It’s got to be one of the most coveted workplaces in the world, right?
Okay, maybe after J.K. Rowling’s house. Or as George R.R. Martin’s assistant. Or, for me, a goat sanctuary. Or, maybe, the Vatican Secret Archives. But as places to work go, the White House must be pretty darn cool.
In The Residence, author Kate Anderson Brower flings the doors to the “home” part of the White House open wide, showcasing interviews with butlers, maids, plumbers, chefs, and others who put in their 8 hours there every day.
The book is chock full of interviews that range from the day Jackie Kennedy returned home after her husband’s death to what Nixon did when he resigned. They’ve walked in on naked Presidents and, I assume, learned the intricate habits of many leaders of the free world. The book is crammed with fascinating details, and below are 11 examples that will whet your appetite…and probably have you hopping right on over to Amazon.
#11. Don’t go looking for the job listing in the Classifieds.
Positions are filled by word-of-mouth only. Current employees vouch for new hires, and there have been multiple generations of family members to fill roles in the White House, spanning decades.
#10. Transition periods are like their Big Game.
When everyone heads out for the Inauguration, the staff has 6 hours to transform the White House for its new occupants. The process includes packing up the outgoing family and unpacking the new family’s things, and redecorating in the process – new rugs, headboards, mattresses, flowers, paintings, you name it. It takes every member of the staff working the whole time to pull it off.
They do nothing ahead of time. When the sitting President leaves, it looks the same as it has their entire term. When the new president arrives, it looks as if they’ve always lived there.
#9. They basically work in a museum.
The White House has curators who keep track of every last piece of furniture and every candlestick. As one service staff member explained, “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.”
#8. The staff is large and in charge.
With “132 rooms, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators spread across 6 floors – plus 2 hidden mezzanine levels – all tucked within what appears to be a three-story building,” the upkeep for the White House requires many hands. 96 full-time employees, to be exact, along with 250 part-time employees. If you’re thinking of applying, some of the jobs include: butler, maid, chef, plumber, doorman, and florist.
#7. They employ the best chefs in the world.
The chefs who get the nod to cook for the president often turn down positions that would pay more, but there could be no more prestigious spot in the world. One chef explains that “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?…If the president wanted a peanut butter and honey sandwich, then by God we made the best peanut butter and honey sandwich we could.”
I mean, I don’t know why this isn’t listed as the top perk of the job. There aren’t that many, in truth.
#6. The President is responsible for all of their own expenses.
And they’re not cheap – food, drink, dry cleaning, mints, booze, etc., all add up pretty quickly. In addition, the President pays the staff time and a half during parties. According to Brower, Jackie Kennedy informed the chief usher to “run this place just like you’d run it for the chinciest President who ever got elected!” And then she added, “We don’t have nearly as much money as you read in the papers.”
#5. They could have a new job description every 4 or 8 years.
A new President and first family means a new vibe, new preferences, new requests, and new ins and outs of the job. One usher confesses in the book that some first families are a pleasure to service, while with others, they’re forced to pretend. “But we pretend very well.”
#4. Devotion is a prerequisite.
The staff at the White House prides themselves on being two things: attentive and invisible. They serve the first family in an unobtrusive manner, but miss nothing along the way. It’s a calling, really, and the hours can be long – one supervisor reported working 1,000 hours of overtime in a year – but that goes with the territory.
“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 85 hours you want to work each week,” says a former chef on the premises.
#3. They’re all trained in building security.
In 2011, it was a maid who reported a broken window and chunks of concrete on the Truman Balcony. An FBI investigation learned the damage was the result of 7 shots fired directly at the White House – an event dismissed by the Secret Service.
#2. The president’s food is no laughing matter.
Everything that passes his lips first goes through FBI and Secret Service screeners. If the President buys something while traveling, the food is shipped home to staff, so no one will know it’s going to the President.
#1. There can be some embarrassing moments.
Working in such close quarters with the first family is bound to lead to some unexpectedly intimate moments. While it’s the staff’s job to safeguard the family’s privacy, that doesn’t apply to workers. The books tells of an usher who had to interrupt President Reagan in the shower:
“All he had on him was a skim of water!”
And then later that evening, he had to deliver another bedroom message. He entered after the First Lady told him it was okay, only to find the President in nothing but his underwear. According to the usher, Reagan’s response was, “Don’t worry about it. He’s already seen me naked once today. We’re old friends.”
I guess a sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.
Buy the book here!
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