The Secret Life of the White House

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The residence staff, many of whom have worked there for decades, balance their service of the First Family with their long-term loyalty to the house itself.

https://www.newyorker.com-By Susannah Jacob

The binding ethos of many White House residence workers is discretion and service to the physical structure—and, by extension, to the President who occupies it.Photograph by Tina Hager / White House Photo Office

Before Inauguration Day, the White House residence staff were already exhausted. For several weeks, many of them had worked sixteen-hour days preparing for the transition—the approximately six-hour-long window between when the Trumps would depart and the Bidens arrive. White House transitions typically demand superhuman effort, but this year’s was among the most physically demanding in recent memory. At risk of falling ill with the coronavirus, staffers worked in close quarters to transform the upstairs rooms of the White House, where the windows don’t open and are paned with thick, bulletproof glass, in accordance with the strong preference of the Secret Service.

In previous transitions, the residence staff brought the White House to a state of as-ready-as-possible without making major changes until the new First Family arrived and redecorated. If a departing family took a personal sofa with them, the staff replaced it with one from the White House collection, so that the incoming family need not walk into a bare room. But, under a new White House chief usher, Timothy Harleth, the transition became a far more ambitious affair. Hired by the Trumps, in 2017, Harleth had previously been a rooms manager at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Early in the Administration, he had hired a “creative manager,” and on Inauguration Day Harleth enlisted that person to make the upstairs rooms look “ ‘Architectural Digest’-ready,” a residence worker said. In the frantic final hours, the creative manager was laying out guestbooks and new stationery, filling the bookcases with decorative plates and candles, and staging throws on furniture. “They wanted these rooms to look like a high-end hotel,” the worker added.

Harleth wanted to make a good impression on Joe and Jill Biden, who could have extended his tenure. But, Harleth told me, shortly after eleven o’clock on January 20th, less than an hour before the official Presidential changeover, one of the last remaining Trump officials, in the Office of Administration, came to Harleth’s office and told him that the Bidens had requested his departure. The Biden White House hedged on the matter, telling CNN that Harleth was “let go before the Bidens arrived.” (The Trumps could not be reached for comment.) Harleth was shocked at the time, but a week later he told me, “Every family deserves to have the people they want there.”

With or without Harleth, the residence staff soldiered on. The move unfolded at a rapid but methodical pace, with boxes upon boxes stacked and transferred between the historic rooms. “The White House is not big,” another career White House employee, whom I will call Jason, said. “The East Room is chock-full of boxes.” The White House’s two elevators, only one big enough to move furniture, were in constant use. “If you could carry something, it wasn’t going down the elevator,” Jason said. The move was conducted while keeping up appearances for a nationally televised Inauguration celebration later that night. “Imagine your house is being used for a TV show while you were moving, and no one could know you were moving,” Jason said. And, as they always have, the residence staff pulled it off. By the end of the morning, they had set out the Bidens’ family photographs and stocked the kitchen with the family’s favorite foods.

The full story of the residence staffers’ ecosystem is rarely told. Many of the workers have served multiple Presidents, and for that reason they call themselves lifers. Their binding ethos is discretion and loyalty to the White House itself—and, by extension, to whoever is President. They are perpetually insecure in their jobs. Although their employment continues across a transition, it is never guaranteed—they serve at the pleasure of the President. Keeping their jobs requires persuading his staff of their indispensable authority on the arcane methods necessary to operate the old and leaky structure, and of their loyalty and willingness to adapt to a First Family’s needs. They balance those requirements with another: to protect the physical White House itself, often from the people who occupy it.

I met the White House lifers while working as a speechwriter for President Barack Obama. For the past four years, I have spoken with dozens of lifers, former and current, about how they survived the Trump Presidency. I came to understand that the White House does not shed the identities of past Presidents so much as it accumulates them, abides them up to a point, and, ultimately, waits them out. By continuing to do their jobs and serve whoever moves in, the lifers embody the White House’s independence. Donald Trump was yet another test that they survived.

The residence staff numbers ninety people: butlers, chefs, curators, florists, housekeepers, electricians, and others who work in the bowels of the White House. They not only serve a First Family’s use of the White House as a home. They also serve its use of the White House as a stage to advance a political agenda.

Under Trump, that stage grew deathly quiet. On multiple occasions, Trump held events in the White House’s grand rooms—the gold-curtained East Room, the Diplomatic Reception Room, the marble-columned State Floor—to advance his chief political cause: himself. Amid a thirty-five-day government shutdown, Trump served hundreds of hamburgers, buffet style, to the Clemson University Tigers, the N.C.A.A. college-football champions, in the State Dining Room. More recently, he held the Republican Party’s 2020 National Convention on the South Lawn and an Election Night watch party in the East Room. But the level of publicity that those events generated belied how few of them occurred. Among the lifers, a malaise set in. “Nothing happens. It’s a bare-minimum situation,” Jason told me, before Biden’s Inauguration. “For four years, we’ve done two months’ worth of events.” The Trumps hosted only two state dinners, compared with six that the Obamas hosted during their first term.

The Covid-19 pandemic increased the White House’s emptiness. “People stayed home. Everything from food service to national security—if it could be done at home, it was done at home,” Jason said. Harleth told me that the residence staff took Covid-19 precautions more seriously than others at the Trump White House. “We were the ones wearing P.P.E., pushing to get our folks tested,” he said. Still, he conceded, “most of our folks can’t easily telework,” and by his count seven or eight residence staff workers contracted the virus. Once they recovered, those workers were asked to fill in for others, because of their presumed immunity. “It meant that they could work safely while others stayed home,” Harleth said. According to Jason, the lifers were given conflicting advice: stay home; later, come in. “There was lots and lots of confusion, no direction from the top, a complete lack of empathy, sympathy,” he said. “The Christmas parties with maskless hordes were catered, but [the staff] would have to be there for this and that. Someone’s got to be there, not everyone can leave while the catering crew comes in. There was not a steady message on how to keep you safe.”

When not upstairs, in the family quarters, the staff works in a labyrinth of rooms below the White House’s northern steps, a space concealed from onlookers milling about on Pennsylvania Avenue. Their corridor is a covered portion of the original northern driveway, with push-button double doors at either end. As I remember it, between those doors, trucks and forklifts rolled in and out, delivering groceries and carting away trash. An Adirondack bench under a flapping white awning was a place to smoke when it rained. Inside, carpenters and electricians pushed rolling carts of tools between white linoleum countertops. Fresh flowers filled walk-in freezers that resembled a Costco produce aisle. Plastic storage boxes stacked against the wall were labelled with their contents: “linens and lawn ornaments,” “tablecloths and patio-furniture covers,” for use on the Truman Balcony. On the occasion of a state dinner, florists laid out thousands of orchids, like dolls, on every available surface, a blinding sea of white. At times, operations men packed the hall with stacks of East Room chairs, backed with bevelled slats painted gold, cream cushions tied to their seats. Around Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, lifers filled the hall with enormous craft pumpkins and rabbits, and also red-white-and-blue bunting, for use on the South Lawn. During Christmas, the corridor was transformed into a canapé-making assembly line, overpowered by the smell of fresh pine needles, bacon, baking bread, and propane from the temporary ovens set up on the drive.

When I worked at the White House, I walked through the lifers’ corridor in the mornings, past a Secret Service officer seated by a telephone, head drooping at the end of a sixteen-hour double shift. Dale Haney, the chief groundskeeper since 1972, who is still at the White House, was often walking through the corridor with the Obamas’ dogs, their leashes in one hand and his boxed lunch or breakfast in the other. Butlers and valets leaned against the doorways, talking with chefs. The letter “R” printed on their blue plastic badges granted them access to the upper floors of the house, and they wore expressions of smiling, unyielding discretion. History is etched in the corridor’s stone walls. When the British burned the White House in 1814, oxygen-starved flames rushed out, licking them. A few are still unpainted so that passersby can study the charred spots. Hitches for nineteenth-century horse-drawn carriages stick out from the stones. Chiselled grooves, slightly askew, convey the wobble of the hands that carved them. In 1794, Thomas Jefferson helped recruit Scottish stonemasons to complete the White House.

The lifers’ constancy is useful in a house where the occupants change every four to eight years. Originally, Presidents paid the staffers’ wages, but in the nineteenth century, when the lifers’ ranks grew, Congress began paying their salaries instead, solidifying their status as fixed employees of the house. “The President’s House,” a two-volume history by William Seale, tells many of their stories. A doorkeeper named Tom Pendel began working at the White House in 1864, during the Lincoln Administration. Pendel babysat Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad. He fetched Lincoln to inform him of the arrival of guests or of bad news from the front lines during the Civil War. He nailed wood strips and lines of tallow candles inside the White House windowsills to illuminate the building in celebration of Union military victories. On those occasions, hundreds of people would gather on Pennsylvania Avenue and sing to Lincoln, who would stand at a window to address the crowd. Pendel would “draw the curtain back and stand just out of sight against a wall, holding a candle high, so that the President could be seen,” Seale wrote. After Lincoln’s assassination, Pendel remained at his Pennsylvania Avenue post. Under Rutherford B. Hayes, in a time of particularly high tourist traffic at the White House, Pendel policed souvenir hunters, who would snip tassels from the drapes or pocket inkwells and chandelier pendants. During the Garfield Administration, Pendel repeatedly turned away Garfield’s future assassin—a man who had sought a government position and to whom Pendel said, each time, “The President is unable to see you today.” Pendel held an umbrella over Grover Cleveland’s wife on the rainy Inauguration Day when she moved out of the White House, and he was standing in the entrance hall when news rang out that Cleveland’s successor William McKinley had been shot. Pendel died in 1911, at the age of eighty-four, while standing at his front-door post during the Taft Administration.

Before he retired as the White House maître d’, in 1983, John Ficklin had been on staff for forty-four years, serving nine Presidents in total. Around the time of his retirement, Ficklin spoke to the Washington Post about his career. The son of a slave, Ficklin found work at the White House during F.D.R.’s Administration, through his brother, a White House butler at the time. Ficklin became the head butler under Eisenhower. “You just can’t put down on paper everything that a butler would do,” he told the Post. “Instead of calling someone and saying the President or First Lady wants such and such, you’d just go do it yourself.” About the nearly all-Black butler staff, Ficklin told the Post that he had interviewed white people for butler positions over the years but few seemed really to want the job: “We got quite a few applications, but when it came down to really working, they weren’t very interested.”

Historically, many residence-staff jobs have been passed down through generations of Washington, D.C.,’s Black and white families. “It’s a long tradition,” Betty Monkman, who started in the White House curator’s office in 1967 and retired as chief curator in 2002, told me. Those who worked in the residence “were local people, family members—somebody was always a cousin of somebody else on staff.” When Monkman started, during the Johnson Administration, segregation was still fresh in people’s minds. “I heard many stories about segregated lunchrooms for the residence staff—they were integrated in the fifties,” she told me. “Even when I started, in the late sixties, it wasn’t so integrated in terms of the roles people played. For a long time, African-Americans were butlers, maids, and housemen, versus the engineers, electricians, painters, and carpenters, who were white. Bit by bit, they were hired into the trades.” The distinction meant that white workers often had control of their whereabouts, whereas Black workers had to sit at the ready, to be summoned upstairs at any moment.

For decades, many department heads were white. George W. Bush hired the first Black chief usher, Stephen Rochon. Rochon came from outside the White House, breaking a long tradition of hiring the chief usher from the residence staff. Previously a rear admiral in the Coast Guard, Rochon attempted to bring military efficiency to the staff, but he never gained their full trust, according to those I spoke with. He took great pride in the history of the White House and the role of chief usher, but he gave endless personal tours, a violation of the staff credo to remain behind the scenes. Some of the staff supposed that the tours were Rochon’s undoing; the Obamas reassigned him to the Department of Homeland Security. The Obamas hired or promoted first-generation immigrants and women of color to the roles of head chef and chief florist, and they replaced Rochon with Angella Reid, who is Black. She, too, was an outsider, coming to the White House from the Ritz-Carlton company, where she had worked for twenty-one years. Work was difficult for the residence staff under Reid, who earned respect but also a reputation as a taskmaster, and who ran the White House with the exacting and fear-inducing sensibilities of a luxury-hotel manager. Several people told me that Reid made a point of humiliating workers, disparaging their performance in front of their colleagues. (In a statement, Reid said that working at the White House “was not only a highlight of my career but memories I will hold dear for my entire life. I look back fondly and often think about the residence staff, continuing to root them all on. I wish them nothing but the best.”)

The Obama Administration brought a new set of challenges, from the lifers’ perspective. The family hosted events late into the night and again the next morning. They also had some notions that clashed with the lifers’ sensibilities, including setting up a Nintendo Wii in the China Room for their daughters during a holiday break and holding exercise classes in the East Room. “Lincoln lay in state in that room. Kennedy lay in state in that room,” Bill Yosses, the White House pastry chef from 2007 to 2014, told me. The Internet, or lack thereof, was a problem at first, because Obama, his family, and staff were used to accomplishing tasks online; the lifers lacked Internet in many of their offices, and, in some cases, shared e-mail accounts. Early in the Administration, when he realized that valets were fulfilling his Amazon orders from their homes, Obama ordered the installation of good Internet for the residence workers’ use.

In other ways, the Obama Administration adapted to the residence staff. For decades, the stage built for speeches and events in the East Room left a couple feet of space between the risers and the ground, exposing unsightly cables. So Dale Haney, the longtime groundskeeper, would line a row of potted ferns along the stage to conceal the gap. But Desiree Rogers, the Obamas’ first social secretary, sought to expel pervasive nineties frump. Yosses said, “The ferns became a four-letter word.” As he recalled it, Haney “always had his ferns ready. He’s, like, ‘Oh you need risers? I’ll get the ferns.’ But Desiree was, like, ‘No fucking ferns. I don’t want ferns.’ ” Rogers left, after just over a year on the job, and the ferns returned. “It was just too easy,” Yosses said. Rogers disputes saying this, and maintains that there was “a wide selection of greenery around the stages at all times.”

The residence staff will tell you that they avoid discussing politics at work, yet in recent years that pact has frayed, as it has elsewhere in America. Tensions surface more than in the past, prompted at times by knowledge of their colleagues’ Facebook posts. “Most people know more or less where people stand,” the residence worker told me. About half of the lifers are people of color, which raises questions about how they tolerated working for Trump. “We have to be impressed with the idea that a bunch of Black and brown people can survive this daily onslaught,” Jason told me. “It speaks to their diligence and loyalty to the house itself—they are not really there for the person.” But they were not impervious to the tone of the Administration. Under Trump, Jason said, Black and brown lifers noted that white people on staff were “saying some real shit . . . meaning they’re comfortable to say what they want to say.”

A little over four years ago, the lifers awaited the Trumps with nervous anticipation. They knew little about the new President, beyond that he owned hotels and fired people on television. He lived in a gilded penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue modelled after the Palace of Versailles, the very building that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson deemed the anti-White House. In his stump speech, Trump objected to the routine of holding big state dinners in tents on the South Lawn, and promised to build a hundred-million-dollar ballroom. There was “an anticipation of radical change and substantial change, because of the whole ‘Apprentice’ thing, you know—‘You’re fired!’ ” Daniel Shanks, who served as the usher responsible for food and beverage at the residence for twenty-two years, and who retired in October, 2017, recalled. “That wasn’t dispelled immediately, because there was nobody to dispel it.”

Five months in, the Trumps did fire someone: Angella Reid. “It’s not uncommon that you might have a transition of staff when a new Administration comes in. And it’s simply nothing more than that,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was then the deputy White House press secretary, said at the time. After Reid’s firing, the residence staff braced for what might come. The Trumps’ selection of Timothy Harleth, who was relatively young and mid-career, caused some head-scratching. “He didn’t carry the mystique,” Shanks told me. “He was someone from down the street.” Another lifer remembered Harleth’s unceremonious first day, when the new boss wandered the corridor where the workers sit, poking his head around and asking, “Hello, is anybody back there?”

Some workers I spoke with saw Harleth as a kindlier manager than Reid, and expressed respect and admiration for his efforts. But, ultimately, Reid and Harleth shared the same ambitions: to make the White House run more like a hotel, an objective at odds with the philosophy of the longest-serving lifers, who say that a hotel is a place where guests pay to stay. The White House, they will tell you, is a home. According to residence staff workers, Harleth cracked down on overtime pay and led peppy, hotel-staff-style stand-up meetings. As his tenure progressed, he hired former industry colleagues from the Trump International Hotel and the Mandarin Oriental. By the time Harleth left, several workers told me that they believed he was hostile to the lifers. “He saw us as dinosaurs . . . recalcitrant, most likely to complain, most likely to resist change,” the residence worker said. “There was a real condescension on his part for the people who had been there a long time.”

Harleth told me that he was most proud of overseeing renovations to the White House: polishing handrails that hadn’t “been touched in seventy years,” redoing marble floors, replacing doors, restoring wood floors and drapery. Renovations in the Rose Garden involved the removal of the garden’s ten trees, which one garden historian and Reagan Administration staffer said had left her “aghast.” “As politically charged as it was, the work in the Rose Garden was closest to my heart, because of the effort that went behind that,” Harleth said, adding that plant disease had blighted the garden. It’s a healthier space now as a result,” he said. He also cited innovations that he brought to entertaining, such as synchronized plate service, in which each course is set before all the guests at once. “It’s very easy to criticize and say that this is a home, not a hotel, as opposed to taking an issue and debating the merits of whatever is at hand,” he said. Nevertheless, Harleth, who told me that he supported Bernie Sanders, said that he had deep respect for the residence staff, who taught him “the value and the meaning of service to the country—that’s what they do every day, through their service to the Presidency.”

The former Trump Hotel colleagues whom Harleth hired included Arvind Chadha, who was charged with new authority to oversee the butlers. But the butlers, the consummate lifers and innermost layer of the residence staff, were not easily managed—their proximity to the President gives them independent power that other residence staffers lack. “The butlers don’t like anybody and nobody likes the butlers,” Dennis Hawk, who worked as the head of operations until June of 2020, told me. In the battle between Chadha and the butlers, the butlers easily outmaneuvered him, one lifer told me, over the summer. “Arvind thought he knew what he was doing, but he had no clue,” Hawk said. “He’d tell people he could do things without knowing he couldn’t,” he added, giving as an example the time Chadha promised to fit three hundred chairs in the East Room while also abiding by social-distancing requirements. (Chadha did not respond to a request for comment.)

Shanks told me that he left the White House because he had hit a length-of-service mark that made retirement advantageous, and because, at seventy, he was about to be married. He also felt the staff was changing, and although some of the changes had been positive it was time for him to move on. Other lifers left under Trump for similar reasons. The chief curator, housekeeper, and calligrapher all retired, with eighty-five years of combined service to the White House among them. Also departed: an electrician, a butler, the lead carpenter, a longtime housekeeper (for reasons of illness), a laundrywoman, two florists, and two ushers; one, Jim Doherty, who supervised the trades, died suddenly, in his fifties, and with him went a vast knowledge of the building’s every squeaky hinge. Many lifers who retired did not say that Trump, specifically, caused them leave. Pat Blair, the former chief calligrapher, who retired in 2018, told me, “It just felt like the right time—the end of an era.”

Most of the turnover reflects a broader culture clash that pits old and new ways of running a grand household against each other. Cataloguing the changes of recent decades, lifers point to the shift from hiring through word of mouth across generations of families to recruiting from Washington’s hotels, and to an increased use of outside consultants and decorators. The shift means the staff often takes direction rather than giving it. It also results in more cooled relationships over all between the lifers and First Families. The butlers remained more distant with the Obamas, who had never had a staff of housekeepers and craved privacy. The Trumps treated the residence staff like a “twenty-four-hour concierge desk,” according to Jonathan Lee, who served in the calligrapher’s office until 2017. (He was fired without explanation, though Lee speculates that the cause was Trump officials learning that he had held a political role under Obama.)

According to Shanks, the shift in relations between the First Families and lifers has changed the feeling of the White House. “The Obamas and the Trumps were the first Administrations when the residence was considered the upper floors and not the entire building. For us, it’s always been that the ‘home’ was from ‘basement to the sniper on the roof,’ ” Shanks said. “It doesn’t have the concept of the home of the First Family that it used to, but, again, that’s more societal.” Now it feels more like the public rooms are a museum or a convention center. In the twenty-first century, Shanks suggested, the White House became a sound set—events are less about the impression they will make on the people attending them and more about the buzz they will create online.

Traditionally, Inauguration Day at the White House flows as a series of fixed events orchestrated by the lifers: tea in the Blue Room, move out, move in, and, at night, a party for hundreds of people. “They go out the door and hours later, when a new family walks in, we’re totally devoted,” Shanks said. “We’ve made that split of having served and now serving.”

Between Obama’s departure and Trump’s arrival, the residence staff had just five hours to transform the private quarters. Reid, then the chief usher, stood before the elevator doors, directing the movement of furniture in and out. Lifers darted from room to room, carrying art, hanging drapes, laying out gowns, painting a few walls, unpacking china, and assembling beds. They held objects up to the White House curators, who would reply “ours” or “theirs.” There was a false alarm when someone thought a new mattress was the wrong size. In the frantic final hour, another lifer opened Sasha Obama’s bedroom closet and groaned, because it was still filled with the teen-ager’s clothes.

Four years later, when the hour came for the Trumps’ departure, the staff gathered in a hallway on the ground floor. Donald and Melania Trump each spoke brief words of thanks, and Harleth presented the outgoing family with the flags that had flown over the White House during their time there, a long-standing tradition. That was the last time that many of the staff saw Harleth. Moments before the Bidens arrived, they were told that Harleth had been fired. For some, it was an emotional moment. “He’s been a very strong leader in terms of he’s the one in charge, and to have him disappear on such an important day—we were just reeling from the emotion of it,” the residence worker said. Suddenly, moments before the Bidens walked through the doors, the exhausted staff were once again thrust into uncertainty over what the future held. As the residence worker told me, “Tim wasn’t without his faults, but he was the most competent and least partisan of the last three we’ve had.”

Meanwhile, outside, the Bidens ambled west on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the late-afternoon sunshine. Biden jogged over to greet and acknowledge questions from a trickle of supporters and reporters lining the bike racks, a mainstay of Secret Service crowd control. They turned left and walked up the right flank of the north drive, slowly, amid a noisy Rockwellian jumble of flags, horns, photographers, and advance staff. The Bidens stood on the top step of the North Portico, atop the workers’ main passage, and gazed out, as “God Bless America” played. Joe and Jill Biden embraced, squeezed hands, and turned to enter the White House as President and First Lady for the first time. Some observers noticed that they were made to wait for an awkward moment before the White House’s front doors opened—this, several people told me, was a sign of a departed chief usher. (The Bidens have named an acting chief usher and have not permanently filled the role.)

Inside, the residence staff was staged on the State Floor, ready to greet the Bidens. When they bid goodbye to the Trumps, hours earlier, they had all stood in one room. But now they were spread out in a line, through the entire floor, to put more distance between their bodies. “It’s like night and day,” the residence worker told me, describing the difference between the two families’ concern over social distancing. “The Bidens came in and the first thing they did was make a loop of the State Floor and greet the staff,” the worker said, pausing, and then beginning to cry. “We were all very flattered. Usually we meet them in the first days or first weeks, but never in the first minutes.” The Bidens went down the line, greeting the staff, some of whom spoke brief, deferential words of welcome and said that they were glad they were there. To one of the well-wishers, Biden was heard to respond, “We’re glad we’re here, too.”

This piece was supported by the Robert B. Silvers Foundation.

Susannah Jacob is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale and a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama.

 

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