the last guest out and turned off the lights in the West Sitting Hall. When he got to the president’s bedroom, no one was there.

“Is that you, Bruce? I’m here in the Lincoln Bedroom,” the president called out. Bruce couldn’t believe it. Workers thought the Lincoln Bedroom was cursed. Kennedy ordered a Coke and asked Bruce to open a window to let the cold night air in. Jackie called out from the Queens’ Bedroom across the hall and asked the ever-obliging Bruce for an aperitif. He did not get home until after four o’clock in the morning.

Despite that long first night, Bruce learned to love the Kennedys, and because he worked nights he got a glimpse of the more intimate side of the family. He’d laugh when he witnessed the beautiful
young couple scamper between each other’s bedrooms late at night when he brought up their after-dinner drinks. (“Don’t worry, Bruce. We know you’re married too,” Jackie Kennedy would say, her eyes twinkling.)

From 1953 to 1977 Bruce arrived at the White House at three o’clock in the afternoon, greeting dignitaries at the door, calming nervous visitors before they met the president, escorting the president from the Oval Office to his residence at night, and waiting until he was in bed to go home. He was a star at the White House. Other staffers praised his elegance and his ability to remain calm under the enormous pressure of his job. Butler Lynwood Westray calls him a “diplomat.”

“That’s why he was so well liked, some people have it and some don’t. He had it.”

The day after the Kennedy inauguration, Bruce escorted the president and the first lady upstairs after dinner. He breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of getting home at a decent hour. “Bang! The elevator door opened in the hallway across from the Usher’s Office. Out popped the president. He charged down the hall, the Secret Service in hot pursuit,” Bruce wrote. Kennedy wanted to take a late-night walk and marched out the Northwest Gate into the freezing cold air without a coat. “Only twenty-four hours in the White House, and he had to escape.”

The Secret Service had to rein Kennedy in and told him he would have to limit walks to the eighteen acres surrounding the White House. From then on, Bruce was always prepared with two overcoats: one if the president decided to leave for his walk through the first-floor doors, and another if he chose the Ground Floor. Whenever he offered the president a coat and rain boots, the commander in chief protested. “He was like a little schoolboy, bound to run off unprotected into the cold.”

N
OT EVERY FIRST
family has enjoyed such a joyous arrival as the Kennedys. On the Monday after the 1992 election, the Clintons called interior decorator Kaki Hockersmith and asked her to perform the monumental task of redecorating the White House. Even though she had decorated the Arkansas governor’s mansion for them, she wasn’t expecting the call—she recalls being “very, very surprised”—but she accepted the invitation. Between the election and the inauguration, she visited the governor’s mansion several times to show the Clintons the different fabrics and furnishings she had selected for the residence.

“On the first of those occasions President Clinton was in a meeting with his transition staff and Hillary called him out of the meeting,” she said. She splayed out drapery swatches and rug designs on the kitchen counter to show him. (Clinton is the rare modern president who has shown such an interest in décor.) In the ensuing weeks, Hockersmith made several trips to the White House to work with the curators. They brought her to the huge climate-controlled storage facility about eleven miles outside of Washington in Riverdale, Maryland, where every piece of furniture that was once in the White House is stored in a warehouse. Incoming families can pick pieces they want to take out of storage and bring back to the residence.

The furniture in Riverdale is methodically organized into categories with rows of desks and writing tables situated alongside chests and rugs that sat in the Oval Office during different administrations. Pieces from different eras, each with an extensive provenance, are described and catalogued. The curators know where every candlestick and side table can be found in the massive space. There’s even a conservation studio with X-ray equipment where photography can be done for guidebooks. It is a far cry from the
ramshackle storage facility a stunned Jackie Kennedy visited at Fort Washington along the Potomac River in Maryland, where she was appalled to find precious antiques lying on the dirt floor.

Hockersmith carried with her a detailed floor plan, keeping track of the desired locations for pieces already in the house and new pieces from the warehouse. “We had this very ambitious plan,” Hockersmith said, sounding exhausted by the memory.

The Clintons began Inauguration Day with an interfaith church service. Afterward they stopped at Blair House before arriving at the White House at 10:27
A.M.
—twenty-seven minutes late. The Bushes stood at the North Portico waiting to greet them.

“Welcome to your new house,” President George H. W. Bush told twelve-year-old Chelsea, who petted the Bush’s springer spaniel, Millie. The outgoing president wished his successor good luck—and, following tradition, left a note in the desk in the Oval Office offering advice to his successor. (When Clinton left office eight years later, he wrote a note to President George W. Bush and left behind the note that Bush’s father had left for him.) Details of the notes have not been made public.

On the big day, Hillary Clinton told Hockersmith that she didn’t want her to miss the inaugural ceremony, held at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. But she needed her to get back to the White House as soon as it was over.

“We have to figure out a way to get you out of that mess and quickly back to the White House,” Hillary told her.

After the hour-long inaugural ceremony, Hillary told Hockersmith to look for a colonel on a corner in a van who would whisk her back to the White House to help oversee the move.

“I thought, how in the world are they going to work this out?” Hockersmith says.

Amid the cheering throng of people gathered at the Capitol on
January 20, 1993, Hockersmith was astonished to see the van waiting for her. Every time they hit a security barrier, the police moved it. The crowd lining Pennsylvania Avenue awaiting the new president waved excitedly at her van. “They thought we might be someone really famous.”

“We just drove up to the South Lawn with a view of two large moving vans that said ‘Little Rock, Arkansas’ on them,” she says. “Quite an exciting drive.”

The Clintons spent roughly $400,000 redecorating the White House, all financed by private donations. But the effort raised some eyebrows, both within and outside the mansion. Even the normally discreet residence workers have called Hockersmith’s efforts disorganized, her expectations too high.

Chief Electrician Bill Cliber, who worked on nine transitions, said that the Clintons’ arrival was by far the most difficult. Shortly before the inauguration, Hockersmith told him that he and the other electricians needed to rehang seven chandeliers—
now
.

“Why does it have to be done now? Let them move in and we’ll do it one a day,” said Cliber.

“No, they want them all changed before they come in the door,” she replied.

Cliber had no choice. He went to the second-floor Treaty Room, which Clinton would use as a private study, to start work on one of the chandeliers.

Almost as soon as the Clintons returned from the inaugural parade, Hillary appeared in the Treaty Room. “How long are you going to be in this room?” she asked Cliber.

“Truthfully, I’m looking at maybe four hours,” he told her as he handled the elaborate crystal chandelier that was dismantled on the floor.

“Hmm, we’ll see about that,” she said, and stormed out.

Hockersmith poked her head in and told him to leave the room
within twenty minutes. Cliber said he’d need more time just to collect the hundreds and hundreds of priceless crystals strewn about the floor. She replied: “Don’t worry about it. They can be replaced.”

“No, ma’am. This is crystal that can’t be replaced,” he told her indignantly.

Cliber did as he was told, leaving the Treaty Room a mess with crystals everywhere. But he wasn’t about to let the first lady, or her decorator, have the final word. Chief Curator Rex Scouten (who was well respected on the staff and had been an usher and then chief usher from 1969 to 1986 before he took the job as curator) locked the door to protect the chandelier until Cliber could get back to work. The electrician wasn’t allowed back in the room for three weeks.

Gary Walters is always careful not to single out any one administration for criticism. But when I asked him how the Clinton move-in went there was a long pause: “That’s when you get the most difficulty, when you’re going from one administration to another of different parties.” The Clintons, he said, “had no concept of what the White House was like.” He had to go up to the residence multiple times a day to answer questions.

Usher Nancy Mitchell was on duty early in the morning when the first couple came home from the inaugural balls. “President Clinton wanted to make a phone call, so I had gone upstairs with him and I hear this roar from him, ‘Nancy!’ and I say, ‘Yes, sir.’ He says, ‘How do I make a phone call?’” When the president picked up the phone, he was greeted not by a dial tone but by a White House operator; he was shocked that he couldn’t just dial a number himself. The entire phone system was changed shortly thereafter.

It did not help that the Clintons invited friends from Little Rock (“friends of Bill’s,” or “FOBs”) to help them unpack, which only served to complicate matters.

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