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The Secret Life of the White House

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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.

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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.

 

 

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