I really enjoyed reading this book. It is written and read in an even-tempered and easygoing style, conveying the warm, comfortable relationship shared by the staff and the occupants of the country’s “house”. The book is filled with little tidbits of information that provide insight into the lives of the “First Families” and the staff that works so hard to support them throughout their term of office in the White House. It does not reveal anything earth-shattering, but it illuminates the true personalities of the occupants, in particular: Nancy Reagan who broke several ribs when her husband was shot, but was stoic, never revealing it, bearing her pain without complaint, instead devoting herself to the care of her husband, Hillary Clinton who suffered her husband’s indignity with dignity, although she may or may not have wounded him in anger, and Lyndon Johnson whose crudeness shone through often in crass behavior that surprised many. Little known facts that were not insulting or top secret made the book an interesting and informative read that respected all of the individuals discussed. Through the comments made by the staff, both the personal and professional White House staff, the true nature of the occupants, complete with their idiosyncrasies shines through. The author admits that most could not really speak that freely since they are employed for their ability to honor the occupants and to be discreet, and since they also feared retribution of some kind if they did. Those who currently work or who have worked for the Obamas, in particular, would not speak freely, perhaps because the Obamas are known to retaliate when they are displeased.
It was nice to learn about the children of the first families. They were typical kids, the teens pushed the envelope sometimes, played loud music and were generally normal. The younger children often entertained the staff and guests with their antics. Still, their lives in the White House were not normal. They had no privacy or freedom and had to learn to live with a constant shadow lurking nearby.
The first families and the staff mostly grew to love and respect each other. The staff worked hard to make each family feel special, to welcome them and support them when needed. They made every effort to anticipate their moods and requirements so that often, they did not have to be asked to do something; they simply knew to do it. They revealed that the Clintons were the most difficult to move into the White House and also entertained many unsavory friends who could not get clearance to enter the White House under ordinary circumstances. Without the express permission of the Clintons, overriding the rules to accommodate them, they would not have been admitted. They had a decorator who spent 8 years in the guest room at the White House because the decorating for them was an ongoing project. Chelsea was always polite and never gave them an ounce of trouble. They revealed that Hillary made excessive demands, at times, that Obama’s personal secretary, Rogers, was unprepared, and Clinton’s staff resented the Bushes for having defeated Gore, that Nancy Reagan had unrealistic expectations, often disregarding the fact that they had other lives outside and often needed or wanted to be home, yet the demands were always met. The Johnson girls and Ford boys were typical kids. Amy Carter stretched the envelope. The Obama girls were and are always well behaved. Their grandmother always gives their family private time and lives on a different floor. The description of Lyndon Johnson’s crude behavior was sometimes comical and the recollection of Nixon’s shame is a memorable, if not touching experience, for those who can recall that moment in time. The Kennedys brought class to the White House and the description of the scene that took place after the President’s assassination was particularly moving. The atmosphere in the White House on 9/11, was harrowing as the chaos and confusion is described. There was no plan in place for the evacuation of the staff in case of emergency. On the street, people were running all over, cars were abandoned and left running. In the aftermath, the staff thought about how it could have been them who were named as victims if the White House had been hit, and if the brave people who brought down the plane that was meant for it, had not acted as they did. Barbara and George H. W. Bush as well as Laura and George W. Bush, were especially devoted to the staff. They were used to having a staff to help them, so they got along very well, with mutual respect for each other, making few demands. Most of the families grew so close to some of the staff that they seemed like family and some relationships continued long afterward.
Although they were supposed to be non partisan, they were human and many resented Johnson after Kennedy’s death, Bush when he defeated Gore. Soon, however, they all adjusted to the new family and served them with dignity because that was their job and they did it well or they don’t remain. From Margaret Truman to Sasha and Melia Obama, all of the memorable moments of White House history are covered. The election of the first black President was especially moving for the mostly African American staff. Many never thought they would ever live to see such a day. In reality, most, regardless of background, probably never thought they would see that day in their lifetime. America has made progress.
This is the story of several decades of families in the White House and the staff that serviced their needs, kept them safe and loved them like family. Over several administrations, the staff is generally loyal and long term. They become totally devoted to the current residents and the feeling is usually in both directions. After several years together, relationships are formed. Few impart secrets for fear of some kind of retaliation, loss of job, pension or retribution of some kind. Few do because they also have deep respect for the occupants and their jobs.
However, the anecdotes included are interesting. Karen White reads it fluidly in a composed manner. It is a very readable “memoir” of the White House years through the eyes of those who served it, and in some moments, also in the eyes of the former occupants, mostly the female occupants. They told interesting stories about how secrets were protected, odd behaviors were acknowledged, and procedures were learned by the new occupants as they adjusted to life in the White House. The difficulty in changing administrations was fierce; they only had a few hours to make the change, but they did it each time with grace.
Although the time line bounced around as different events are illustrated, and although it sometimes felt a bit repetitious, this was a very interesting read. It humanized the occupants of the White House. It was very poignant to read about the devotion of the staff, about their effort to provide structure, comfort and security to each new family, about their discretion as they went about their daily duties, respecting the families need for privacy and revealing no secrets. They knew their place and appreciated it