Oh my God, she would be so proud of me.
—BUTLER JAMES RAMSEY ON HOW HIS MOTHER WOULD HAVE REACTED TO HIS WHITE HOUSE CAREER IF SHE HAD LIVED TO SEE IT
It was ninety-eight degrees, another sticky Washington summer day. A window unit is working overtime in the three-bedroom redbrick row house in northeast Washington that Butler James Jeffries bought in 1979. He quickly and unnecessarily apologizes for his half-painted living room walls. “This would have all been painted before Easter, but I’m seventy-two and I get tired quick.”
With the History Channel blaring in the background, and his lanky teenage grandson wandering in and out (“I used to look just like him”), we sit at a table covered with photographs of his children and grandchildren, and Jeffries tells the story of how the White House came to define his family’s legacy. In a slow and deliberate voice, he explains how he was either related to or knew most of the people who ran the residence over the last fifty years. His name might be Jeffries, but he’s a Ficklin; nine members of his family have worked there.
Even the members of the staff who he wasn’t actually related to became like family. Eugene Allen, who took over as maître d’ after Jeffries’s uncle John Ficklin retired, “was just like an uncle too.” Doorman Preston Bruce lived in the same housing complex as his aunt, and Jeffries says Bruce was a father figure to him.
“Mr. West, Mr. Scouten, they stayed in the background. My uncle [John] ran the White House,” Jeffries says, proud of the close-knit circle of African Americans who made the residence tick. Family folklore has it that his uncle Charles got the family a foothold in the White House by impressing President Franklin Roosevelt while working on a military ship in the navy. Roosevelt asked him to draw a table setting, and he sat down and drew it expertly. Years later, Charles was asked to come to the White House for an interview.
Jeffries is continuing his family’s tradition. He started working at the White House when he was just seventeen years old, in 1959. He remembers the exact date: January 25. His son is a butler there now, and even though Jeffries himself is long past retirement age, he still works at “the house” part-time. The job pays twenty-five dollars an hour. “They help me out down there, they don’t have me doing any hard lifting or nothing.”
Jeffries is a witness to American history. He is one of a handful of people still alive who remembers what it was like working in the Kennedy White House, when a new generation and new technology brought the residence into America’s living rooms. He remembers a side of the first lady that few people ever saw.
“I remember Mrs. Kennedy would come downstairs, she might ask us to put a chair over there or even have us take the chair out of the room, and maybe fifteen or twenty minutes later she wanted us to bring the chair right back.” He laughs. “Another guy and myself, we were the youngsters, and all the older guys would disappear! I never felt like I had to run, I wanted to be right there with her. I just stood by and did whatever she asked me to. If I could move it by myself, I moved it.”
One Saturday night, years later, he was told to stop washing dishes and go upstairs to the second floor to help Betty Ford with something. When he got upstairs, Ford asked, “Where are the butlers?” She was looking for the full-time butlers.
“They just went downstairs. I can go get them for you,” he told her, pushing the elevator button to go back down.
“All I need is a man,” she called to him, impatiently, from the Family Dining Room.
He laughs with a wink. “I said to myself, Wait a minute, what is this lady getting me into? So I went to see what she wanted and all she wanted me to do was take the nineteen-inch television into the bedroom!”
Like so many of his colleagues, Jeffries fondly remembers President George H. W. Bush’s kindness. “Old man Bush made me feel like I was just a person, just the same as he is. I was so glad I had watched a football game, because the next day, or one day during the week after the football game, I happened to walk in to take the orders for drinks up on the second floor and he was talking to the other guests and he asked me, What did I think about the game? I managed to talk with him about it. I took the orders and went on back and when I came back he said something else to me about the game.”
Jeffries remembers serving drinks to the Clintons and their friends one night before a formal dinner, and running into an exhausted President Clinton on his way into the Solarium. Clinton confided in him, “If Robert Mitchum weren’t a guest I wouldn’t even bother going downstairs tonight.”
Jeffries felt sorry for the weary president. “You need to take a break,” he told him.
They are a dying breed, these people who actually hold dear personal memories of the Kennedys and Johnsons, the Nixons, Fords, Carters, and Reagans. Their recollections paint these iconic figures in a rare and intimate light. 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.
All too often, now, the veteran residence staff see each other only at retirement parties and funerals. They try to keep up over Facebook and e-mail, but the older staffers, who aren’t perpetually plugged in, sometimes find out about a colleague’s passing long after the fact.
During the course of our conversations, I hated it when a pained expression would sweep across one of their faces when I mentioned that a colleague of theirs had passed away, unaware that they didn’t know already.
There were delightful moments too. In the course of researching this book I sometimes had the happy occasion to reconnect people who had long lost touch. I gave Usher Chris Emery Head Housekeeper Christine Limerick’s e-mail address. Nelson Pierce asked me for Bill Hamilton’s phone number.
“I’ve got to call that turkey,” James Ramsey said, eyes twinkling, when he asked me for his old friend Chef Mesnier’s number.
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.
The first family and their aides rely on the residence workers, in part because they know so much about how first families live their lives. “When it comes down to it—and this is not just for me but for most of the people who went to work there—there’s no track record, there’s no institutional knowledge that you have” that can help you learn the job, said former Obama aide Reggie Love. “You basically are showing up with a clean slate and no instruction manual.”
Despite the archival research I conducted before setting forth on these interviews, I had no idea what to expect when I began sitting down with the residence workers—many of whom generously opened their homes to me. I was so happy to discover that what you see really is what you get. Most of them are not cynical or competitive, like so many people in and around Washington politics; their desire to contribute small but integral roles in the functioning of America’s democracy is genuine. They may not influence policy, but their jobs are arguably as important as those of many political appointees. Without them, the White House would be uninhabitable.
From preparing quiet meals for the first family to serving celebrities, members of Congress, and world leaders, they represent the best in American service, while practicing their own unique brand of diplomacy. And, implicitly or explicitly, their efforts are rewarded with the gratitude of the most powerful men and women on earth.
ADMIRAL STEPHEN ROCHON became chief usher in 2007, just a couple of months before one of Queen Elizabeth II’s many state visits. “We impressed the queen enough that she invited me and a couple of my staffers to Buckingham Palace to see how the Brits do it.”
When he arrived at Buckingham Palace, Rochon was astonished when the queen walked through their version of the State Floor and made her way right up to him. “Who are you, young man?” she asked him.
“Well, Your Majesty, I’m Admiral Rochon, the chief usher of the White House,” he told her. “We entertained you for your state visit.”
The queen’s face lit up and she started waving across the room to her husband, “Oh Philip, oh Philip, come quick!”
One reason the residence workers leave such a lasting impression is that they make it all look effortless. “Butlers scurry around providing service that is both smooth and subtle. You get your food without being quite sure how you got it,” recalled Betty Ford’s press secretary, Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, about attending her first state dinner. “Everything is perfect and everyone is beautiful and elegant, because they are part of the most beautiful and elegant setting in the world.”
When crisis or tragedy strikes, the staff is at their best. During the Iran hostage crisis, First Lady Rosalynn Carter told me, “They were especially attentive during that time because they were concerned. They were concerned about us.”
Residence staffers are completely in tune with the family they serve. They would do almost anything for them—often sacrificing their own marriages, countless hours with their children, and in the sad case of Freddie Mayfield, even their lives. “They are the greatest con artists in the world,” Luci Baines Johnson joked. “They make every administration feel they love them best.”
And it’s true: Butler James Ramsey knew when President George W. Bush was in need of a good laugh. Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick knew to bite her tongue during one of Nancy Reagan’s tirades. And Chef Roland Mesnier knew exactly when Hillary Clinton could use a slice of her favorite mocha cake.
Ramsey did not seem near death when I interviewed him. He knew he was sick, though—he had colon cancer that was spreading to his liver—and he kept putting off my persistent requests to meet for lunch. (“You’re a nice lady, baby. We’ll do it. I’ll call you.”) Always jovial, he never let on how much pain he was in. Ramsey was hopeful about life and his future, animatedly describing dinner dates with a new girlfriend and talking about a trip he was hoping to take to Las Vegas with Storeroom Manager Bill Hamilton.
His daughter would later tell me that he had turned to herbal medicine to help fight the cancer that was ravaging his body.
When he passed away, on February 19, 2014, the families he loved so much returned his affection: Laura Bush spoke at his funeral, attended by dozens of his White House colleagues, and letters from President Obama and President Clinton were read at the service. His pallbearers were fellow butlers.
“He always seemed to know when we needed a little boost of his humor, which happens a lot in the White House,” President Clinton wrote. “Hillary, Chelsea, and I all have our Ramsey memories. The man could tell a story, and his opinions on unfolding events, from politics to sports, were often hilarious.” The Obamas praised Ramsey’s “unwavering patriotism.”
“James witnessed great moments in our nation’s history,” they said.
Laura Bush brought her daughter Jenna to the service, which was held at Trinidad Baptist Church in northeast Washington, D.C. The former first lady eulogized the butler who brought her husband much-needed moments of levity when it seemed the world was crashing down around him. (“She brought tears to my eyes,” says Ramsey’s daughter, Valerie.) Ramsey was more than just a staffer, Mrs. Bush said, he was a devoted friend. And, like all his colleagues, he possessed qualities of loyalty, devotion, and discretion that cannot be learned.
She told the congregation that Ramsey did more than pamper the presidents: “He made them laugh. 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.”
For Ramsey, serving America’s first families gave his life meaning and purpose. When I asked him how he felt when he first set foot in the residence decades ago, he said wistfully, “Oh my God, I was just so happy.”