Anecdotes both touching and hilarious about living and working in the White House, “the country’s most potent and enduring symbol of the presidency.”
While journalist Brower moves by theme in presenting the memories of select long-running staff at the White House—“Controlled Chaos,” “Discretion,” “Extraordinary Demands,” “Dark Days,” etc.—there is an irresistible, charmingly pell-mell quality to the arrangement of these dishy stories. The author has managed to track down numerous former staffers—ushers, electricians, maids, butlers, chefs, and florists—to share their mostly loyal thoughts on the illustrious families they served. They (and the families themselves) often compare living in the White House to a prison, albeit a fancy one. The White House has six floors, 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and 28 fireplaces, with “shops” in the basement housing departments such as housekeeping and floral. Here, the staffers do not have the freedom to leave, and the work demands mean that they often sacrifice their own social and personal lives. First and foremost, they are fiercely devoted, sworn to be apolitical, serving each family that arrives after Inauguration Day as evenly as the next, despite emotional attachments—for example, chef Walter Scheib spent a stint teaching 17-year-old Chelsea Clinton to cook. The most delicious stories involve President Lyndon Johnson and his extreme shower demands—it needed to have multiple nozzles shooting water at fire-hydrant intensity—while the most heartbreaking delineate Jackie Kennedy’s arrangements in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. There is also an affecting glimpse of Hillary Clinton attempting to enjoy a shred of privacy at the pool amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Brower is keen to sympathize with the plight of the hardworking help. For example, in her chapter “Race and the Residence,” the author reveals the first “revolt” by the largely African-American staff to push for salary equality in the late 1960s.
A work of great historical interest that is also quite entertaining.