- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

Moving presidents in and out of the White House is a ritual akin to the inaugural ceremony itself - except the action occurs out of sight.

What takes most families days to accomplish happens within a few hours. Between noon, when the incoming president takes the oath of office, and 5 p.m., which is roughly when the inaugural parade ends, the furnishings and personal effects of two families will have been moved out and moved into the six-floor 132-room mansion - a scripted transformation done with the precision of a military maneuver.

Around 10 a.m., the outgoing president and family gather in the State Dining Room with the White House resident staff to exchange farewells and presents. It’s an emotional scene, relates former chief curator Betty C. Monkman, “saying goodbye and wondering what the future will be.”

A tradition begun under former chief usher Gary Walters‘ watch is to give the outgoing president two flags: the one flying over the White House when he took the oath of office and the one flying on inaugural morning. These are boxed in wood from the original building - renovated during President Truman’s time - and at least one usually ends up in a future presidential library.

Next, the outgoing president receives the incoming president as well as the Congressional Escort Committee - a bipartisan group - which will formally escort both men to the Capitol. The outgoing and incoming vice president and their spouses arrive, and all go to the Blue Room for coffee and pastries for what will be the outgoing chief executive’s last “taste” of the house he has called home for the past eight years.

“Until President Bush and his family depart from the North Portico, the house is theirs,” Mr. Walters says. “Sometimes family members - guests - are slow to depart, but only after they leave does the transformation occur.”

By the time the inaugural ceremony ends at the Capitol, moving vans will have made their way through traffic to the White House South Portico out of view of the cheering crowds lining the streets on the north and west sides. The vans are chosen by the incoming family and paid for by them.

When the new presidential family and their guests finish watching festivities from an elaborately constructed reviewing stand, they retire to eat, relax and mingle with friends and relatives prior to the evening’s succession of formal balls. Only when the Obamas enter the North Portico after the parade does the mansion officially become their home. The packing boxes will be gone and everything will have been put away.

The Oval Office and the Cabinet room along with the president’s study and private dining room will have been arranged according to plan, with favorite pieces of furniture installed and paintings and artifacts all put into place. Done right and done well by a staff of 93, the event is a masterpiece of coordination. Slip-ups are few.

Ann Stock, a White House social secretary during the Clinton years, calls it “a very organized battle plan.” Even so, what comes to her mind was the cry that rang out early the afternoon of President Clinton’s first Inauguration Day: “Where is the dress?”

While bringing the Clinton family’s belongings from Arkansas and the Blair House across the street (where incoming first families traditionally stay several weeks before the big move), someone apparently had forgotten in which closet Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ball gown was stored. “We had to go on a search,” Ms. Stock says.

The choreography of the day resides for the most part in the memory and notebooks of the White House chief usher, the person responsible for the operation of the entire White House complex and residence of the chief executive. Not even the chief usher or the social secretary, however, is excused from performing some of the more mundane tasks involved.

Mr. Walters, 62, who held the title from 1986 until his retirement in January 2007, believes he is the first chief usher in 50 years to be able to tell - discreetly - what happens behind the scenes. Even so, “on President Carter’s inaugural day, one of my jobs was to go to Blair House and pick up Amy’s Siamese cat after everyone had gone down to the Capitol.”

This year for the first time, Mr. Walters will be able to witness the day’s historic events as an observer. Chief usher Stephen W. Rochon, a former U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral, will be directing the show.

“Each chief usher, having gone through the transition phase, can leave behind bread crumbs as to what goes on,” Mr. Walters notes understatedly. “I left behind those pieces of information in briefing books big and small. Initially you don’t want to overwhelm an incoming first family. There is a huge amount of information that has to be exchanged after the election leading up to inaugural day. …

“The Bushes didn’t bring a great deal with them because they had just bought a ranch house,” Mr. Walters recalls. “The Clintons didn’t bring much, either. The persons in recent memory who brought the most with them were the Reagans, who brought furniture they were comfortable with, and President Ford, who came with furniture from his home across town.”

Long before Inauguration Day, a briefing book has been presented to the incoming first lady, outlining domestic matters. That happens on the day the sitting president formally invites the president-elect to the White House for a private chat in the Oval Office. The outgoing first lady introduces the chief usher at that time.

Presidents did not always move into the White House on Inauguration Day, and, until early in the 20th century, first ladies did not always come to tour the mansion with the outgoing first lady. There have been times when presidents died in office - eight of them - and the routine necessarily changed.

“When President Roosevelt died, 20 Army trucks were needed to move out their possessions, and then it felt like a ghost house,” says Ms. Monkman, author of “The Living White House.” “The Trumans moved in only with their clothes and [daughter] Margaret’s piano.”

“People think if you work in the White House you know everything going on there,” she told an audience at a lecture she gave early last year on White House traditions. “That is not true. We waited like everyone else in the country for word on what was going to happen [regarding rumors of President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974]. It wasn’t until we heard Mrs. Nixon ordered packing boxes that we knew.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide