The Private World of Public Servants
In her book ‘The Residence’, former White House correspondent Kate Andersen Brower looks not to the First Family themselves, but to the staff charged with the running the world’s most famous political household. She spoke with butlers, maids, chefs, florists, doormen and other staff members about their role in the White House. She talked about her book at the John Adams Institute on March 21.
Who are the people behind the scenes at The Residence?
The book starts with the presidency of the Kennedys and goes through the Obamas, but it’s about the resident staff. I interviewed more than fifty of them for the book, mostly former staffers, and I was catching a lot of people at the end of their lives. Some of them even started in the Eisenhower administration. In the two years that it took me to report the book, a lot of them unfortunately passed away. I try to quote them very directly, to keep evidence of their idiosyncratic ways of speaking.
Even though the White House is in many ways a ‘public domicile’, it’s the closest that the family is going to get to privacy during their time in office. What can this look at the space of the White House offer that a more traditional biography could not?
It catches them at their most private moments. Such as Pat Nixon, during Watergate, crying in the elevator with the doorman. Jackie and Bobby Kennedy crying in the elevator with the doorman after JFK’s assassination. There are these moments when they’re the most fragile and vulnerable, and the only people who see them are the staffers. I did talk to a few presidential advisors and family members, but they are so much more guarded. A maid is more of a ‘regular person’.
The book is also about trying to find out what the First Families are really like, their personalities. The President and the First Lady are icons, you feel like you don’t know them at all. I covered the White House for Bloomberg News, and I had no sense of what they were really like even though I had asked them questions before. I thought that talking to the people who serve them would be the best way to get at it.
Can you give us an example of one of the staffers you spoke with?
I went to Forestville, Maryland, which is about a half an hour outside DC, to visit a butler at his house a couple of years ago. He’d retired in 2012, and he had this really modest, one-bedroom condo. But what was incredible, was that on his walls were pictures of him with Nelson Mandela, with Obama, with the pope! And he was a very down-to-earth guy, he’d done his thirty years but I don’t think he realized how amazing it was that he got to meet all these people.
The book is a way to pay tribute to these folks. A lot of them were African-Americans in their seventies or eighties when I interviewed them. The butler I visited, James Ramsey, grew up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. He never went to college, never graduated from high school, and then he found himself on a first name basis with the President and the First Lady. When he died, Laura Bush even flew from Texas to go to Ramsey’s funeral. The First Families feel a great loyalty to these staffers who make their lives easier.
Are these jobs a lifetime commitment?
Oh yeah, they don’t leave. After 9/11, for example, a lot of them were worried, because it was so scary, and they thought they were the bull’s-eye. When I interviewed Laura Bush, she said it meant so much to her that none of them left. This is their life. A lot of the butlers get divorced because they work such long hours. Someone said, ‘White House flex-time’ is whatever 85 hours you want to work in the week.
I couldn’t believe how dedicated they were and how much they love their jobs. Not one person I interviewed left before the thirty years was up. Also they get a good retirement, so they want to stay.
Were they willing to gossip with you?
A lot of the book is about their discretion. They really do not say anything negative if they can help it. They’re also not partisan. For example, when I ask them who they liked best, almost every single one said George and Barbara Bush. Most of them were probably Democrats, from what I could gather, but they still felt like Bush Senior was the sweetest. They would play horseshoes with the staff, they knew everyone’s names. The Clintons were harder to warm to, they wanted a lot of privacy.
The most interesting stories were from the transition from the Kennedys to the Johnsons, after JFK’s assassination. One usher told me it was like having a close friend die, but because they all saw how strong Jackie was, they never wanted to cry in front of her.
What are they saying about the upcoming election?
The staffers are watching the 2016 election race and wondering who’s going to win, because that’s their new boss. Nobody watches the elections closer than the resident staffers. They all told me they were on the edge of their seats in 2004 because they thought Teresa Heinz Kerry was going to be coming into the White House as First Lady, and they had heard rumors about her being a tyrant. So they are probably very concerned about what’s going to happen with Donald Trump, and I’m actually talking to some of them today to try to figure out what they think about Melania as First Lady.
Kate Andersen Brower on ‘The Residence’ (verschenen als ‘De Residentie’ bij uitgeverij Luitingh-Sijthoff).