I was mildly curious when I saw The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower, so I had a look. It was a New York Times bestseller, so apparently I’m not the only curious one.
Brower spoke to former White House staff, primarily the “backstairs” folks, including staff who served from the Kennedy administration up to and including the Obama administration or parts between. She had her work cut out for her, given that the White House staff is legendary for their discretion. They could certainly tell a lot more stories than appear here, and almost all of them are given to putting the best light on things, even the less sunny incidents. That said, there is certainly some interesting domestic material on First Family members here. You might not be surprised to find that Nancy Reagan is a fearsome taskmaster, but you might be surprised to read how she spoke to her husband on occasion. The Clinton White House, not to wonder at, was more contentious than most.
While the main interest in the book for most is probably the personal stories about presidents and their families, a substantial portion of the book is really about how things work at the White House and what it’s like to work there. The enormous pride that the staff take in their jobs is the biggest payoff they get. Given the cost of living in Washington, the long and often peculiar hours worked, and the ever-present threat of possible attacks from terrorists or other assassins, I’m sure I would find the salary insufficient for the task, but about 96 full-time and 250 part-time staff (ushers, chefs and other kitchen staff, maids, florists, butlers, doormen, painters, carpenters, electricians, engineers and, Iest we forget, calligraphers) manage to make it work.
I had never given much thought to the transition of the White House between one administration and the next, but it was rather mind-blowing. Evidently, about 95% of the move out of the White House and the move in occur between about eleven in the morning when the outgoing First Family departs for the inauguration and about five in the afternoon when the incoming family arrives to prep for the evening’s festivities. Since it would take too much effort to run security checks on moving company staffs, the White House staff takes care of everything, down to the last toothbrush. Having nearly recovered from a move of my own that took place a year and a half ago and for which I had several days, I can hardly imagine what kind of ordeal that must be, particularly if you have to do it every four or eight years!
The emotional toll, however, seems to be the greatest challenge most of the staff face. Knowing that the current family will only be there, at the most, eight years does not seem to soften the blow felt when they do leave. Politics don’t seem very important to most of the long-term staff. Those who are partisan tend to leave (of their own volition or otherwise) fairly early on.
To sum up, The Residence is a very interesting look at both the operations of the White House and the foibles of some of the residents who have lived there over the last 50 years. You can read it yourself to find out all about Lyndon Johnson’s shower obsession, Jackie Kennedy’s response to her sudden widowhood, and what chaos ensued at the White House on 9/11. It’s an interesting and little-covered piece of American history.