Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Residence

Book 80 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from October 24 - November 2

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House
by Kate Andersen Brower

Summary (via the book jacket)
America's first families are among the most private public figures on earth. From the mystique of the glamorous Kennedys to the tumult that surrounded Bill and Hillary Clinton during the president's impeachment to the historic yet polarizing residency of Barack and Michelle Obama, each new administration brings a unique set of personalities to the White House - and a new set of challenges to the fiercely loyal and hardworking people who serve them: the White House residence staff.
No one understands the president of the United States, and his family, like the men and women who make the White House run every day. Now, for the first time, their stories of fifty years, ten administrations, and countless crises, large and small, are told in The Residence. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with butlers, maids, chefs, florists, doormen, and other staffers - as well as former first ladies and first family members - Kate Anderson Brower, who covered President Obama's first term, offers a group portrait of the dedicated professionals who orchestrate lavish state dinners; stand ready during meetings with foreign dignitaries; care for the president and first lady's young children; and cater to every need the first couple may have, however sublime or, on occasion, ridiculous.
In the voices of the residence workers themselves - sometimes wry, often affectionate, always gracious and proud - here are stories of
  • the Kennedys - from intimate glimpses of their marriage to the chaotic days after JFK's assassination.
  • the Johnsons - featuring the bizarre saga of LBJ's obsession with the White House plumbing.
  • the Nixons - including Richard Nixon's unexpected appearance in the White House kitchen the morning he resigned.
  • the Reagans - from a fire that endangered Ronald Reagan late in his second term to Nancy's control of details large and small.
  • the Clintons - whose private battles, marked by shouting matches and flying objects, unsettled residence workers.
  • the Obamas - who danced to Mary J. Blige on their first night in the White House.
And just as compelling are the stories of the workers themselves, including Storeroom Manager Bill Hamilton, who served eleven presidents over fifty-five years; Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick, who married a fellow residence worker; Chief Usher Stephen Rochon, who became the first African American to hold the post; Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, who feuded fiercely with Executive Chef Walter Scheib; and Butler James Ramsey, who made friends with presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and whose spirit animated the White House through six administrations before his death in 2014.
Working tirelessly to provide impeccable service and earning the trust and undying admiration of each new first family, these extraordinary White House workers served every day in the midst of history - and lived to tell the tales.

My Opinion
As you can tell by the summary, there is a lot of information in this book!  It should go without saying that if you're not interested in behind-the-scenes of the White House and its occupants, you shouldn't read this book.  But if you are, you won't be disappointed - there are a ton of details and new things to learn.  

I learned that the first family is responsible for all of their personal expenses and pay monthly bills, including food and drink for themselves and their personal guests and their dry cleaning bills.

It's well-researched and thorough with a list of sources and chapter notes at the end.  For the most part, the author shared new things in a way that didn't feel gossipy.  One exception - to me, some of the things she included about the Clintons and their behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal seemed like huge rumors and I was surprised she included them when she showed such restraint at other points in the book (such as dealing with the rumors surrounding JFK's fidelity, for example).

A Few Quotes from the Book
"Rising at dawn, [the residence workers] sacrifice their personal lives to serve the first family with quiet, awe-inspiring dignity. For them, working in the White House, regardless of position, is a great honor. Elections may bring new faces, but they stay on from administration to administration and are careful to keep their political beliefs to themselves. They have one job: to make America's first families comfortable in the country's most public private home."

"In the small moments that make up a life, the residence workers catch a glimpse of the humanity in the presidents and first ladies whose true personalities are rarely known beyond the walls of the White House. Just like anyone else, America's leaders have moments of indecision, exhaustion, frustration, and joy."

"Residence workers look on patiently as each new family learns to live within the confines of the White House. They know it's only a matter of time until their loyalty and discretion become lifelines for the president and the first lady. They are, after all, the only people there with no motivation other than to serve and comfort."

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