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11 Interesting Facts About Being on the Service Staff at the White House

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The Residence, by Kate Anderson Brower, is an extraordinary portrait of the butlers, maids, plumbers, and chefs who run the “home” half of the White House. The book is crafted from over 100 interviews, and takes readers to the tragic day Jackie Kennedy returned home in a blood-soaked dress, what Richard Nixon did after resigning, and what it’s like to walk in on naked presidents. The result is a mesmerizing history of America from the service staff’s heretofore untold point of view. A comprehensive list of the fascinating details revealed by Brower would require reprinting the book in its entirety; here's a tiny sampling of things we learned from The Residence.

1. It takes a large staff to care for the White House.

The White House is bigger than you think. Within the building, according to Brower, “132 rooms, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators are spread across the 6 floors—plus two hidden mezzanine levels—all tucked within what appears to be a three-story building.” Ninety-six people work full-time in the residence, and there are another 250 part-time employees. Among the jobs they do: butler, maid, chef, plumber, doorman, and florist. The second and third floors of the White House make up the residence.

2. “Devotion” is the service staff’s watchword.

Members of the service staff pride themselves on being able to melt into the walls, remaining simultaneously attentive and unobtrusive. Things like bed turndown, vacuumed carpet, and painted walls happen as if by magic, carefully choreographed around the first family’s schedule. World-class parties can be thrown with a moment’s notice. A shirt removed when the president steps into the shower has vanished for laundering by the time he gets out. 

The job is in many ways a calling, and devotion is required to be a successful member of the service staff. World events drive the daily schedule, and one supervisor reported working 1000 hours of overtime a year. According to a former White House executive chef, “You work for the same people every day, you don’t have any personal life, family, social life, you work what we used to call ‘White House flex time’—that is, you choose any eighty-five hours you want to work each week.”

3. Intimate conditions sometimes lead to embarrassing moments.

Members of the service staff guard fiercely the privacy of the first family. Without the family’s trust, it would be impossible for members of the service staff to do their jobs effectively. Working in such intimate conditions sometimes leads to embarrassing moments. One usher once had to interrupt President Reagan’s shower to deliver an urgent message. “All he had on was a skim of water!” he said. Later that evening, the same usher had to deliver another message to the president. He knocked on the bedroom door and announced that he had a package for the president. Nancy Reagan told him to come in. He entered the bedroom just as the president, wearing nothing but underwear, was walking out of the dressing room. “Oh Ronnie,” said the first lady, “you could at least put on a robe.” Responded the president: “Don’t worry about it. He’s already seen me naked once today. We’re old friends.”

4. Open positions are not advertised.

Don’t bother checking the classified ads for job openings. Available positions on the White House residential staff are filled by word of mouth, with employees bringing in, and vouching for, new hires. Multiple generations of families sometimes work in “the house,” as they call it, and employees generally stay on for decades.

5. The White House chefs are the best in the world.

White House chefs are world-class, and working for the White House means turning down competing job offers worth several hundred thousand dollars more. It’s worth it, said one chef: “The White House is the top of the top. If it’s not the top at the White House, when is it going to be the top?” Chefs prepare meals befitting the office, and also to suit its occupant. “If the president wanted a peanut butter and honey sandwich then by god we made the best peanut butter and honey sandwich we could.”

Great pride is taken not only in the food, but in its presentation. Lyndon Johnson worked erratic hours, which meant the White House chef also had to work erratic hours. Lady Bird Johnson requested that the chef start going home at a reasonable hour, and simply leave a prepared meal in the kitchen. She would reheat the meal for the president, she said, or if she were asleep, the president could heat it when he was ready for dinner. The Maître d’ was indignant at such a suggestion: “The president of the United States having to serve himself dinner? Never!”

6. They refill drinks, fix the plumbing, and find terrorists.

The Secret Service isn’t the only group handling security. The White House maid staff is trained to be alert for signs of unusual activity that might endanger the first family. In 2011, a maid discovered a broken window and piece of broken concrete on the Truman Balcony. An FBI investigation stemmed from the discovery. What the Secret Service had previously dismissed as a gang shooting unrelated to presidential security turned out to be seven shots fired directly at the White House.

7. Presidential transitions are their Super Bowl.

When a new president is elected, he or she takes ownership of the White House at 12:00 on Inauguration Day. Until the stroke of noon, however, the residential staff gives the outgoing president the same level of service as any other day. While everyone is at the Inauguration, the service staff has six hours to transform the White House for its new occupants. It is a massive endeavor requiring the presence of every member of the staff. All of the outgoing family’s belongings are packed and all of the incoming family’s belongings unpacked. When the new president arrives at his or her new home, the mansion is redecorated; rugs, headboards, and mattresses changed; new flowers arranged; paintings replaced; clothes hung; and toothbrush set out. When the outgoing president departed his or her family photographs are hanging on the wall. When the new president arrives, his or her family photos are there.

8. They don’t come cheap, and the president has to pay for it all.

The president is on the hook for his or her personal expenses, and for those of his or her guests. Food, drink, dry cleaning, mints on pillows, and wine add up, and quickly. When parties are thrown in the evenings, in addition to paying the way for hundreds of people, the president has to pay time-and-a-half to the White House staff. It is a shocking and dismaying discovery for every incoming family. Writes Brower, “Even Jackie Kennedy instructed the chief usher to ‘run this place just like you’d run it for the chinchiest president who ever got elected!’ She dropped her voice comically, adding, ‘We don’t have nearly as much money as you read in the papers!’”

9. The president’s food is serious business.

The president’s supply lines of food are prescreened by both the FBI and Secret Service. If the president discovers something he or she likes while traveling, that food is shipped to the home of someone on the residential staff so that nobody knows it’s going to the president. (Likewise, the president’s room service goes to a member of the staff traveling with him or her.) Residence workers also buy the president’s groceries. According to one member of the service staff, “there is no one more important to the physical safety of the president than the pastry chef and the chef.”

10. They work in a museum.

White House curators keep track of “every candlestick and side table.” Furniture and artwork are irreplaceable, which sometimes complicates living arrangements and public events. “You’re working in a museum,” said one member of the service staff. Moving things around for television cameras isn’t as easy as one might think. “It’s not just two chairs for an interview,” but “two chairs in the Blue Room that are older than you are—by centuries—that need to be moved out of the way.” Accordingly, specific members of the staff handle such changes. What is not on display at the White House is stored at a warehouse in Riverdale, Md.

11. With every new family, they must relearn their jobs.

Presidents come and go, but the service staff remains the same. After four or eight years, staff grow close to the first family, and tears are invariably shed when there’s a change in administration. When a new family comes in, a new vibe comes with them. Chefs must learn new palates, florists learn new tastes, and there’s a long stretch during which the incoming family must learn to adapt to a suddenly robust staff eager to attend to their every need. One White House usher in The Residence admitted that some first families are a pleasure to serve, and that with some they have to pretend. “But we pretend very well,” he said.

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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Great Presidential Pardon Heist

Awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, presidential pardons override previous rulings handed down by any other federal judge or court. Some presidents are more generous with pardons than others, but overall, they’ve been granted with increasing frequency since Washington issued the first 16, including two for participants of the Whiskey Rebellion. By contrast, Barack Obama pardoned, commuted, or otherwise granted clemency to 1927 people.

Despite the increasing number, receiving a pardon is no easy task. First, there’s a required waiting period of five years. Applicants must write an essay about why they are seeking clemency, including documentation; they also need at least three character references, and they have to go through a “very thorough” federal review. And that’s just for starters.

However, if you’re determined to get a presidential pardon, there are other ways to go about obtaining one (though we don't recommend it)—as long as you don’t care whose name is on the certificate. Just ask Shawn Aubitz.

Some time in the middle of his 14-year career as a curator with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Aubitz realized he was sitting on a gold mine: The files, letters, maps, and photographs he handled every day could command big bucks from the right collectors. From 1996-1999, he pulled off the historical heist of the century simply by surreptitiously slipping documents into his briefcase. Over the three-year period, Aubitz made off with hundreds of items, including 64 pardons and 316 photos taken by astronauts.

Though the number is rather staggering, the thefts weren’t discovered until 2000, when a National Park Service employee noticed a suspicious item for sale on eBay and notified the National Archives about the auction. The National Archives Office of the Inspector General quickly took action and discovered a total of four National Archives documents on eBay. The items were traced to Aubitz, who pled guilty to the crimes in 2002. In court, Aubitz blamed his actions on “a compulsive need to amass collections for self-esteem and approval,” but also admitted that his motives were financial—he used more than $200,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay his credit card debt. Aubitz served 21 months in prison for his crimes and paid $73,793 in restitution.

Because Aubitz provided the names of his buyers, many of the pilfered items were recovered, such as a warrant for the seizure of Robert E. Lee's estate during the Civil War. Many are still missing, however, including pardons issued by 10 presidents, from James Madison to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, history buffs, if you’re not totally sure about the origins of that Andrew Jackson-signed pardon hanging on your study wall, contact NARA at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.

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