Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

Reviewed by William Wade

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, by Kate Anderson Brower, is a splendid introduction to a world we all presume must exist, though we know little about it – the intimate private world that runs the White House.  Brower is an experienced reporter on the national scene and  knows what she writes about.  This is not a book about national politics, foreign relations, or political scandals.  It is a book about the inner staff that manages the national mansion and keeps things in order (most of the time!).

An introductory chapter describes just what makes up the White House and its staff.  Roughly one hundred individuals work in a building of 55,000 square feet which appears on the outside to be a two-story structure, but it really has six floors – 132 rooms, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, and three elevators.  It sits on a campus of eighteen acres, and those one hundred workers strive to remain anonymous and unseen; the typical tourist seeing only a handful of guides and attendants who conduct groups through the building.

The various chapters in the book describe in detail some of the more interesting aspects of the work of the staff.   “Controlled Chaos”  focuses upon the event that may happen once each four years when there is a change in the presidency,  The outgoing incumbent and his family enjoy a normal breakfast on January 20, but when they walk out the door to attend the inaugural festivities all bedlam breaks loose in the mansion.  Every stitch of furniture or personal belongings of the incumbent must be removed and sent away; similar possessions of the new presidential family are brought in and put in place, pictures are hung, personal items are set in their special places, and when the new first family arrives about 5:00 pm they are given a warm and cordial greeting by a staff which struggles to conceal their harried exhaustion.  Only when a president returns for a second term is there escape from this quadrennial day of madness.

As you would expect, the chapter titled “Discretion” lets you in on one absolute rule governing all White House staffers. You simply DO NOT talk or write about what you see regarding the principal families dwelling there.  And for the most part this rule is scrupulously obeyed.  Ms Brower even had difficulties loosening up some of the staffers to give interviews.  “Devotion” becomes another aspect of life at the White House; the presidential family and the workers often develop a quiet and deep devotion to each other, something that never seems to make it into the news media.  Presidential families do make hospital visits to relatives of their staffs and are present at funerals.  “Devotion” also means that a cardinal rule is to serve the president; if he wants breakfast at 3 AM some morning, he gets it.  As a result of the demands, the divorce rate among staff members is above normal.  But so is the marriage rate; so close is the relationship among the staff that an unmarried pastry cook is likely to develop an attachment to a male member of the maintenance staff.  Above all, the president rules. One staffer was told by his superior that his relationship to the president was not of the best.  “What does this mean?” asked the staffer.  “That this is your last day working in the White House,” was the response of the supervisor.

“Race and the Residence” deals with the tricky question of equal rights.  African Americans have always made up a large percentage of the servants in the White House.  And it may surprise you to discover that equal access and pay for various job levels did not exist among the staff even as late as the Lyndon Johnson administration.  And there was some bitterness among the black workers.

This book is filled with many anecdotes and stories; they abound on every page.  And that is what gives this book such charm.  It will not put you to sleep!  Above all, one guiding principle for all staffers is  the ability to handle the unexpected – no matter how large or small, no matter how consequential or trivial.  One day in 1970 Elvis Presley showed up unexpectedly at the West Wing office.  He wanted to see the president with a request, a yen to be sworn in as an undercover Federal agent.  The staff handled the matter with aplomb.  After requesting that his body guard surrender his weapon, they ushered him into Nixon’s presence.  But they neglected to give Elvis a pat-down, and he carried a Colt 45 into the Oval Office as a present for Nixon.  Many colored photographs are a delightful garnish to this volume.

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