I have only visited the White House once, in 1975, a year before America’s bicentennial. Of course it was much easier to get in then–pre 9/11–and the public rooms still retained most of the vision and gloss of Jacqueline Kennedy, the First Lady responsible for the restoration of the building in 1962.What I remember most is that the colors of the room are extraordinarily vivid–the Red Room is really, really red–and a sense of wonder that Americans can rubberneck around the home of the President of the United States. This can’t be said about the official homes of most other world leaders.

The White House had been under construction for eight years when John and Abigail Adams moved into it in 1800, unfinished though it was. The Adams’ used to hang their laundry in the East Room–now the room for some of the grandest events held at the White House. The building has six floors, of which two are basements, two are public floors and the remaining two are the living quarters of the First Family. The White House has 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases and three elevators. There are a number of shops in the basements of the White House for florists, engineers, carpenters, plumbers–real ones–and such. A retinue of chefs, butlers, maids, gardeners, calligraphers, and housekeepers round out the White House staff.

The State Floor is the heart of the White House tour. Visitors can see the East Room, the State Dining Room and the Red, Blue, and Green Rooms, among other sites. During the current administration, tourists have sometimes been happily surprised by an appearance of First Lady, Michelle Obama, and the First Dogs, Bo and Sunny. President Obama has even joined her.

The Residence focuses on the staffers and their interactions with the families who have lived in the White House since the Kennedy administration.(There are brief mentions of the Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations.)The reader will quickly learn that presidents and their families come and go, but most staffers remain for long periods of time. Indeed, some staff members are second- and third-generation White House employees. All of them are very devoted to the work, the house and the families.What may surprise many readers is the “culture of discretion” that staffers exhibit. They are not required to sign confidentiality agreements, but for the most part there is a very long held tradition of silence about the First Families. They police themselves. Part of it is cultural; many staffers were hired at a time when people in general were more circumspect about their lives and work. Second, White House staffers serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired at will. Some have been, and all the staff is painfully aware of that. Third, staffs know they are sometimes privy to important private, military and policy information and pride themselves on being able to keep secrets. It was really not until the retired White House butler Eugene Allen, who served from Presidents Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan, told his story to former Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, and a biopic was produced on his experiences, that some staffers agreed to let their hair down. Even then Brower sometimes found it difficult to get staffers to open up.


Working at the White House entails very little glamour, although the staffers and the families agree that, surrounded as they are by magnificent paintings, furniture, and more than two hundred years of history, it’s a beautiful place work. The work is hard–and is made harder by the quirks and requirements of the First Families–the pay is just average, and the hours are very long. Generally speaking, staffers are not allowed to leave for the day until the President and First Lady have retired for the night.(Lyndon Johnson and the Clintons were notorious night owls.)Staffers at the White House have little free time or time for their own families. They are married to their jobs. One staffer put off going to the doctor for so long, by the time his ailment was discovered, it was too late for him to be treated and he died.

The elephant in the living room in The Residence is the fact that most of the people who serve the presidents and their families were and are African American. George Washington is the only president who has never lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and there was no such entity as White House staff. Early presidents brought their slaves and personal household staff to the residence so they did not have to pay to hire staff. When the Franklin Roosevelts arrived, there were black and white staffers. Mrs. Roosevelt, that doyenne of racial equality, let all the white staff go; she thought it better for the White House if the staff were all black. For the most part, the history of the building has reflected the history of the country: black staffers in the lowest paying jobs, whites in the highest. And we can easily imagine the affinity, trust and pride between them and the mostly black staff.

Brower has not titled the chapters after presidents, but has named them with very descriptive nouns–e.g., Controlled Chaos–so that the stories of all the presidents, their families and the staff are intertwined. For example, what looks like a seamless operation carried out with stunning swiftness–the leaving of one family and the arriving of another—is difficult for the families and staff. There are often tears on both sides. This was definitely the case when the Kennedys and the Nixons left the White House. And staffers definitely have their favorites, although most agree that both Bush administrations are at the top of the list. The Bush families were used to having a staff, and so were relaxed, friendly and openly appreciative of how hard the White House staff worked. The elder Bush started a tradition of horseshoe tournaments with the staff, and Laura Bush delivered a eulogy at the funeral of the beloved butler, James Ramsey.

The Residence has also confirmed my beliefs about some of the First Ladies. For instance, Nancy Reagan was as demanding and imperious as she publicly seemed. She once walked into a room, stated that there were no lights and waited for a staff member to flip the switch!

There are many touching, funny, profound, and unexpected stories in Brower’s book. Butler Lynwood Westray recalled how he asked a visiting Prince Phillip if he would like a drink, and the Prince agreed only if he could do the serving. Preston Bruce, the doorman during JFK’s administration, had become very close to the Kennedys. He sadly recounted how he, Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy held each other and cried in the elevator after JFK’s body was brought back to the White House in the wee hours of the morning. Usher Nelson Pierce remembered how he pressured J. B. West, the Chief Usher, into quickly and quietly raise the payof two newly hired black maids when it was discovered they met the poverty threshold as defined in LBJ’s War on Poverty program. Kitchen staffer Frankie Blairre called how he bowled with President Nixon until 2:00 a.m., and that Nixon gave him a handwritten note for his wife as proof. Reds Arrington recounted a story about Betty Ford and Queen Elizabeth II. The three were waiting for the elevator in the family quarters when it stopped and there stood Mrs. Ford’s son Jack, in jeans and a tee shirt.“ Don’t worry, Betty,” the diplomatic Queen said, “I have one of those at home too.” Several members of the White House staff remember how Bill Clinton had to get stitches in his head; he said he ran into the bathroom door in the middle of the night. The staff said it was because Mrs. Clinton “clocked him with a book” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

When The Residence first hit the stores, some of the public was aghast that Brower would write such a book, and staff would violate the families’ privacy in this way. Savvy readers will be glad she did, because this is great social history. The book is neither salacious nor scandalous; rather, it’s a lovely meander through the life of one of the most recognized houses in the world, and a well-deserved valentine to all who have worked to make the White House America’s home.