Making the White House Home by Kate Andersen Brower
When we heard Amanda Gorman, the youngest poet ever to perform at an inauguration, passionately recite her beautiful poem, The Hill We Climb, I found myself thinking not about what was happening on stage – as compelling as it was – but about what was happening a mile-and-a-half away in the White House.
As Gorman recited the lines,“…while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated,” I imagined the Residence staff from the White House Operations Department loading new mattresses and box springs into the elevator, the housekeepers expertly changing bedsheets, and the butlers making sure the family kitchen on the second floor is stocked with the Bidens’ favorite snacks.
Because while our eyes were trained on President Biden and the historic swearing in of Vice President Kamala Harris as the first woman, and the first woman of color ever to be vice president, a team of dedicated professionals was making sure that the peaceful transfer of power was happening seamlessly inside the White House.
In EXPLORING THE WHITE HOUSE: Inside America’s Most Famous Home I describe how the approximately 95 staffers, who stay on from one administration to the next, and their work as true American patriots. African American Butler James Ramsey grew up in Yanceyville, North Carolina, and became close to the presidents and first ladies. “Jenna, Barbara—I loved them to death,” he told me. “They were my friends. . . “ When he passed away in 2014, Laura Bush delivered the euology at his funeral, traveling from Texas to Washington, D.C. to do it. She told the congregation that Ramsey did more than pamper presidents. “He made them laugh,” she said. “He cheered them up. He brightened their days.” On behalf of the entire Bush family, she said, “We thank God that James Ramsey was in our life.” These are not just people working for the family, these butlers become their lifeline. They offer them comfort at the end of their long days and, above all, they love their country and feel honored to work in its most famous home.
And my mind wandered to Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick who worked at the White House for thirty-four years before retiring in 2008. In the 1980s she met her future husband Robert Limerick, who worked as a White House engineer, when she measured him for his uniform. Their wedding was filled with their friends from the White House. That is because they work such long hours and serve in such unique positions that they become like family. One florist told me that when the flowers were starting to droop and petals were falling to the floor, a housekeeper or butler would always let him know so they could be switched out for a fresh arrangement. They look out for each other and they work together as a team. I wanted children to know their story too.
When Gorman, the nation’s first-ever poet laureate, spoke about finding light “in this never-ending shade” I envisioned the Residence staff vacuuming drapes, dusting chandeliers, and preparing the house for its newest occupants. They know that the house is not about one president, it is about the institution of the presidency itself. After the last few heartbreaking weeks, what could be more important than celebrating our fragile but enduring democracy and the people who make the peaceful transfer of power possible behind-the scenes?
There were not hundreds of thousands of people crowded on the National Mall to watch Joe Biden take the oath of office. That is one of the many things the pandemic has taken from us. But the serene and carefully choreographed ceremony that Lady Bird Johnson called “the great quadrennial American pageant” felt monumental nonetheless.
And the work of the White House went on as usual. There is something deeply comforting about that. I describe it in the book hoping that children will feel connected to the “People’s House” and the people who work there. Laura Bush calls the “transfer of families” a “choreographic masterpiece, done with exceptional speed,” and its successful execution depends on the institutional knowledge and the flexibility of the residence staff. They are the heart of the house. They understand that every four to eight years they will have a new boss and a new family to serve. And to them, that is part of the wondrous things about their job.
Because, as Gorman so eloquently put it, and as the Residence staff at the White House know better than most, the presidency is all about new beginnings:
“The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Kate Andersen Brower is a CNN contributor and the author of the children’s book, “Exploring the White House: Inside America’s Most Famous Home.” “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” “Team Of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump,” “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power,” and “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.”