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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

White House Staffers Dish on What the Obamas, Clintons, and Bushes Are Really Like

A new book goes behind the scenes of the past ten administrations’ time in the White House.

 Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

In the famous 2008 “race speech” that saved his candidacy, Barack Obama said that his wife “carries within her the blood of slaves…” Her great-great- grandfather was a slave. After moving into the White House on January 20, 2009, Michelle Obama observed, “You see many slaves who couldn’t enter the building [who] work[ed] to create the building.”

That’s just one anecdote, among many, in Kate Andersen Brower’s new book The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House. Brower, a former Bloomberg News White House reporter who covered Obama’s first term, managed to get “scores” of White House butlers, ushers, florists, maids, cooks, doormen, plumbers, painters, engineers, and calligraphers to talk about their jobs and, most surprisingly, about the people they served. 

Not surprisingly, The Residence is a best seller, and sure to stay that way for some time. It has been optioned by a production company headed by House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey for a television series described as a kind of Downton Abbey transposed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yes, the book is gossipy, but Brower’s sources are named—and include, in addition to staffers, former first ladies Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Rosalynn Carter, and several former first children. So much for the heretofore accepted code of silence surrounding work at the White House. The book is full of fascinating descriptions of the good, bad, and the ugly covering ten administrations, from JFK to Obama.

The Obama material is my focus here, but I’ll end with some of the choicest tidbits involving other presidents and first ladies, including a couple of Chicago-bred girls—Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.

Back to that first day, when the Obamas moved in after the inauguration and evening galas. Brower includes a poignanat anecdote from a White House usher, Worthington White, who describes the Obamas’ first night at the White House, after all the balls were over. He hears the brand-new president, clad in shirtsleeves while Michelle is in a T-shirt and sweatpants, say to his wife, “I got the inside on this now,” as he puts on the record “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige and grabs Michelle for a dance.

One of Brower’s best sources is chief usher Stephen Rochon, an African American man who assumed the post in the W. Bush administration and kept it until he retired in 2011. He was only the second black person to hold it. (The first, William Slade, was hired by President Andrew Johnson in 1866 after having served as a personal messenger for President Abraham Lincoln.) Rochon told Brower that he noted a special bond between the Obamas and the largely African American White House staff “because they’re from the same culture.” Yet despite that, Brower’s sources describe the Obamas as “considerably more reserved and less chatty than his immediate predecessors…You had to keep it completely professional.”

Rochon describes Barack and Michelle as “uncomfortable” with having “so many butlers and housekeepers waiting on them hand and foot.” (The staff numbers about 100 full-timers and 250 part-timers.) Obama was not, after all, the son of a president or someone who had been tended to in a governor’s mansion.

Michelle was determined that at least some of the services rendered would not be extended to her daughters. She insisted that her older daughter, Malia, on turning 13, do her own laundry. She would be taught how by Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, who lives in a suite on the White House’s third floor (the Obamas live on the second floor). Marian reluctantly moved there, at Michelle’s behest, from her modest digs in Chicago and insisted on doing her own laundry. “She doesn’t want strangers touching her intimate wears,” Michelle once explained. Michelle’s first press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, told Brower that Michelle told the girls, “Don’t get used to someone else making your bed, that’s on your chores list.”

Brower describes Michelle’s mantra that the girls be raised with discipline and follow her strict views about healthy eating: “The girls get dessert only on weekends, but when their grandmother, Marian, is in charge, they splurge, eating ice cream and popcorn.”

Meanwhile, the Clintons, especially Bill, were known for gregariousness so extreme that the private quarters hummed with visitors, many of them entertained with the goal of a large contribution to follow, to the point that Bill was accused of renting out the Lincoln bedroom. The Obamas are not the adult sleepover types. Brower describes them as “especially private and only a few close friends, including Valerie Jarrett, are frequently seen upstairs.”

They live in a house—six floors, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms—that includes snipers on the roof and threats against the president’s life three times as frequent as those against his predecessors. Michelle, not surprisingly, has agreed with the characterization of the White House as a “prison,” but stipulates that it’s a “really nice prison.”

The Residence contains enough social history to make it more than a beach or airplane book—in fact, it charts the servant staff of the White House going back to the very beginning. When John Adams moved into the White House in 1800, one-third of Washington’s residents were black, most of them slaves. African Americans, both free and enslaved, built the White House and much of the Capitol. The slaves “were leased from their masters to work….paid only in food and drink (daily rations of one pint of whiskey each).”

Back then, presidents had to pay for their own White House servants, so they were careful to keep the ranks thin. Thomas Jefferson had about 12 servants, three whites and the rest slaves from Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home. For a time, Brower writes, “slave pens were set up in Lafayette Square within full view of the White House.” When Zachary Taylor became president in 1849, “Northerners were expressing outrage about the practice of slavery. In a bid to save money, Taylor supplemented the four servants he had on staff by bringing about 15 slaves, some of them children, from his home in Louisiana, but he kept them largely out of view for fear of the public’s reaction. Slavery was finally abolished in the capital city in 1862.”

But harsh segregation persisted. In FDR’s White House, “there were separate dining rooms for white and African American workers. When [the latter] accompanied the president to the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park, they were not allowed to eat in the dining room designated for the help [and] told to eat in the kitchen.”

Flash forward to present day—or at least 2009—when Desiree Rogers became the first African American to serve as White House social secretary. Rogers, one of the Chicagoans whom Brower interviewed for the book, was an Obama friend from Chicago. She recalls inauguration day as the staff was readying the White House for the arrival of the first black president and his family. “I could not help but be taken at how [the staff] looked. They reminded me, quite frankly, of my grandfather.”

Rogers ended up getting fired after drawing too much attention to herself and allowing a serious security breach to occur on her watch. The portrait of Rogers, now back in Chicago as CEO of Johnson Publishing, is not a pretty one. The staff, Brower reports, was not sorry to see her go. “I can’t tell you how many times we heard [Rogers ask for] ‘the Four Seasons look.’” Brower quotes florist Bob Scanlan as saying. “From the beginning many of the florists viewed Rogers as disrespectful of the mansion’s long-standing traditions and were happy to see her go 15 months later.” Brower adds, “When I ask chief usher Rochon what it was like working with Rogers, he joked that he might need to take an Excedrin.”

Other juicy tidbits about previous administrations include:

  • LBJ insisted that extra hot and high-pressured plumbing be installed in his bathroom, with “water charging out of multiple nozzles in every direction with needlelike intensity and a hugely powerful force. One nozzle was pointed directly at the president’s penis, which he nicknamed ‘Jumbo.’ Another shot right up his rear.” Brower reports that during the installation process, the White House plumbing foreman was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.
  • Richard Nixon liked to bowl, to the point of installing a bowling alley in the White House basement—and he once played with a White House dishwasher until 2 a.m. Nixon wrote a note to the man’s wife to explain his late arrival home.
  • Ronald Reagan liked to read newspapers in the nude. He was so chatty that staffers tried to avoid him lest they get stuck in a two-hour conversation. Nancy Reagan could be officious and demanding. She would summon staffers to turn on lights that she could easily have reached herself. And woe to the staffer who broke a piece of her extensive collection of Limoges china.
  • The Clintons horrified staffers with angry, violent arguments after the Lewinsky story broke in January 1998. And, yes, Hillary swore at Bill—“Goddam bastard!”—and threw a lamp; some said a book, perhaps even the Bible, at him. The altercation left blood all over the bed linens. For four months after, he was exiled by Hillary to sleep on a sofa in his private study. On particularly bad days, Hillary would call executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier and ask, “Roland, can I have a mocha cake tonight?”

The reader also learns that White House servants saw President Clinton and the intern together –in the movie theater and the Oval Office—and knew they were having an affair for more than a year before the story broke. A White House maid told Brower, “You could feel the sadness” in the Clintons’ private quarters.

The favorite first couple, according to Brower, was the George H.W. Bushes, perhaps because they grew up in homes that had servants, and because they genuinely seemed to like talking to and getting to know the people who cooked and cleaned for them. Barbara Bush would visit and chat with the florists; the president would play horseshoes with staffers.

This book was made possible because, oddly, White House butlers, maids, and the rest are not asked to sign nondisclosure agreements. There was, more or less until Brower came along, an informal agreement that what went on in the White House stayed in the White House. No more.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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