I run a nondescript five-bedroom, three-bathroom household in Suburbia, USA, and let’s be honest: Some days it’s completely grueling and exhausting running this household.
Can you imagine running a household with 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, and a constant stream of tourists — all while trying to protect one of the most powerful and famous families in the world?
That’s what The White House staff is tasked with doing. In reading The Residence: Inside the Private World of The White House, I had an opportunity to peek behind the curtain to see what The White House help really has to do day in and day out. Turns out, it’s fascinating.
In writing The Residence, author Kate Anderson Brower provides the reader with a glimpse into the tedious day-to-day tasks of The White House Residence staff, but she also talks quite a bit about how past presidents and first ladies have worked together as family units. It was absolutely fascinating to hear some of the behind-the-scenes gossip and learn more about the private personalities of each family — even if some of the gossip was incredibly old!
Here are a few of the things I learned while reading the book.
Moving day. Did you know that the outgoing president and the incoming president move on the same day — and within a few hours of one another? The outgoing president has control of The White House until 10 a.m. on inauguration day, and the incoming president receives control of the house at noon on the same day. The two hours in between are used to move all of the old president’s stuff out and bring the new president’s stuff in. This includes all of the furniture! Can you imagine?!
Living costs. I had no idea that the first family had to pay for all of their meals and expenses just like normal people. I suppose I had never thought of it before, either, but I was kind of surprised to learn that the president and his family pay out-of-pocket the bill for their own food and for the food of their guests, for example. According to the author of The Residence, most of the first ladies are surprised to hear they have to foot the bill for their meals too, so it turns out I’m not the only one.
Racially-motivated hires. It turns out, race does (or at least, did) play a role in the hiring of household staff. According to Brower, a good portion of the residence staff is African American, which was originally calculated. During her research, Brower learned that Eleanor Roosevelt believed “that a staff solid in any one color works better in understanding and maintains a smoother-running establishment.” Under such beliefs, Eleanor Roosevelt fired all the white members of her household staff and replaced them with African Americans.
Children in The White House. Through her interviews, the author was able to speak with White House staff members about nearly everything, but my favorite chapter came near the end of the book when she spoke about how the first families chose to raise their children. In recent times, many of the families have worked hard to maintain normalcy in their children’s lives. For many families (the Obamas and Clintons, in particular), that meant making sure that the children understand that the staff is not there to serve their every whim. Can you imagine the challenge of raising a well-adjusted and self-sufficient child in a house filled with hundreds of household helpers? I also particularly enjoyed hearing about the personalities of some of the children and learning about some of the mischief first kids got into.
In all, The Residence was absolutely fascinating and truly humanized the first families who have lived in The White House. I loved learning about how such an iconic and historic home is run, and I thought it was really fun to read about some of the different quirks of those who have lived in the home.
The only complaint I have is that the book skipped around a lot which, at times, made it difficult to keep the timeline. In all, however, I enjoyed the information and the humanizing aspects of the book.