Secrecy, loyalty, discretion applies to the humblest, not so much personal loyalty to the incumbent as loyalty to the office. The atmosphere of the house would be intolerable if the President had to look on all hands as eaves-droppers; he must take their loyalty for granted. State and personal secrets aren’t shouted, but in a house so uttered daily with confidences, some must reach the ears of the least employee.
—IRWIN “IKE” HOOVER, CHIEF USHER, 1913–1933, “WHO’S WHO, AND WHY, IN THE WHITE HOUSE,” SATURDAY EVENING POST, FEBRUARY 10, 1934
Q: “Why don’t you have a lot of photos?”
A: “Because I knew where the cameras were.”
—NELSON PIERCE, USHER, 1961–1987
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” residence workers often respond when they are asked to share details about the private moments of the first families. If they share one unifying quality, it is the ability to keep secrets, especially when they are still on the job. James Jeffries was the only current residence worker who was willing to discuss his experiences; retired staffers often rebuffed several approaches before they agreed to share their memories, and even then some of them tried to mask painful or negative stories by painting them in a good light, no matter how strained they seemed. The stories shared here represent only what they felt they could divulge, and in almost every case, reflect their efforts to present their experiences in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. Still, their recollections pull back the curtain and provide fascinating and sometimes shocking insights into the personalities of the occupants of the executive mansion.
Butlers, maids, and valets have the most intimate exposure to the first family. They are also the hardest workers to get to open up, because they guard so passionately the trust the first family places in them. They are the first people to see the first family in the morning and the last people to see them at night. These residence workers—along with a few others, such as the family chefs—watch the presidents and first ladies as they conduct themselves as husband and wife: fighting, laughing, crying, and being each other’s most trusted advisers. All of these residence workers will doubtless take plenty of secrets to their graves.
One telling example of the importance of the staff’s discretion comes not from a staffer but from a first family member. Ron Reagan remembers visiting his parents at the White House during the Iran-Contra affair, before his father’s administration admitted to helping sell arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages and funding for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. During the visit, the president’s son, then in his midtwenties, was amazed at how candid his family was in front of the help. They shared dinner that night in the Family Dining Room on the second floor, and then repaired to the West Sitting Hall on the second floor—a more informal room with a stunning floor-to-ceiling half-moon window looking out over the West Colonnade and the West Wing—where the younger Reagan found himself pushing his father about the Iran-Contra situation.
“I was getting a little heated about this at a certain point,” he says, “and realized suddenly as I was berating my father that somebody was standing there with a plate of cookies. I felt immediately like, ‘Oh, God, this is not good’—doing this in public, as it were.” But he was amazed to realize that the presence of the servants “seemed to be of no concern” to his parents. “The staff there is so discreet that there really wasn’t any concern that somebody was going to run and tell stories to the papers.” Such discretion is mandatory, Reagan reflects now. If the president had to worry about the staff talking to the press, “life there would be almost unbearable. You need a retreat you can go to and not be constantly scrutinized.”
Building up to this level of trust can take time, and each administration is different. Everyone on staff knows when the first family finally trusts them, said Chief Usher Gary Walters. For Walters, his favorite moment of a new administration comes when the president calls him by his first name.
“The residence staff knows when the comfortableness gets to the point where we can all collectively say, ‘Ahhhhhh.’ It happens usually with the butlers or with the ushers when a conversation is going on and you walk into the room and the conversation doesn’t stop. It continues. That’s a collective sigh, we know we have proven that we can be trusted.”
There are times, however, when the president needs total privacy. As Butler Herman Thompson recalls, even the approachable George H. W. Bush would sometimes say “Thank you very much,” to one of the residence workers. “That meant for you to turn around and go back out.”
Each president has a favorite butler, and for President George W. Bush it was James Ramsey, or just plain “Ramsey,” as he was affectionately called around the residence. He was a consummate professional, but he liked trading zingers with President George W. Bush, and their rapport led to a real bond between the men; Ramsey was one of the few residence staffers invited by the Bushes to fly with them on Air Force One to work at their ranch in Crawford, Texas. He zealously guarded the family’s privacy, never talking to the press or causing the president to doubt his loyalty. He also turned down invitations to go out drinking with his colleagues because, he said, other people “get you in trouble.”
Ramsey had a joyful and ready smile, and he seemed genuinely in awe of the families he served during three decades as a White House butler. Reggie Love, President Obama’s young, handsome, and gregarious personal assistant, remembers Ramsey’s contagious sense of humor. “He’d joke, ‘I’m seventy years old. When you’re my age, hopefully you’ll look half as good as I do.’”
Ramsey sported a bright silver mustache, shaving it off only after he retired in 2010. He dry-cleaned all his clothes, even his undershirts, and always made sure his nails were manicured because people would see his hands when he was serving them. He was not at all ashamed of his love of self-pampering: “I want to look nice all the way: nails done, hair groomed,” he said. “I was a butler at the White House!”
A self-described ladies’ man, Ramsey dated quite a bit after getting divorced and even introduced some of his girlfriends to President George W. Bush at staff holiday parties. He sometimes told the Bush daughters about his dates. “Jenna, Barbara—I loved them to death. They were my friends. . . . If they ask, I tell them, ‘I got a lady friend. I ain’t that old, am I?’”
George W. Bush, whom Ramsey affectionately called the “young Bush,” would tease him mercilessly—and Ramsey gave as good as he got. He fondly recalled one day when he was serving refreshments at a T-ball game on the South Lawn and the president came out from the Diplomatic Reception Room. “Do some work, Ramsey!” the president joked. That’s just the way their relationship was, he said: they were casual with each other, even though it was clear who was in charge.
President George W. Bush loved having a little fun with the residence workers. He would turn framed photos on their sides when the butlers and maids weren’t looking and chase imaginary flies with flyswatters as they walked by. “There were great practical jokes that the president would play on the butlers,” recalled Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff.
“Bush,” Ramsey said, pausing. “I’ll never forget his family. If I live to be one hundred, I’ll never forget his family.”
Ramsey’s small apartment, which he called his “bachelor pad,” was plastered with astounding photos of himself with presidents and other historic figures, including Nelson Mandela (“Oh, I got a lot of them baby”), and personal notes from President Reagan and Hillary Clinton thanking him for his help with state dinners. One photo is autographed by President Obama: “You are a great friend and will be missed,” the president wrote.
He was so proud of his job at the White House that his friend, fellow butler Buddy Carter, teased him: “Ramsey—he sleeps in his damn White House pass.”
While the first family is in their private quarters on the second and third floors of the White House, a butler is almost always available—in the second-floor pantry or nearby—waiting to serve. The rooms are equipped with buzzers that go off in the pantry when their service is requested, but Ramsey rarely needed them: “I could sense it if they wanted something.”
It’s easy to see why Ramsey was so beloved. He kept his sweet Southern accent from his years growing up in Yanceyville, North Carolina. His stepfather was a tobacco farmer (he never met his father), and he spent much of his childhood using the family’s mule to plow the tobacco field.
“It was rough. I told my dad, I said, ‘When I graduate from high school, I got to go. I can’t stay here.’ He said, ‘How are you going to live?’ And I said, ‘That’s a chance I got to take.’ So when I came to Washington I didn’t know nobody.”
He finally got to Washington when he was twenty years old. He had nowhere to stay until he found a sympathetic owner of a gas station who let him sleep at the station and wash up in the bathroom. Eventually he found a room on Rhode Island Avenue Northwest for ten dollars a week, and while he was there he befriended someone who worked at the glamorous art deco Kennedy Warren apartment building in northwest Washington. He told his friend that he was a good worker and his friend got him an interview. He was hired on the spot.
Not long after that, at a party, he met someone who worked at the White House. Ramsey asked him if he could get him a job there. The first thing this White House staffer asked Ramsey was, “Do you have a record?”
“No, man, I ain’t got no record,” Ramsey replied.
“If you do, don’t bother filling the papers out,” he said skeptically. “They’re not going to hire you with any kind of record.” (Operations Supervisor Tony Savoy remembers being shocked to learn how many job applicants had serious criminal records. “Everybody comes there and they have a clean record. Until you do the background check. With the background check all these little skeletons start coming out of the closet. One boy came in during the Clinton administration and he told us, at the very last minute, that he was arrested and convicted of rape. We have thirteen-year-old Chelsea upstairs! That application went in the trash can.”)
Ramsey’s record was unblemished, so he filled out the application and waited. “I passed the White House going to the Kennedy Warren, oh my god for two or three years, and I said, ‘I wonder how in the world it would be working in that place?’” he said, smiling. But it took a few years until the White House finally called him. When they met him, Maître d’ Eugene Allen and then–Chief Usher Rex Scouten hired him the same day.
Starting as a butler during Carter’s presidency, Ramsey worked at the White House for thirty years, serving six presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. He credits Eugene Allen—“He talked to me like I was his son”—with advising him to keep his nose clean and keep anything he heard in the residence to himself. (The 2013 film Lee Daniels’ The Butler was loosely based on Allen’s life.)
Even decades later, Ramsey would not betray Allen’s instruction—he would never reveal anything private about those he served to the outside world. “You’re not working at no McDonald’s or Gino’s, you’re working down here at the house,” Allen told Ramsey. “If you get in trouble or say the wrong thing, you might be history.”
That code of silence didn’t extend to his colleagues. Chief Usher Stephen Rochon remembered that Ramsey was the first residence worker to welcome him and that he went out of his way to tell Rochon what was happening on the second and third floors.
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF being privy to the family’s inner sanctum was never lost on loyal staff like Wilson Jerman, a soft-spoken eighty-five-year-old when I interviewed him recently. Starting as a houseman in 1957, he retired as a butler in 1993, then came out of retirement in 2003 (he missed “the house”) and worked as a part-time doorman until 2010. Like a doorman in any building, he saw everyone coming and going and held their secrets.
Jerman views his loyalty to the first family and his guarding of their privacy as a natural response to the trust they place in him. “It makes you feel good that you could just go up there and walk in the first lady’s bedroom and pick up whatever she asked you to go get.”
Katie Johnson, President Obama’s former personal secretary, said she used to love quizzing the butlers. When she asked one butler what had changed the most in the White House over his several decades of service, he mentioned two things: more women and no more drinking at lunch.
“People used to drink really heavily in the middle of the day,” he told her. “One reason they had so many staff was, they were making martinis for these meetings in the middle of the day, which would never happen now,” she said. “Can you imagine if someone went to a Cabinet meeting and asked for a dry martini?”
Nelson Pierce, a White House usher for twenty-six years who passed away in 2014 at eighty-nine years old, was often required to bring the president documents classified as “eyes only,” papers so sensitive that only the president is authorized to see them. I was lucky enough to have interviewed Pierce before his passing. He told me that one day he had to bring something to President Lyndon Johnson to sign during a luncheon with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and at least a half dozen other advisers. They were almost certainly talking about Vietnam at the time.
Pierce stood anxiously next to the president, waiting for him to sign the document when he heard something unusual: “Secretary McNamara was raising his voice and yelling at the president. He was mad about something. I could not repeat a single word he said or the president said to him. I have no idea and I would swear on a stack of Bibles I don’t remember a single word that was said because you blank it out. Even under hypnosis I don’t think they’d be able to get anything.”
Decades later, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said that during Oval Office meetings with George W. Bush he noticed that some of his fellow advisers got nervous when butlers and residence staff came in.
“They were trying to be as nonintrusive as possible at the same time they were trying to serve. I think other people were more uncomfortable with the presence of a butler than the president or the first lady ever were. They didn’t know if they should stop talking!”
Yet the very thing that the staff most pride themselves on—their ability to fade into the background—can also be dehumanizing. Having the president count on their ability to tune out conversations has sometimes made residence workers feel as though they don’t exist at all.
“People would say anything around you. It was surprising to me,” said Butler Herman Thompson, who worked part-time from the Kennedy era until the end of the first Bush administration. “Sometimes the conversation in the State Dining Room, when you were working in there, you would think that they’d be whispering certain things. It was almost like you weren’t there.”
In some cases, the president or the first lady have proved uncomfortably oblivious to the workers nearby. Nelson Pierce remembered his embarrassment one night, when he was bringing some bags up to the Reagans’ room, and Nancy Reagan yelled at her husband, the most powerful man in the world, right in front of him. “She cussed him out for having the TV on. He said, ‘Honey, I’m just watching the news.’ As soon as she opened the door, she was into him like you wouldn’t believe. Right in front of me. I thought she would fuss at him in private. He was watching the eleven o’clock news. She thought he should be asleep. I was a little surprised, so I dropped the luggage and got out as soon as I could.”
President Johnson often undressed in front of staffers and was famous for rattling off orders while he was sitting on the toilet. Once, reporter Frank Cormier was shocked to see Air Force One Steward Sergeant and Valet Paul Glynn kneel before the president while they were in midair and wash his feet—all the more so because Johnson never once acknowledged Glynn.
“Talking all the while, Johnson paid no heed except to cross his legs in the opposite direction when it was time for Glynn to attend to the other foot,” Cormier observed. After witnessing this, Cormier said, he was unfazed when he learned that Glynn also cut Johnson’s toenails.
Most of the time, however, working on such an intimate basis for the most powerful family in the world makes the staff feel respected. And it’s in their interests to keep quiet about whatever they hear. Susan Ford, who was just seventeen when her father took over the presidency, said, “These people wouldn’t be there for so many years if they talked.”
White House painter Cletus Clark, who served presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush, never spilled secrets. “I’m just like a ghost. I’ve always stayed to myself. And I know right from wrong.”
“They serve from president to president, they know all of the families, and they are always discreet,” Laura Bush told me—in a much more measured voice than her mother-in-law. They maintain their discretion even when chatting with the first families themselves. “They don’t tell about the presidents that lived there before you or anything about their family, which we admired and respected because, of course, we wanted them to treat us the same when we left.”
The kinds of memories of everyday life that are treasured by most families are especially dear to the first families, who have often invited residence workers to join them on their downtime. Laura Bush says that her husband and Butler Ron Guy shared a love for fishing. “Any time the butlers came to our ranch, which they did when we hosted heads of state at our ranch, George and Ron Guy would bass fish at every free moment they had. I have a great big blowup of a photograph of George and Vice President Cheney and Ron Guy out on the little electric bass boat that we have at our ranch, fishing.”
“There are just a lot of ways that we knew each person who worked there. We knew them so well,” Mrs. Bush said. “Harold Hancock, I remember, was one of the doormen who we loved. He was such a gentle and lovely man and he died while we lived there. I have a wonderful photograph of him standing at the door waiting for the president to come back with Spot, our dog. . . . They were always great to all the animals. They acted like they were really wild about all the animals, whether they were or not!”
Luci Baines Johnson says she loved Wilson Jerman and remembers him vividly even now, nearly fifty years after leaving the White House. “He had a smile that could soothe a savage breast,” she said in her slow Southern drawl.
In an ultimate example of discretion, Jerman found a way to dodge people’s questions by never really admitting where he worked. “I’d say, ‘I work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,’ and 99 percent of the people don’t know where that is. They’d ask you, ‘What warehouse is that? What building is that?’ I’d say ‘It’s downtown.’” He didn’t want to answer the barrage of questions that would follow if he told them the truth.
Like Ramsey, Jerman was so worried about saying something that would get him fired that he did not talk about his job at all when he worked there. “There would be too many questions asked,” he said. “You see, you never see. You hear, you never hear. And you don’t know nothing.”
Even in the face of unfolding history, Jerman maintained focus on his job and seemed completely uninterested in breaking any news. In the early evening on April 15, 1986, Jerman and Chef Frank Ruta were preparing dinner for the Reagans when the president walked in. He often came into the kitchen, but this time he wasn’t just checking in to see how they were doing.
“I just want you boys to know that in five minutes we’re going to begin bombing Libya, and I want you to be the first to know,” Reagan announced.
“That’s nice, Mr. President,” Jerman replied, “but what time would you like to have dinner?”
Reagan stopped, thought for a second, and said, “You better ask my wife that.”
Ruta laughed, recalling the stunned look on Reagan’s face. A moment later, Mrs. Reagan whisked her husband out of the kitchen; she was always wary of having him talk too much to the staff, especially when it came to divulging national security secrets.
Ruta was just twenty-two when he started in the White House kitchen, where he prepared most of the Reagans’ family meals. He told me that Nancy Reagan protected her husband fiercely—her devotion to him was complete and genuine—but that Mrs. Reagan never had anything to worry about from the residence workers. Ruta never gossiped, and he never asked the maids and butlers to share any gossip either. “Their privacy has to be respected. You’re not there to be the public’s eye.”
Sometimes staffers cannot help but witness private moments. Every evening, the usher on night duty brings up the president’s briefing book, which contains sensitive material put together by the West Wing staff to prepare him for the next day, and turns off the lights. Usher Chris Emery remembers often finding the Reagans in the sitting room together after dinner when he was dropping off the briefing book. “Sometimes they’d be watching Who’s the Boss—the TV was very loud because he was a little hard of hearing. It’d be eight or nine o’clock and he’d be there with these big black government-issue glasses in his red robe, in a flowered chair with a dinner tray next to him stacked with papers, working. Mrs. Reagan would be right next to him, and a lot of times I’d go up and they’d be holding hands. There was nobody around to see it.”
Painter Cletus Clark said he took pains to avoid disturbing the family, even though it meant complicating his job. “They really didn’t want us around there that much. You had to work around the first family as much as possible. When they’re in the West Sitting Hall and we had to go down to the Queens’ Bedroom, which is on the East Side, we used to have to go up to the third floor and walk down the hall and come down the back stairway. You’ve got to keep working.”
Clark’s loyalty to the job was clear when he was instructed to do some painting work at the home of Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, President Nixon’s best friend. The press soon got hold of the story and questioned the use of White House staff for a personal job.
“I did what they told me to do,” Clark said. “I don’t ask no questions.”
Barbara Bush says that the residence staff “probably gossip less than one gossips normally.” Of course, she added mischievously, “I’ve got to say that we do have the perfect family.”
Rosalynn Carter appreciated the staff’s discretion. “I just trusted them completely. They were all so good. I don’t remember ever covering up anything, but I don’t ever remember them trying to listen in. I guess they were doing things around while we were talking but I don’t remember that at all.”
These workers hate the spotlight. Usher Nelson Pierce, who was a thin man with a gentle smile, didn’t have many photos of his time at the White House, largely because he dodged photographers so conscientiously during his twenty-six years there (1961 to 1987). “I wasn’t there to be photographed,” said Pierce. “I got caught three times on television: once was when I was plugging in the Christmas lights on the North Portico and the cameras weren’t supposed to be taking pictures, but they were. And then twice when holding an umbrella: once for the president and once for the first lady when they got off the chopper.”
DISCRETION IS ESPECIALLY important when it comes to protecting the way food is secured for the first family. For large orders, the White House uses prescreened food supply companies whose workers are fully vetted by the FBI and the Secret Service. The items are picked up by Secret Service officers and brought to the White House. If the president takes a liking to a certain snack he encounters during his travels and wants it sent back to the White House, arrangements are sometimes made to have it sent to residence staff at their home addresses so that no one knows it’s going to the president.
When it comes to the first family’s regular meals, though, the raw materials are bought anonymously by residence workers to ensure safety. Storeroom Manager William “Bill” Hamilton, the longest-serving residence worker in recent history (he started when President Eisenhower was in office and retired in 2013), was responsible for buying food for family meals and occasionally for larger dinners. A slim, bald seventy-seven-year-old who looks remarkably young, Hamilton often ran to a local grocery store to pick up whatever the family needed, from toilet paper to apples. He still will not reveal which store he went to. (“The Secret Service won’t let me say!”) The anonymity was crucial: no one knew he was shopping for the first family, and no one was interested in poisoning his food.
Hamilton’s office was located underneath the North Portico, across from the White House Ground Floor Kitchen, making it convenient for him to stay in touch with the executive chef about which ingredients were needed for the family’s meals. When shopping time came, Hamilton generally traveled to the market in a Secret Service van made to look like a normal SUV, rather than one of the imposing black vans in the White House motorcade. “Just like any van, except that we take all the seats and stuff out of it, but on the outside it looks like any other van.”
Because no packages are accepted through the mail at the White House compound, everything has to be cleared through the Secret Service in a building in remote Maryland. Whenever someone asked Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier how they could send the president something special, he would tell them not to bother. “You can send it but they’re not going to see it. It’s going to be destroyed.”
When the president eats meals outside the White House, a member of the military is generally assigned to monitor the kitchen, watch the food being prepared, and taste it to make sure it’s safe. Jane Erkenbeck, an assistant to Nancy Reagan, said that her hotel room was always next to the first lady’s, in part to make it easier for Mrs. Reagan to get room service meals delivered safely and expeditiously. Erkenbeck herself would order the food, she recalls, and “it was always delivered to me, it was never delivered to her. Then I would take it into her room.”
WORKING AT THE White House also requires a degree of composure under unusual circumstances, even from workers who don’t necessarily have daily exposure to the first family. Plumbing Foreman Reds Arrington and his brother, Bonner, who was the carpenter foreman, were warned by their uncle—who got them their jobs—about the importance of keeping their own counsel.
“They all kept their mouths shut,” said Margaret Arrington, Reds Arrington’s widow. Now that so much time has passed, she feels free to share some of what her husband saw behind closed doors.
“When the family was around,” she recalled, her husband and his brother usually “disappeared,” staying out of the way. But “they did any job they were asked to do. One job was to move some chairs for Jackie Kennedy. When they got off of the elevator, she was sitting at the end of the hall on the phone and had her leg propped up, crossed at the ankle, fiddling with her toes.” The first lady was wearing pants, and her casual demeanor caught them off-guard. “They were so shocked, seeing her sitting there in a very unladylike position, that they both ran straight into a wall with the chairs!” They hit the wall so hard, they were worried they’d damaged the priceless antiques.
If the first lady or the president decides to come down for an impromptu visit, workers try to look out for one another, sending along advance notice so their colleagues won’t be caught by surprise. According to Reggie Love, the Secret Service or the president’s secretary would call the Usher’s Office to let them know when the president was heading to the residence or to visit any of the shops downstairs.
As Cletus Clark remembers, when Betty Ford came downstairs to the basement to thank him before her husband left office, he got a call a few minutes before from the Usher’s Office: “The first lady’s coming down, so carry yourself accordingly.”
Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick worked at the White House for thirty-four years, retiring in 2008. Unlike some of her colleagues’ homes, her yellow ranch house in Delaware is not a shrine to her White House years. (Instead a whole room of her house is devoted to her teddy bear collection.) The only hint of her fascinating career is a Christmas card from the Clintons hanging in the dining room. A friendly woman with close-cropped white hair, Limerick started dating her husband, Robert, when he was an engineer at the White House. She is completely unaffected by her close relationship with the most famous families in the world. And she is absolutely beloved by the staff she worked with for so many years.
Limerick “was my boss and she was a friend,” said Betty Finney, a White House maid from 1993 until 2007. “She would do anything in the world to help you if you needed help.”
She took an unlikely path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1972, she dropped out of a graduate program in Chinese history at the prestigious George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to become a cocktail waitress at the elegant Mayflower Hotel off of Connecticut Avenue. Her father was upset and was no happier when she joined the hotel’s housekeeping training program. “I didn’t raise my daughter to be a toilet bowl cleaner,” he told her.
That would all change.
“When I got the job at the White House I called him up and I said, ‘Your daughter is now the toilet bowl cleaner for the White House. How do you feel about that?’”
In her role as executive housekeeper, Limerick was in charge of hiring and firing maids (in consultation with the chief usher). During her time in the job, she recalls, a couple of maids left after a few weeks—either because they were too starstruck to do their job in proximity to the most powerful couple in the world, or because they lacked the necessary discretion.
“You have a balance between serving the family and knowing when you need to get out of their way,” she said. “Some of these people might not be the best bed maker in the world, they might not win an award for that, but they knew when the family needed them and when it was time to vacate the premises.”
The Clintons were her favorite family to serve. She said they were the most passionate first couple, their infamous ups and downs playing out in the private quarters. During the Clinton era, Limerick recalls, working at the White House was a roller-coaster ride. The couple sometimes got into pitched battles, shocking the staff with their vicious cursing, and sometimes they went through periods of stony silence. During happier times, though, they were liable to wander around the residence late at night when they couldn’t sleep, chatting giddily and marveling at the house.
Ivaniz Silva, who worked with Limerick at the Mayflower, was hired by her as a White House housekeeper in 1985. Retired since 2008, she lives near Howard University with her younger sister, Sylvia, who still works as a maid at the residence. During her time at the White House, Ivaniz had to get up at 5:30 A.M. and take two buses to get to the residence in time for her shift at seven-thirty. “If we got any snow,” she recalls, “I had to walk.” The rotation was three weeks on the morning shift, from seven-thirty to four in the afternoon, and one week on the evening shift, which ran from noon to around 8:00 P.M.
She always did what was asked of her. If a guest needed something beyond her normal duties, like hemming a dress, she would do it. She sewed the most for the Clintons and for Laura Bush.
Limerick describes a delicate dance the maids must do as they try not to disturb the first family. “We worked two steps behind them,” she recalled. “If they walk in the room, they look at you and say, ‘You can finish, you don’t have to leave.’ If they tell you to stay, you do what you need to do, but you have an ability to let what’s going on around you just go over your head. If they’re having a meeting or a conversation between the president and the first lady—maybe it’s heated, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s passionate, maybe it’s not—you just ask, ‘Can I stay, can I finish?’ You just do what you do, either you forget it or you file it away.” Even if the family wanted time alone, the residence workers would often leave one room and go to work in an adjoining chamber. “If they want privacy, they close the doors that are connected to the bathroom and we don’t leave.”
Limerick said maids follow the same code as butlers: they see but they don’t see, they hear but they don’t hear. They don’t speak to members of the first family or their guests unless spoken to, and they never approach them with personal requests.
At times, the maids have had to turn a blind eye to the youthful misbehavior of the first family’s children—including underage drinking among some of the teenagers. The residence workers generally sympathize with kids who grow up in the White House, with so little privacy. “I was no angel when I was twenty, twenty-one,” Limerick recalled, identifying with some of the kids. “They party, and they like to have friends over, and so you see all that,” she says. And most of the workers believe it’s better for them to drink inside the gates than outside, where it could jeopardize both their physical safety and their parents’ reputations.
Susan Ford, who moved into the residence as a teenager, remembers the staff “gently nudging” her when she was behaving inappropriately. But, she says, their admonishments didn’t carry the same weight as her parents’. Some things she and her friends did, like shooting off fireworks from the White House grounds on the Fourth of July (which is illegal in Washington, D.C.), they did because they knew they could get away with it. “Who’s going to come behind the White House gate and arrest you?” Ford says that underage drinking was easy to do in the residence: the refrigerator in the Solarium was stocked with soda and beer to offer guests. “What teenager’s not going to drink beer if it’s put there in front of them?”
President Carter’s three adult sons spent plenty of time at the White House during his presidency. Florist Ronn Payne, who started at the White House during the Nixon administration and left under Clinton, said he had to do more than freshen the floral arrangements in the Carters’ sons’ rooms on the third floor. “I would regularly have to move bongs,” he said. (The unabashed pot-smoking in the president’s house was confirmed by another member of the household staff on the condition of anonymity.) If any of the Carter sons were found with the illegal drug on the street they would have been arrested, but they smoked inside the White House without fear of any repercussions.
President Carter’s mother, Lillian, and younger brother, Billy, were also fixtures at the White House. They were colorful characters: Lillian, in her eighties at the time, was known to enjoy her bourbon (the president told the staff to keep her away from alcohol, so she would send a butler out to pick up a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from a liquor store on Connecticut Avenue and deliver it to her room), and Billy was involved in several scandals while his brother was president. The household staff called Carter’s brother “Billy Beer” after the beer he so enthusiastically promoted, and whenever he was drunk they made sure he “wouldn’t hit the streets,” Butler Herman Thompson said. “If they knew that you were really intoxicated and you were close to the president, like a brother or cousin, you weren’t going anywhere.”
One Fourth of July during President George W. Bush’s administration, after his daughters Jenna and Barbara were old enough to drink legally, their parents left them at the White House alone while they went off to Camp David.
“They allowed Jenna and Barbara to have a party on the second floor and we cleared all the furniture out of the Yellow Oval Room and they danced. They were up all night long,” Limerick said, smiling at the memory. “We shut off the Lincoln and Queens’ bedrooms—they couldn’t go there—but they could go every place else that they wanted to go. And they partied, and then the next morning we had a brunch for them. Some of them stayed up all night and some of them were a little bit hungover, but it’s better than them being on the street.”
The residence staff often come to the rescue of the first family, seeking to shelter them from public scrutiny and embarrassment. Usher Skip Allen remembers being called by the Secret Service duty desk when a sniper stationed on the roof of the White House saw something unusual. The Bush daughters were having another party in the Solarium, and it spilled outside to the walkway and onto the roof, as they often did when the weather was nice. Apparently, one of the guests had dared another to touch the flagpole. “It’s not the safest place to be even in the daylight. You can trip over numerous hazards,” Allen said. ”There is only a narrow walkway to transit the roof safely, and all the bright lights shine directly on the flag, blinding anyone who’s not used to going up there.”
The snipers decided that the embarrassing and potentially dangerous situation would best be handled by someone on the residence staff. By the time Allen got to the roof, the inebriated partygoer was already on his way down.
Allen never said a word.
IN A HOUSE where even a minor bit of gossip could make national headlines, Bill and Hillary Clinton had a difficult time learning to trust the staff. The reason they changed the White House phone system was to ensure that no one could listen in on their private conversations—a move that frustrated the ushers, who had a trusted system in place for the purpose of directing calls.
When a call came in for a member of the first family, an operator would call the call box in the Usher’s Office. “If it was a call for the first lady, we’d put a little key in the first lady’s slot and it would ring a bell with her code so she could pick up any phone that was up there close by and the operator would connect her,” Skip Allen explained. “That went in during the Carter administration because there were so many people living at the White House at the time that everybody had their own specific ring. The president would have just the one ring, the first lady would have two rings, and Chelsea would have three short rings.”
Each morning, the president is awakened by a phone call from the White House operators. Most presidents get up by 5:30 or 6:00 A.M., and an usher is on duty as early as 5:30 in case the president needs anything.
The day after President Clinton’s inauguration, whoever woke him up got a surprise. The Clintons didn’t get back from the inaugural balls until two o’clock in the morning. When an usher placed his wake-up call for 5:00 A.M., as they had done every day for his predecessor, the president thundered: “Can’t a person get some sleep around here?” (President Clinton was a famous night owl, like President Johnson before him, and his habits drove the staff crazy: some nights, the ushers weren’t dismissed to go home until two o’clock in the morning.)
The Clintons, Allen said, decided that “too many people could listen in on them” under the old phone system, so they had all the White House phones changed over to interior circuitry so that if the first lady was in the bedroom and the president was in the study she could ring him from room to room without going through the operator. “That kind of negated the security of the phone system. Then anybody could pick up upstairs in any room,” Allen said, still exasperated by the change.
The Clintons’ preoccupation with secrecy made relations with the staff “chaotic” for their entire eight years in office, Allen said. At least one residence worker, Florist Wendy Elsasser, attributes their anxiety to parental concerns: “I think protecting Chelsea may have had a lot to do with, for lack of a better term, their standoffishness with the staff.”
But it seems clear that the Clintons had little reason to worry about the residence staff leaking any secrets. Even now, years later, most staffers keep quiet when asked about what went on behind closed doors. Discretion is built into the DNA of most of them; they know that their restraint is fundamental to the protection of the presidency—and that, without it, life in the executive mansion would be impossible to endure.