The White House Staff Confesses: What It’s Really Like to Work for the Presidents
From the Kennedy administration to the Obama administration, here are some touching White House stories from the people with a front row seat to history.
Jimmy Carter called the staff at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue “the glue that holds the house together.” Jackie Kennedy once remarked that a particular chief usher was “the most powerful man in Washington, next to the president.” The impact of the hundreds of men and women who have served as maids, valets, florists, and chefs to first families is legendary—and inestimable.
For the workers, the spotlight isn’t the point. Rising at dawn—and sometimes staying awake until the wee hours to perfect pastries and give massages—the residence staff sacrifice their personal lives to serve. Here, their remembrances from inside the White House describe small acts of kindness and episodes of humor, anger, and despair—and reveal personal quirks and preferences of presidents and their families from the Kennedy administration to the present day. These strange White House jobs are well-paid, too.
A Present for Malia
Bob Scanlan, the White House assistant chief florist from 1998 to 2010, wanted the Obamas to have a special first Christmas in the White House. He put boxwood Christmas trees on Malia’s dresser and on Sasha’s mantel. When Scanlan went into Malia’s room to check on the tree, he found a note: “Florist: I really like my tree. If it’s not too much to ask, could I please have lights on it? If not, I understand.” Her sign-off was a heart. “Now, you tell me,” he said to the Flower Shop staff. “How could I not put lights on that tree?”
Pastries for Nancy
An incident with Nancy Reagan still haunts former executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier. Two days before an April 1982 state dinner, Mesnier was previewing desserts with the first lady. Mrs. Reagan rejected three options, and Mesnier returned to the kitchen feeling dejected.
“Then the phone rang, and she asked me to come back upstairs to see her,” says Mesnier.
She told Mesnier that she had decided she wanted elaborate sugar baskets with three sugar tulips in each one. He would have to make 15 baskets for the dinner, each of which would take several hours.
“Mrs. Reagan, this is very nice and very beautiful, but I have only two days left until the dinner,” Mesnier told her.
She smiled and tilted her head to the right: “Roland, you have two days and two nights before the dinner.”
Mesnier dug in and worked day and night. After the state dinner, when he knew the first lady was happy with the result, he drove home elated. He had met the challenge.
Ronnie in the Buff
Ivaniz Silva, a maid from 1985 to 2008, spent most of her time in the family’s inner sanctum on the second and third floors. Usually things ran like clockwork, with the maids keeping track of the whereabouts of the president and the first lady so that the staff could go in and work without disturbing them. But one evening, Silva was in President Reagan’s bedroom after 5:30 p.m., turning down the bed and closing the curtains. When she went into the bedroom’s sitting room, “there he was, naked, with papers all around him!” she says. She rushed out of the room blushing before the president had time to say a word. He must have been as surprised as she was.
Later, she passed him in the hallway. Reagan looked at her with a twinkle. “Hey, who was that guy?” he asked. The stories behind these White House Christmas ornaments and decorations are a piece of history.
Flowers for Jimmy
The first family may live in the White House for free, but they’re billed monthly for other expenses such as food and dry cleaning. Jimmy Carter wanted his flowers on the cheap, even though the first family doesn’t usually pay for flowers, says Ronn Payne, a White House florist from 1973 to 1996. “We had to go out and pick flowers for dinners,” he remembers. Payne and other staffers took field trips to Rock Creek Park to pick daffodils and the National Zoo to collect wildflowers. “Police would stop us. One guy was arrested,” Payne says. The White House intervened to get him released.
Samantha Appleton/Courtesy The White House
Bowling With Richard
Before Watergate, President Nixon was well liked among the staff, although most of them agree that he and his family were much more formal and stiff than their predecessors. Chef Frank Ruta tells a story about the congenial pot washer Frankie Blair, who was a fixture in the kitchen. One night, Blair was cleaning up after the first family had finished dinner. Nixon wandered into the kitchen, and somehow they started talking about bowling—Nixon was such an avid bowler that he had a single-lane bowling alley installed in the basement under the North Portico. Nixon asked Blair if he would play with him, and the two of them bowled until two in the morning. “There may have been a bottle of Scotch involved as well,” Ruta adds.
After they wrapped up, Blair turned to the president and said, “There is no way my wife is going to believe I was out this late bowling with you.”
“Come with me,” Nixon told him.
The two walked to the Oval Office, where the president wrote a note apologizing to Blair’s wife for keeping him out so late.
Flying with the Nixons
Former usher Nelson Pierce also remembers happy times with the Nixons before Watergate. When Pierce found out that the president and his wife were traveling to the Seattle area, where he’d been born, he told the first lady how much he missed the snowcapped mountains of the Northwest. Not long after that, Mrs. Nixon asked him to join them.
“The president’s secretary gave me the flight map,” Pierce recalls, and he studied it carefully, “trying to figure out what I would see, what I would recognize. But the closer we got to Washington, the less I was seeing.” Then, just as Pierce was getting his bearings, “all of a sudden, we made a sharp bank to the right, and of course I saw Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier … I knew that somebody had asked the pilots to go that way so I could see the mountains.”
Samantha Appleton/Courtesy The White House
Every night, President Lyndon Johnson would get a massage in his living quarters. When former usher Nelson Pierce was on night duty, he would wait downstairs until the Navy chief came to tell him the president had gone to bed, at which point he was free to leave. Every once in a while, Pierce recalls, the president would fall asleep on the table, and the chief would have to sit down and wait until Johnson woke up so he could finish the massage.
“It was three, four, sometimes even five in the morning before we’d leave work,” Pierce says, without a hint of resentment in his voice.
John and the Can Opener
John and Jackie Kennedy were hopeless in the kitchen, says Anne Lincoln, the White House housekeeper at the time. “The president loved soup before he went to bed,” she says. “We had a can opener on the second floor, [but] I think it took him about eight months to learn how to use it.”