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What’s It Like to Work in the White House?

A front view of the White House

When President John Adams and his wife Abigail first moved into the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they needed only a handful of staff, including just four in the Executive Mansion, to keep them comfortable. These days, the Trump Administration employs about 377 White House staffers—and that’s lean, considering President Obama employed up to 487 staffers.

These positions range from the more public-facing West Wing staff (such as the chief of staff, senior advisors, and press secretary) to the private residence staff, which includes about 90 housekeepers, chefs, carpenters, plumbers, gardeners, maintenance engineers, and others.

In honor of President’s Day, we dug up some interesting stories from these staff members about what it’s like to work in the White House. “Shock and awe” could describe a few. Enjoy!

Flowers, officer?

When he was President, Jimmy Carter hated the idea of paying for floral arrangements, so he would ask White House Florist Ronn Payne and his fellow staff to “go out and pick flowers for dinner.”

Payne recalled that he and other staffers took field trips to Rock Creek Park to pick daffodils and the National Zoo to collect wildflowers. “Police would stop us. One guy was arrested,” Payne said, adding that The White House intervened to get him released. We wonder, did Jimmy apologize with a bouquet of roses?

Would you mind taking off your shoes?

The White House maintenance staff hates your comfy tourist sneakers, but not due to a fashion faux pas. “When people stopped wearing dress shoes and went to soft-soled shoes, we all cheered because we thought this would be great for the [wood] floors,” former chief usher Gary Walters once recalled.

“We couldn’t have been more wrong. What happens with soft-soled shoes is that pebbles get embedded in them, so now you’ve got 1,500 people walking through with sandpaper on their feet. It was exactly the opposite of what we expected.”

Presidental hide-and-seek

Over history, the secret service has dealt with mischievous Presidents determined to sneak away from under their watch.

Theodore Roosevelt would slip out for an invigorating hike or horseback ride in nearby Rock Creek Park, for instance. William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s successor, famously eluded his guards on Christmas Eve 1911. At about 4:30 pm, he and the First Lady secretly left the White House on foot in a rainstorm to surprise nearby friends.

A widespread search ensued and, two hours later, “a soaked and dripping first couple returned to the White House, smiling broadly.”

Coffee anyone?

You might be serious about coffee, but always-on-the-go West Wing staffers take the obsession to an entirely new level. As the Obama administration handed the reigns to Trump staffers, they wanted to pass along a very important tip.

“There is a window between 2 and 3 p.m. that the [White House mess hall] is closed,” Obama Senior Advisor Brian Deese laments. “Most days, you don’t lift your head up to think about having lunch or a cup of coffee till 2:05. I feel like I end up most days in the dead zone between 2 and 3 p.m. You want to plan your day to not get caught in the dead zone.”

It sounds like the coffee is worth the wait, though. As Obama’s Deputy Digital Director Kori Schulman remembers, “Nitro coffee at the mess is a true revelation. It’s a revelation that will serve the next Administration well.” Rumor has it, the coffee that’s got the staff buzzing is made by Washington D.C.’s  Compass Coffee.

Write this down!

One of the oddest top-earning jobs to exist at the White House (actually, what makes it odd is that it does still exist) is that of calligrapher.

In fact, The Trump administration has three calligraphers on staff, with Chief Calligrapher Patricia Blair earning an impressive $102,212 a year. Lest you believe the role is a part of Trump extravagance, these calligraphers uphold an important job and were even more generously compensated under President Obama.

They create official greetings from the president, place cards for White House dinners, handwritten proclamations, military commissions, and service awards, and have been doing so since 1801. The team does turn to computers for large jobs, but about 40 percent of all calligraphy work coming from the White House is still done by hand.

 

 

Jimmy Carter and  Deng Xiaoping in 1979:  Schumacher, Karl H. / National Archives and Records Administration

President and Mrs.Taft: Brown Brothers / The World’s Work

Calligrapher for White House:  Executive Office of the President of the United States

 

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