The White House secret keepers

Published 9:33 am Saturday, June 25, 2022

“The glue that holds the house together.” This is how Jimmy Carter described the White House Staff. As of July, 2021, there were 560 staff members in Biden’s White House. Seventy-four of them earned a salary of $150,000 or more with the average salary being $95,649. But, hold onto your hats … forty-one folks earned no salary at all!

There are full time and part time workers which include ushers, chefs, florists, maids, butlers, doormen, painters, carpenters, electricians and calligraphers. (I’m going to let you guess who amongst these does not get paid, because I can’t.) In addition there are several dozen National Park Service staff who take care of the White House grounds.

The biggest honcho on the staff sits in the Usher’s Office where the center of activity buzzes around him. He’s the chief usher and is in charge of all the funds allocated by Congress to run the house, including the cost of heating, lighting, air-conditioning and the staff’s salaries. (Indeed, everyone except those hapless—though big hearted—unpaid folks.)

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In 1941, there were sixty-two White House staff members. Then the annual budget was $152,000. The annual budget now hovers around $15,000,000+. You should know that this cost is separate from the amount needed to repair and restore the White House every year.

One could describe the Chief Usher’s job as being akin to the general manager of a five-star hotel … but, with only one tenant family to serve. He or she manages the whole kit and caboodle and works closely with the first lady.

The strict requirements for this job are beyond stringent. Take, for example, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Stephen Rochen who, in 2007, was appointed chief usher by George W. Bush. Admiral Rochen had to go through eight interviews for the job, requiring him to drive back and forth to the White House from his Coast Guard Station in Norfolk, Virginia. His final interview was with President Bush himself and was held in the Oval Office.

In the interview Bush asked Rochen if he would be happy with such a modest, misleading title. “Well,” was his reply, “what’s in a title?” Apparently a lot because after Rochen was hired, the job title was renamed: “White House Chief Usher and Director of the Executive Residence.” Clearly it had more swagger, thus carrying significant clout on the impressive scale.

Despite the august title, the goal of the mission is simple: to provide whatever the first family needs … and when they need it! For one usher this included feverishly searching the house for Caroline Kennedy’s lost hamsters, while for another it was calling in dozens of experts in a perpetual, though in vain, quest to satisfy Lyndon Johnson’s demand for better water pressure in his shower. Indeed, Jacqueline Kennedy called her usher, “the most powerful man in Washington, next to the president.”

From the highest to the lowest staff positions, getting hired is not as cinchy as answering a newspaper ad or applying online. That’s because none of the jobs are advertised. Nearly everyone who is hired is recommended by a family member who is already on staff. This is significant because it means they are vouching for the person they are bringing in. That’s called being really, really responsible. Most staffers stay on for decades, some even for generations. One family, the Ficklins, has had nine of their family members work in the White House.

Then there is the social secretary, a job usually held by a woman. The Obamas changed this by not only hiring a man, but also the first openly gay male social secretary. (Conveniently being black, made this tri-cornered break in tradition complete. Three cheers for Obama!)

The social secretary acts as a conduit between the first family and the residence staff, as well as between the West Wing and the East Wing. Things can easily get sticky for the secretary as he/she is often pulled in opposite directions by competing worlds. Letitia Baldrige served as Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary. During that time, Letitia received a number of letters disapproving of Vice President Johnson’s long, shoulder length hair. In an unexpected quirk of fashion, Jackie really liked his long hair. But, alas, when word trickled down from Letitia to the Oval Office, JFK insisted that Johnson cut off his locks. Jackie didn’t speak to tattle-tale Baldrige for three days. (The report failed to say how long she cold-shouldered JFK!)

The social secretary occasionally has to deliver cantankerous news to the residence staff. This news often comes from the first lady herself who is working her darndest to stay above the fray. Laura Bush’s social secretary had to deliver one such message to the Executive Chef. It contained a request to stop serving the first family “country club food.” The truth was that the food was hardly what one would call highbrow. Nonetheless, culinary peace was restored when the chef declared, “If the president wants a peanut butter and honey sandwich then, by god, we will make the best damn peanut butter and honey sandwich we can!”

Always keeping an eye out for each other, the residence staff shares warning messages. It isn’t unusual for a housekeeper to say to the floral team, “You might want to take a look at the Red Room. There are flower petals on the table. I picked them up, but they’re still dropping.” (Whoa! Send her to my house! I’ve got dropping petals.)

The White House employs a staff of permanent butlers who are frequently supplemented by additional workers when there are big events, such as state dinners.

Select valets tend exclusively to the president’s more personal needs and are always close at hand. Typically there are two on round-the-clock duty. The valet performs any task needed such as resolving the president’s shoes — do president’s do that? — to greet him in the morning with coffee, breakfast or even a cough drop. When the president travels, the valet accompanies him in a back-up car with a spare shirt and tie. This is in the event the president is like a lot of men I know who need a quick replacement for a soup-dripped necktie. (No naming names here.)

On the first day after his inauguration, George W. Bush was shocked when he met his valets for the first time. At a loss as to what to do, a highly distressed G.W.B. rushed to his father, “Two men just introduced themselves as my valets. I don’t need a valet. I don’t want a valet.” “You’ll soon get used to it,” his father replied. And he did.

Sometimes a staff member gets to witness the sheer joy that a newly inaugurated president feels at the moment he attains the highest peak in American politics. One such event happened after the Obama final inaugural ball ended and the exhausted couple was settling in for their first night in the White House.

One of the staffers had to go to the second floor to drop off some late-night reports. As he neared the family’s private quarters he heard something unusual. It was Obama proclaiming, ”I got this! I got this! Yes, I got the inside on this now.” With that there was a sudden blare of music as Mary J. Blige’s singing voice came over the speakers.

When Mr. Obama took the paperwork from the surprised staffer, his formal attire had been shed for shirt sleeves and his first lady was in a T-shirt and sweatpants. Clearly jubilant, Barrack grabbed Michelle and they joyously began dancing to Blige’s big hit, “Real Love.”

So unusual and unexpected was this scene, that the usher paused for a moment to take it all in. “It was the most beautiful, lovely thing you could ever imagine,” he sighed. He wasn’t sure how late the Obamas stayed up dancing, but it was clear the country’s first couple was in love and intended to savor this precious moment together. To be sure, it was a whole lot of political sweet.