Sadanand Mailliard: I’m so grateful that you let our students come and have this incredible privilege.
Gary Walters: Thank you very much. It’s always been a joy to have an opportunity to talk to the young people that Ward has brought to the White House here over the years. I’ll just give you a little bit of background as to what my job is here at the White House. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to serve seven presidents; everybody since President Nixon forward. I started here at the White House in 1970, so I’ve done something right, because they’ve let me stay around this long. Either that or I’ve gotten buried so deeply they don’t know where I am, but it’s kind of hard for the presidents to get away from me, because I have an opportunity to meet with them every morning as they walk to work. President’s walk is come down the elevator and walk about 150 steps to the Oval Office. So I’m there when they come down in the morning, and that gives me an opportunity to address them with any concerns that I might have, or any thoughts that I might have on things that are going on during that day. It’s also allows them to address me with their concerns, which are much more important than mine in most cases, certainly.
The usher’s office is responsible for the operation of the executive residence of the White House, which partially includes this building that we’re standing in, because the White House is comprised really of three separate buildings. The executive residence is the part where the president lives, that’s the part you’re all probably the most familiar with, where we have the Blue Room, the Red Room, the Green Room. The East Wing here that you just came in to, this building was built during the second world war in 1942, originally this was an entrance off of East Executive Avenue after 1902 that allowed people to come in – there were some minor offices over here – it was a rather small facility. But in 1942 it was built up to where the president’s congressional liaison offices are partially in this building, first lady’s staff as her growth and her staff has occurred in this building, the Secret Service have a facility in the building here, the White House visitor’s office – Dory Thornton was here just a moment ago, she is a part of that operation. So this building has grown in stature through the years.
The other part that most people think of when they say “the White House” is the political White House, and that’s the West Wing. Of course, there’s also a TV show now called “The West Wing.” I have to be honest, I’ve never watched it. Don’t intend to, because I lived with this every day, I don’t need to watch it on television. It’s fictionalized; I don’t know whether any of you have seen it or not, but I’m told that one of the things that people who do watch it that have some familiarization with the White House is that the halls, there’s always people crossing and there’s a lot of activity. The West Wing is like a library. There’s six people in the halls during the course of the entire day, people are working over there! There’s not all this activity going back and forth. …So, enough social commentary on the TV show.
The West Wing was built in 1902. Up until 1902, the executive office of the president was comprised of two rooms on the second floor of the White House, which are now the Lincoln and the Queen’s bedroom suites, and that’s where all of the offices of the president were. Of course, up until 1902, the United States was this new country that really didn’t have much going for it, and it really hadn’t entered on to the world stage. And with Theodore Roosevelt being as dynamic of an individual and being a young president came in to office, he also had seven children. The White House got kind of small really quick with that number of young people running around. His certainly ideas of expansive position of the United States in history, and that’s when the West Wing was built, in 1902. To this day when you hear people say “today the White House said,” they’re talking about the West Wing. I’m still looking for that mouth; the White House has never had a mouth, but that’s the first thing that the reporters say: “today, the White House said,” and normally they’re talking about the political White House.
The chief usher’s responsibility – I have a staff of 95 people who take care of the executive residence. I’m also responsible for the grounds on which the White House sets, which is approximately 18 acres. The National Park Service has the White House grounds as “Reservation #1” in the National Park Service system, and they provide a staff of 34 people to take care of the grounds, and I have a superintendent that’s on my staff who supervises probably one of the only places in the government where I supervise another agency’s employees. It’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition there. But that’s the way the White House is operated.
Actually, some of the other contrarian kind of circumstances in management of the White House is that both the West Wing and this building are owned by the General Services administration, and administered by the General Services administration because they’re office buildings, and that’s government offices administered by the General Services administration. So it’s kind of an unusual circumstance; there’s a lot of interacting agencies – the National Park Service, as I said, I work very closely with them because they’re actually the site on which the White House is set, which is “Reservation #1” in the Park Service system. They also have a responsibility for the exterior of the building, which is kind of curious that they don’t have any responsibilities for the inside.
Then the military have activity here at the White House. Certainly the president as Commander in Chief has to have a military component here at the White House. When the president flies off by the helicopter – you’ve all seen the helicopter go in and out I’m sure on television – that’s obviously a military operation and that’s run by a military office, which is located upstairs here in this building. Then the General Services administration, there’s a lot of other activities and agencies that are associated with the White House.
My staff of 95 is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the executive residence. That includes butlers, maids, kitchen staff – the chefs, the pastry chef – engineers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, the pay shop, florists who take care – and you’ll see as you go through today, there are floral arrangements. There’s one on the table back there, they’re wonderful roses, very nicely done. Throughout the house, we have floral arrangements. They’re not dried flowers, because in my tenure here, there have been a lot of recommendations from a budget standpoint and also a personnel standpoint, “why don’t we do dried flowers? That way they don’t have to change very often.” The White House is not a static environment. It’s a museum – I have curators on my staff that take care of the curatorial responsibility at the White House – but the White House it a living environment, and I feel that it’s very important that when people come through here, they understand they’re coming through the president and first lady’s home, and live, fresh flowers is part of that ambience, as it is for various events that we have, including the most formal, which is a state dinner; a visit of a foreign head of state to the White House.
So I have a really varied staff and I get involved in a little bit of everything, whether I like it or not. Just before I came over and met with you all, I was over on the West side, and we were talking about taking out trees and putting in new trees, because the old trees are dying because root balls aren’t large enough and we don’t have enough drainage. So I get involved in a little bit of everything. As Ward said in his opening remarks, I have an opportunity from time to time to put hoses out and sprinklers and everything.
All of us that work in the executive residence have a job title. That job title begins with a description of what position they’re hired in, but the last part of that is probably more important than anything else, and that’s whatever is required. So we can have an electrician or a carpenter and that’s there job title, but the last part of that is “you’ll do whatever you’re required to do,” and everybody here understands that. And it’s not something that’s forced upon people.
The majority of the people that come here – unlike the political staff – that are on my staff either retire from the position or they leave early on in their career, in the first five years. If they stay past five years, normally they’re here for their entire career. Now from a political standpoint, people are looking at four or eight years at the outside; one administration or two administrations. But very seldom to people stay an entire administration. Let’s face it: if you’re going to be out of here after four years, come that third year, you’re starting to look for another job. Or in this case with this president and the former president also President Clinton, you get to that seven-year mark, and there is no four-year extension. So there’s a lot of people that are – you’ll see that occur, if you didn’t in the previous administration, the Clinton administration, maybe you weren’t attuned to it at that point, certainly as you get towards the end of this administration there will be some additional changes, because people will have been here and they’ll be starting to look for other jobs, so there’ll be some turnover.
Our staff, at one point we had – the average tenure of the residence staff was in excess of 22 years. And that was the average tenure of the staff. As I said, I’ve been privileged to be here now 36 years. My predecessor had been here in various capacities for 27 years, so there are a number of people who have spent long careers here. We had one gentleman who spent 43 years here, he was our chief electrician. He spanned back to President Truman, when President Truman lived across the street in Blair House across from the White House and the White House was rebuilt, and he remembers walking fire watch at night through the excavated building. So there’s a lot of history in our staff that’s embodied in what we do on a daily basis.
We take care of the president and the first lady from a home aspect. The three jobs that we have and that I particularly am in charge of are number one: the president’s home. That’s the first and foremost. That comes out in everything we do. We’re taking care of the president’s home. Secondly, it’s a museum, and it has items like you’ll see today when you go up in the East Room, the portrait of George Washington that’s on the wall in the East Room is the most valuable possession the White House has. It’s the very first item that was purchased by the Congress for the White House, and it’s the only item that’s been continuously in the possession of the White House since it was presented. It’s the famous portrait that Dolly Madison had taken off of the wall and the frame was smashed and she had it rolled up and taken to Georgetown, when the British came through and burnt the federal buildings in Washington – including the White House – in the war of 1812. Actually occurred in 1814, the house was rebuilt in 1817.
You’ll have an opportunity in the Blue Room to see furniture that was actually purchased by President and Mrs. Monroe for the house in 1817 when the house was rebuilt. Quite curiously, the furniture was ordered from France from a firm called Balenge They ordered it in dark mahogany, and when it came, it was gilded. They went back to the firm and said, “Wait a minute, this is not what we ordered.” And they said, “For his Excellency the President of the United States, plain wood will not do, it must be gilded. So you’ll get an opportunity to see that when you’re up in the Blue Room. Blue Room is also where we put the Christmas tree; maybe you’ve seen the Christmas tree at the White House at Christmas time it goes in the space in there. We take the chandelier down, the Christmas tree goes in the chandelier’s position, it actually hooks off to the top of the tree to the chandelier support because that’s where we get the electricity for the lights on the tree, and also we don’t want somebody pulling on the tree and having an 18 foot, 6 inch tree fall over in the room, so we tie it off to the chandelier up there.
That’s pretty much an overview of what I do, what I get involved with, and what we’ve had a good opportunity to do is have an exchange with you all. I could sit here and talk, but you have interests, and I think it’s been helpful over the years for me to answer some of your questions and give you a perspective as I answer the questions if that’s okay. So if anybody has any questions, we can go forward. I’ll be glad to answer them as best I can.
Daniel Nanas: It seems that your background prepared you for more of a career in criminal justice. I’ve read after your service in the army that you worked in the Secret Service. How did you make the transition into the usher’s office from such a different background, and how has your background contributed to the work you do now, which seems pretty inclusive?
Gary Walters: The transition for me was out of the military into a job – because I hadn’t finished my college when I went into the military – so I made a transition, I was looking for a job where I could work on a pretty regular basis and go back to college and finish my schooling at night. And the Secret Service here in Washington had just expanded in 1970 from the White House police – which is a force of about 100 people – to what they referred to as the “Executive Protective Service,” which was an expansion under the Secret Service, and at that time, that group was taking over the protection of the diplomatic entities here in Washington; the embassies and chancelleries. So they were doing a large expansion and I had an opportunity to do that because it gave me some money and it also allowed me to go to school at night. So I was able to finish up my schooling; at the end of that, I was in a pretty good position. I took some criminal justice because I was in the police field at that time, and I also took some business because I figured that’s where I really wanted to go. I got my degree in business administration, and it just so happened that in the office that I’m working in now – the usher’s office – they needed somebody to take care of the budgeting, because the fellow who had been doing it for the National Park Service passed away.
So I found myself in the right place at the right time. I’d been working with the office in my capacity with the uniformed division of the Secret Service, who I was with from 1970 to ’75, and was fortunate enough to make the move, though what I had learned up to that point certainly in college and through my high school career in the business field assisted me in getting my foot in the door. But the thing that really has helped me more than anything else was a diversity of knowledge and an ability to adapt and really common sense. Trying to follow on one thing to another and put the pieces together and try and be ahead of the game a little bit. Those are the things I think that have been the most helpful.
As I’ve said to people that I’ve had an opportunity – young people in particular – it doesn’t matter where you start, its how much effort you put in to what you do. If you start as a janitor and you become the best janitor in the world, you can probably become a supervisor, and once you become a supervisor, there’s no limit to what you can do from that point forward. So any job, any position that anybody takes on, you just have to put your total effort in it. If you’re not happy doing it, get out and find something else, because you’re not going to do yourself a service, you’re not going to do anybody else a service if you’re disgruntled with what you’re putting forth. So the best thing you can do is get involved, stay involved, do the very best you can do, and if you’re not satisfied with what you’re doing, move on. Does that answer your question?
Daniel Nanas: Yes, it does.
Gary Walters: Okay.
Mark Hansen: Hi, my name is Mark.
Gary Walters: Yes?
Mark Hansen: Did you choose this particular career, or do you think it sort of chose you?
Gary Walters: Exactly. It chose me. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Actually grew up here in the Washington area. My father’s brother used to come in – this is a number of years ago – back in the ‘50’s, and spray the White House lawn to kill bugs and things on the lawn, and I used to drive by, my father actually worked here in Washington as a bus driver. I never thought I was going to be inside the gate; of course I came in like everybody else did. You know, tour, had friends in from out of town, that’s when you go to the White House. But I never dreamed of working inside these gates. It’s been quite a privilege, and I’ve had an opportunity to see a huge amount of history in the years that I’ve been here. But no, I think that I was in the right place at the right time.
Prabha Sharon: Hi, I’m Prabha.
Gary Walters: Yes ma’am?
Prabha Sharon: If it was my first day of work here, what advice would you give me?
Gary Walters: I’ve given you some of it: give it your best shot.
Get familiar with the circumstance. Understand the work environment that you’ve been thrust in to. You have to have some perspective in what you’re involved in. You might be doing a small piece of it – there’s a lot of young people who come and put internships in at the White House and they want to look at the big picture, and that’s great to get a perspective, but you still have to focus on what you’re given to do. But you do need that perspective. You need to know how you fit into the puzzle.
The last three presidents, oddly enough, have all enjoyed putting puzzles together. It’s a relief, they can concentrate on doing it, and I’ve seen some unbelievable puzzles that they’ve done. There’s a company out in the Midwest someplace that makes them out of wood and their hand-painted and they put them together. I don’t know whether the father gave it to President Clinton and passed it on to the son, I’m not sure how that worked, but they’ve all found it a relief to have a puzzle – an ongoing puzzle – that they work upon. And if you leave one piece out of that puzzle, it’s incomplete. So you’ve got to have a perspective; look at the whole thing, and come up with a complete picture and that last piece, no matter how tiny it is, that’s what completes the puzzle.
Kristen van’tRood: Hi, my name is Kristen. What was your first day at the White House like?
Gary Walters: I had an opportunity to be here, as I said, with the uniformed division of the Secret Service, which at that time was called the Executive Protective Service, and my first introduction here was… We went to classroom studies, had to learn a lot, and then we were brought over here to walk around and see the different positions, because as you may have noticed in the short period of time you came in, you went through a number of different police posts; as you came through each gate, there was a different set of policemen. Those are called “rings of security.” In the outermost ring is where the youngest people are.
So my first few impressions here were as a police officer and walking around the outside. And the realization that I was actually on the inside where most people wanted to be – I’ve told this story before. I was working right out here at this post on East Executive Avenue. East Executive Avenue used to be open to the public, used to be a thoroughfare street that was open. That didn’t get closed down until after bombing in Beirut in the Reagan administration. I had a woman come up to the gate one evening about dusk and she said, “I’m only in town for one day, and I can’t get in to the White House to see the White House. Would you pick a leaf off of the tree and give it to me? I have to have some memento of being at the White House.”
I mean, that profoundly affected me; the fact that these people were on the outside of the gate, and this woman wanted a leaf from inside to just take with her. So my first day was really a day of feeling my way around the outside and getting an idea of what goes on inside the gate, but on the outside perimeter. I don’t know whether that answers your question or not, but that was really the first impression I had of the White House, it was really being on the perimeter, but yet being inside a place that everyone else wanted to be.
Jonji Barber: Hi, I’m Jonji. Is there a perspective you can share with us that will further our understanding of the White House? One that we couldn’t get from our media or a regular tour?
Gary Walters: Don’t take your information from one source. It will never work, because regardless of how people try and portray what the White House is, or what the White House is saying, or what the administration is trying to put out, they have to put their own feelings into it. I am not a big fan, I have to be honest, of disclosure of the press. There’s too much inflammatory speech. Instead of a fire, it’s roaring inferno. I don’t think that necessarily describes every fire. There are great people in the press, but over the years, I’ve watched the deterioration of the coverage, and a lot more commentary as opposed to who, what, where, when and how. So my suggestion would be don’t take your information from one source. It’s just like doing a term paper. You know, one source is you’re plagiarizing something. Get it from lots of sources and try and figure out your own perspective, because I think that’s the only way you’re going to learn more than just what the reporter’s giving you. You can get some more information from different sources.
Sadanand Mailliard: Jeremy?
Jeremy Thweatt: When everything you do in the White House is important, do you ever find it challenging to prioritize different things you have to do?
Gary Walters: That’s probably my most important job. I have a staff that I have to direct, and I need to tell them what to do, and it’s my job to put those things in order. And it can become confusing. Things change on a moment’s notice. I came in to work this morning and found out the new prime minister of Israel is coming today for a press conference with the president, followed by a meeting, followed by a dinner. When I came in this morning, I found out that the president decided that he wants to have a one-on-one meeting with the prime minister, while the other staff members have a separate meeting in a different location, and that the dinner is going to be pushed back 45 minutes.
So there was a priority there for me: I had to let the chef know that the dinner was going to be later. I had to let the pastry chef know. I have to let the butlers know, I have to let the florists know. From that one simple change – 45 minutes later – we had a lot of fallout; also, the fact that the president is going to meet one-on-one with the prime minister. Where is that going to occur? It’s going to occur somewhere in the residence, I assume it’s going to occur in the president’s office, so I had to ask the president on his way to the office this morning if that was in fact the case.
So there’s a lot of putting things in priority order that I have to do, and I find myself being a coordinator. The staff is a very professional staff, been here for a long time, they know what to do and they just need the information to carry it out. I’m not about to serve the meal, that’s the butler’s responsibility. But I can tell the butler what time to come to the kitchen to get the meal to go serve it. So I end up being the coordinator and putting things in priority order is really the operation that I have. I have myself, one primary assistant and three other assistants. One of them that gets here about 5:00 in the morning and works until 2:00 in the afternoon, a second one that comes in about 1:30 in the afternoon – there’s about a half an hour change over – and stays here until whenever the president retires for the night, because we’re here at their beck and call. And the third person is off. So we rotate a three person rotation underneath me that’s here to manage the operation in the executive residence at all times. It’s really our responsibility in the usher’s office to manage that staff, and putting things in order is our responsibility.
…It’s all coming from this side, there’s got to be something from over here…
Sadanand Mailliard: Seychelle?
Seychelle deVries: Sorry. Hi, I’m Seychelle. You talked earlier about the importance of keeping a certain ambiance, you talked about the fresh flowers and things like that. I was wondering, since it’s so important to keep a certain atmosphere here, do you think that the atmosphere of the White House affects the political going-ons, and affects the business that is in here?
Gary Walters: To some degree. Obviously, a lot of what we do in the residence, especially when you have a state occasion, the political work that the president does is usually done one-on-one with the head of state that’s visiting. A lot of that is done in meetings beforehand or in the oval office. But the state dinner is the social occasion that allows people to relax a little bit, and the ambiance that’s afforded by the certain things that we can do. When there’s a head of state that’s coming, we’re notified by the state department of various activities. Colors that we shouldn’t use; flowers that shouldn’t be used; certain colors of flowers that shouldn’t be used, because there are certain cultures around the world where chrysanthemums are flowers of death, so you can’t use chrysanthemums, there are certain colors – yellow – that can’t be used. So there’s a lot of fallout that comes from that.
The kitchen… we never try to do the cuisine of another country. We can’t do it as well as they can, so why even try? But having some flavor of that country… Recently, we had… what was it… it was a fish that we just had…. Australia! The last state dinner. We had an Australian fish. Well that fish was originally a native fish to Australia, but it is grown in this country now, in Massachusetts to be exact, at a fish farm. So we used that fish as the first course for that dinner. Of course, the Australians immediately recognized that this was a native fish, and so we had that kind of connection. The dessert – we usually try and connect the dessert with the head of state, so that we have some kind of connection there.
If we get an idea of what the interest is. I’ll give you a little heads-up, is the prime minister of Japan is coming in June. He happens to have a great interest in Elvis Presley. He’s going to make a trip to Graceland. And here at the White House, the entertainment we’re going to have that night is going to be a – possibly, we’re not sure yet – but could possibly be an Elvis impersonator. So we try and bring to the social occasion a realization of the importance, obviously, of the occasion, but also a connection with the foreign head of state to bring that ambiance if you will and allow the guest to feel that the president and the first lady have done something in their behalf to recognize them.
The music that’s played during that night. We’ll pick up the military – we, that’s easy for me to say, I say “we” all the time, there’s all these other people doing all these wonderful things – the military band, the marine band, will go back and look for traditional folk songs to incorporate in the music for the evening. So there’s a lot of things that are done like that to try and bring that social occasion into the political realm and make the guest feel comfortable.
Nina Castañon: Hi, I’m Nina. What has been the most meaningful experience that you’ve had here at the White House?
Gary Walters: That’s an easy one. Obviously having the perspective dealing each and every day with the first family one-on-one, I don’t read it in the newspaper, I don’t see it on television, I do it one-on-one. So that’s the most important.
The most impact on me personally was when President Gorbachev came in the Reagan administration. And there was so much tension. There was one particular day, it was early in December, it was my first year as the chief usher, and the two gentlemen with this icy cold – it was after President Reagan had met in Reykjavík and there had been a very cold departure between the two gentlemen – and he came to the White House and they signed a treaty in the East Room. Then they went to the state dining room, and we had set up in the state dining room only the second time in the years that I’ve been here that the state dining room fireplace was lit, and the two gentlemen spoke from individual podiums on either side of the room with the fireplace in the background, and they spoke to the world, literally at that time. And there was a real symbolism there, and I have to say that Michael Deaver who worked here and was in charge of pictures, if you will, for President Reagan, really set this up just absolutely beautifully, because you literally could feel the melting of the cold war at that time. The symbolism of the fireplace and the two gentlemen speaking to the world, these two world leaders that were the two supreme powers at that time, and it was quite a moving day.
Megan Mitchell: Hi, I’m Megan. As you described earlier, you’ve been here for 36 years and seen seven presidents come and go, and I was wondering if there is a certain common aspect between these presidents that distinguishes them from other people?
Gary Walters: Well, they got elected.
Yes, there is. I’ve seen a phenomenon that I can’t describe, other than to say I’ve watched each and every one of these presidents who can be dead tired – I mean, if it were me, I’d be in a corner sleeping somewhere – and they draw strength from people. And I don’t know how they do it, but each and every one, there’s a special… I can’t put words to it, but if they’re in a receiving line, and I’ve seen them all do it. They would spend a full day of work, come to an evening reception with 250 people, dead on their feet, and stand for two hours in a receiving line, shaking hands and taking pictures and smiling the same with the first person as the last person, knowing that they’ve gotten tired during that period of time, but greeting the first person and the last person with the same kind of energy. And it’s almost like when they shake hands, energy just transfers from the president and the first lady from the individuals that they’re greeting. It’s one of the most amazing phenomena I’ve ever seen.
And they’ve all been great to me. I mean, that’s nothing for them, that’s for me, that’s good for me, but it’s an unusual circumstance that I’ve had an opportunity to witness with all of them, and I guess that’s what allows them to go through these horrendous campaigns where they’re up for 16, 20 hours a day and traveling from place to place. You’ve got to get energy somewhere, and Bill Clinton didn’t get all of his energy from hamburgers, contrary to what people said. That was just a ridiculous comment. And former President Bush – Herbert Walker Bush – he didn’t eat pork rinds. There was this big story about him eating pork rinds. He never ate pork rinds! He got truckloads of pork rinds sent in for the president! He never ate pork rinds! It gets started on the campaign; you don’t know where these things come from. But he never ate pork rinds.
So there is that phenomenon, a transfer of energy, and they pick it up from people. They really do.
Edison Dudoit: Most of America only sees these political figures on TV, they’ll get an impression through the media, but you seem to have a personal relationship with the president and all that. Is there a side of these people that you’ve noticed that you could inform us about?
Gary Walters: Not really. That’s one of the things I don’t do, is talk about their personal lives. I’ve had an opportunity to be beside them at some of the best and worst times in their lives; death of a parent; losing an election; wining an election. And I’ve had that – that’s kind of a unique opportunity that those of us in the residence – and I have more access than most, because I’m around them more than others, and I do have that ability.
I have talked before, the relationship that we build with the families is something that is difficult to describe. At the end of the last administration as President Clinton and Misses Clinton were leaving to go down to the capitol with this president in the motorcade that goes up to the capitol for the inaugural, the last person out the door was Chelsea Clinton, and she came to me and we hugged before she went away. And she said, “I’ll never forget what you’ve done, what you did for me.” …Didn’t do anything different for her I would have done for anybody else that lives here, but that was her impression of us, and I was the representative for the whole staff, not just me.
Susan Ford. Still talk to her from time to time. Just the other night the guest at the state dinner was Susan Eisenhower… Susan Nixon… Can’t get it out of me! …Susan Nixon… Not Susan… Why is this out of my mind? I don’t know what it is right now. President Nixon’s Daughter, who was married…
Sadanand Mailliard: Julie?
Gary Walters: Julie Eisenhower! I don’t know why I couldn’t get that out. I actually have two of the men who were on a part-time basis that worked for us at special events who were here when Julie was here in the Nixon administration growing up, obviously. And I had them come out and stand in the hall when Julie came out of the dining room that evening after the dinner was over. And you’d have thought this was a 50 year reunion. These two elderly gentlemen who are now both in their late 70’s, early 80’s, and Julie Nixon-Eisenhower walked out and David Eisenhower walked out of the state dining room and they embraced these two men. You can’t pay for that.
I was just thrilled that she had that opportunity and that they had that opportunity to reconnect with her. So there’s a personal bond that the staff gets with the family that’s hard not to develop over 4, 8 years.
Edison Dudoit: I guess I could specify the question to you.
Gary Walters: Yeah?
Edison Dudoit: Is there a side of people you see that may be misrepresented in the media?
Gary Walters: Oh yeah. You’re seeing the political side. You don’t get to see the family side, and that’s what we get to see all the time because we’re in their home. And we get to see the interaction between the president and the first lady, between president and children, the first lady and children, how they treat their friends and guests when they come in, so we get an opportunity to really get involved in the family’s life as opposed to the political side.
What you get an opportunity to see is what the president or the first lady want you to see, or what the press wants you to see of them. That’s why I said that first question was easy for me to answer – what’s the most enjoyable thing – is getting to know the family on a one-to-one basis without being through somebody else’s eyes. So yeah.
And there’s a lot of role-playing. Various presidents role-play really well. In front of the camera they’re one thing, and off the camera they’re another. I won’t tell you who those people are, but there’s a big difference. And I’m going to answer a question that everybody has in the back of their mind: who is the president I liked most; I will never answer that question.
Sadanand Mailliard: They know better than to ask that question.
Gary Walters: There will never be any nicer people than this president’s father and mother at the White House. There will be people as nice, but there will never be any nicer. And as they come back now with this president – with their son being in the White House – they go around and talk to everybody; the groundskeepers; the maids; everybody. They go through the staff – not just our staff, but the staff in the West Wing; people that have been here for a while. They know everybody. It’s a wonderful relationship, having an ability to be here long enough to see some of these things.
Naomi Magid: So that interaction that you had with Chelsea Clinton, you’d say that you get really attached to the families that go through?
Gary Walters: Yeah. You can’t help it. We watched Chelsea go from a young girl to a young woman. From time to time, helped her with her homework if there was a question that came up in various things. Watched her sit with her father at breakfast and have him teach her certain things that dealt with schoolwork and hieroglyphics and various things. Watched as Misses Clinton, when Chelsea was six, soon after they moved in, go in to the kitchen herself and make soft boiled eggs so that she and Chelsea could have a few minutes together. We get involved in all those kinds of things. You can’t not be involved.
When the Carters were here, President and Misses Carter, they had two families here; their two sons lived here. In fact, their first month after they moved in to the White House, their son Chip – the second eldest son – and his wife Karen had a baby! Not born in the White House, but born in the local – but the baby grew up here; James Earl Carter III. Still talk to him today, from time to time. So you can’t help but get involved, and that’s the fun side of it. It really is.
Luke Sanders-Self: Hi, I’m Luke. What do you think is the biggest surprise for the first family when moving in to the White House?
Gary Walters: The biggest surprise… The exposure. The lack of privacy. The fact that the White House is not as big as it looks on television. The camera – as you well know as a cameraman over there – has an ability to make things look bigger than they are. If you ever look at the East Room of the White House when they have these press conferences, it looks enormous. When you get up there today, you’ll see its 80 feet by 40 feet, roughly. That’s not that big. The state dining room, we put 130 people in thee for dinners; it’s not that big.
I think the fact that the family gets caught up in the campaigning, and when they come to the White House the campaign is over, but you can’t get away from that aspect because the press are right there in the West Wing. The president has got to walk past the press office to get to his office every day and every evening. Not that the press are allowed to be out there at that time, but he has to go right past them. I don’t know whether you’ve seen any of these motorcades when the president travels on television, there’s thirty cars almost that are involved, with the police and the escorts and the staff vans and the press vans and everything that goes on. You can’t go anywhere! President goes to ride his bike – this president goes to ride his bike – and there’s three Secret Service agents; one in front of him (if he can keep in front of him), one beside him and one behind him.
There’s very little privacy. A lot of that is more recently obviously driven by just security requirements that are out there, but that hasn’t really changed a great deal since the Kennedy administration when things tightened down since President Kennedy was assassinated. So I think that’s the biggest change that they have to go through, is the fact that even though they’re off the campaign trail, you don’t get away from the exposure.
Emily Crubaugh: Does your job description change a lot from administration to administration?
Gary Walters: No, not really. The White House stays the same size, thank goodness. It’s our responsibility to adapt to the president and the first lady and their wishes, and I think that’s a tribute to the staff in that we’ve had very few turnovers because of a change in administration. In the 36 years that I’ve been there, there have only been five people that have been asked to leave, of the staff that’s been here. And that’s been because of – most of them have been creative people. They’re the ones that are the most vulnerable, because they can’t translate what they do to what the new president or first lady would like done. In the kitchen from time to time, in the flower shop from time to time, but for the most part, we adapt well. And it’s our responsibility to adapt to them, not for them to adapt to us.
The staff has – the president’s staff – has a difficult time sometimes adapting to the White House after the election is over, because the White House isn’t this big expansive country. It’s really down to a smaller venue, and where you could have five or ten thousand people at a rally in Omaha, Nebraska, you’re looking at 300 for a reception at the White House and 98 people for a press conference. So the staff has more difficulty adapting to the White House. The families, we try and give them a home environment on the second and third floor, which is their primary residence area that they can go in to and feel comfortable in, so we try and adapt to them.
On inaugural day, it’s our responsibility to move one family out from the time they leave the White House, which is usually about 10:00 in the morning, the new family comes back in to the white house after the inaugural parade on Pennsylvania Avenue at about 5:00. And our intent is to have the family that’s moving out moved out, and the new family that’s coming in moved in to the point where there’s no boxes, that their clothes are hung in their closets, that furniture is exchanged the way they would like to see it arranged – which of course, we talk to them beforehand – that there are not people running around helter-skelter, so that when they come to their home, their new home, it is something that they are familiar with and something that they can move right in to.
Sadanand Mailliard: Gary, I just want to interject a question that occurred to me since we’ve been having this conversation for so many years. I’ve notice, I’ve been here early in administrations and I’ve been here in the middle and I’ve been at the end of administrations, and I notice that the people who come to work for your staff really grow in this job. They’re not the same people that leave as they are when they come. There’s something about being here that deepens and changes people, and I notice it. In the beginning there’s this kind of excitement of “we can take on the world,” and “we got elected,” and “we’ve got it all right,” and then I notice there’s kind of a growing humility and kindness that I see as people extend here longer. Can you say something about what this place does to the people who work here?
Gary Walters: It does so many different things to so many people. It is a humbling experience coming through the gate every day knowing that we’re involved in things that are taking place around the world. Certainly, there’s something afoot in the Middle-East right now. The president is meeting with the prime minister of Israel. There’s a new government in Iraq and two weeks from today or tomorrow, the new ambassador from that government is going to present his credentials to the president here at the White House. So there’s something afoot, and there’s always something afoot and I think that’s some of what you see; when the staffs come in initially, there is this initial excitement and “look, I’m involved, and all this is going on,” and then the reality hits: 12, 14 hour days, and things kind of tamp down a little bit.
And then the next side of reality hits, which is: “oh my god, I’m involved! This is something that will be in the history books, and I actually have an opportunity to get involved in it. It might be a little thing – I took a note to somebody who was going to then talk to the president – but I was there when that happened.” I think that’s part of what you see, is realization after the exhaustion – because the exhaustion never goes away – but the realization that you can get involved in something, and I think that’s what people do. And I’ve been here long enough to see people go away for ten years and come back in a different job.
Obviously, a government employee is not making a multi-million dollar salary. The president doesn’t! There are a lot of people making a whole lot more money than the president, so there has to be something that’s attune to what goes on at the White House and in government in general and the fact that government service is an important piece of that. I think there’s some realization; people come, people go, people come back. When they come back, they have a different grasp; they bring different experiences with them when they return. While they’re here, you’re brought so quickly from a juvenile status to a main-stage status that if you don’t grow, you get broken, and those are the people that leave.
After 9/11, there were some people here that physically could not take the mental anguish of being in a place that somebody else might possibly want to blow up. It was always in the back of somebody’s mind, but it actually happened with the Pentagon, possibly the other plane that was crashed in Pennsylvania was either aimed for the Capitol or the White House, and there were some people that – although they knew it in the back of their mind – that actual act broke some people down and they could not stay here any longer and they left.
Compressed in four years can be a long time – especially at your age but believe me, when you get older, it gets an awful lot shorter – but you get compressed. The information that you have, and especially being here, really gets compressed and you really have to digest that information quickly and move on. And it never stops. There’s always a new project, there’s always something new. You never know what’s going to happen the next day, and I think that’s one of the things that I admire about the presidents – you asked earlier about the presidents and how they react sometimes – the presidents don’t know what they’re going to get involved in.
Take a look at any president in recent history, what they look like on their inaugural day and what they look like after they left the White House. I guarantee you you’ll see a change, and it’s in the white or gray hair. And some of those men have only been here four years, and look at other people that have been someplace for four years, they don’t age like that. It’s an awesome responsibility that the president bears on his shoulders. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know why anybody wants the job. You don’t get away from the responsibility. Forget what the press say about “the president goes on vacation,” and he’s just out there doing whatever he wants to do. If the presidents – any of them – get an hour to themselves in the course of the day, that’s a lot of time. And they never get away from the morning briefings, the afternoon briefings, the evening briefings, the reams of paper.
President Nixon. He was recognized as… of course, he was responsible for opening back up American policy with China, he was an expert on China, he was sent as an emissary actually by President Reagan to China, President Bush – Herbert Walker Bush – was the first ambassador to China, succeeding that. They… I forgot where I was going; now I got off to President Bush.
Sadanand Mailliard: You were talking about how much these guys… How much work they do, and how they study.
Gary Walters: Oh yeah. President Nixon in particular would come home at night literally to the residence, and he would bring a stack of folders – position papers – about… Have the valet carry them, and the valet would be carrying them and they’d be up almost to the top of his head And he’d go upstairs on the second floor and he’d put the stack of papers down by him, these valises and folders and binders, and he became an expert on China not by absorbing it by what other people said, he read. Voraciously read all these papers. And as I said earlier, we were talking briefly about where do you get your information; multiple sources. The president read, and he did not become an expert on China by listening to his advisors in the State Department telling him what it’s about. He read and read and read and took all that in to account, and then made his decisions based on that.
So… I hope that answered your question.
Sadanand Mailliard: Yeah, it did.
Casey Lightner: Hi.
Gary Walters: Yeah?
Casey Lightner: You talked a little bit about how other people felt on 9/11, but I was curious how you dealt with 9/11 and how you felt on that day.
Gary Walters: Wow. That was a quite emotional day. What some people don’t realize on that day is we were having a congressional picnic that night. Had the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania – had this occurred in the evening instead of in the morning, the entire United States Congress, the entire executive branch – president, vice president, cabinet – would have been on the south grounds of the White House that night, 5:00. So we were all set up. We had tables and it was going to be kind of a chuck-board barbeque that we were doing outside. We had chuck-wagons and tables set up and picnic tables, about 160 picnic tables on the south ground, a big stage off to the side and everything. And I was in the process of setting that up and getting ready for that evening’s activities when I got the first word of the first plane going in to the World Trade Center in New York, and subsequently the second one. At that point, I realized that we were under attack.
Didn’t take me long to make some decisions that I had to make. I knew the president was down in Florida. I don’t know if you remember that or not, but he was down in Florida speaking to a group of children in a school when this occurred. I had a whole series of things that I had to do, but the first thing that came to my mind was the president’s coming back to the White House and I’ve got to get stuff cleaned off of the south grounds, because they don’t want to land on the south grounds.
Well, the picnic tables we have weigh about 350 pounds each. And there are 150 of them out there. As I walked out of the south portico once I’d gotten my thoughts together and gotten people together, which took about five minutes to get people in place to start moving stuff, as I walked out of the south portico, I saw the fireball in the Pentagon above the trees, because you can’t see the Pentagon from the south portico of the White House, but I saw the fireball.
At that point, the police started telling people to get out. I don’t know whether you saw those pictures or not, but you saw the police telling everybody to run and everybody was running towards Pennsylvania Avenue in the north. And I’m screaming to tell people to run south, because if a plane was going to come in to the White House it’s going to come in to the largest surface, which is the south side of the building, and any debris is going to go north. So I’m trying to tell people to go south, instead of going north.
I was able to keep about six people with me, and we stood on the south grounds on the knoll out here for eight hours. And as time allowed with the assistance of the police officers, we were able to move all those picnic tables by hand. That night the president landed, if you ever get a chance to look at that again, when the president walks to the office, you’ll see a bunch of picnic tables stacked three high as the president walks past them going back to the Oval Office, because we stayed here as staff and cleaned off the grounds so the president could make that speech that night from the Oval Office when he returned to the White House.
So those are the kinds of things that awe get involved in, and that was quite an emotional day. I ended up spending three days here, because at that point, none of us knew what was going to occur. Intervening days.
John-Nuri Vissell: It’s amazing how you could unite and organize in such a time of peril. I was wondering if maybe some of the best works and some of the most united and coordinated action happens in some of our country’s darkest times.
Gary Walters: I think if you have the proper thought processes, that people are thinking about how things fit together, nobody could have – and nobody did, obviously – think about the tragic nature of 9/11, but there were natural fallouts that went from that; things that went, some planning, strategic planning. Obviously the vice president, secretary of state, national security advisor were taken to certain areas where they were protected, and the president, they put him up in an aircraft, flew around for a while before they decided where to go. So there were some contingency plans, they weren’t specific to that incident, but they were some specific plans.
I think that people who – and I’m not talking about myself in this case – there are people that are in place for a reason, because they have that ability to do strategic planning on the fly. That’s why we have, you know, some of our greatest thinkers are in the military. They’re wonderful people that are able to react in times of crisis. We’ve seen the presidents who have done unbelievable things in times of crisis. So I think that it’s some thought process that people go through beforehand. You have some idea of what considerations… Do you play baseball?
John-Nuri Vissell: No. I play volleyball.
Gary Walters: Volleyball? Same thing: anticipation. What direction is the ball going to be struck? Where do I want to hit it next? That usually is running through your mind very quickly in the course of when somebody else is getting ready to hit the ball to you. You know, you’re already thinking about how can I get to the spot that I want to get to, to return this ball or to set it up for the man on the front line, or is there an open space in the back; it’s incredible what our mind can do in such a short period of time.
I don’t know whether any of you have been in a car accident or had a serious accident. Can you think about the span of time and what went through your mind in that span of time? It’s like… It happens in a millisecond, but the thoughts that go through your mind; where’s my family? Do I need to put my arm out? Do I need to duck? I mean, it’s amazing what your mind can do in that fraction of a second leading up to something like that, and I think there’s some people that have an ability to do that on the fly, and we’re lucky in this country to have a lot of them in places where they need to be.
John-Nuri Vissell: Thank you.
Alyssa DeBenedetti: My name is Alyssa. Our closer for the interview, we ask the same question to everyone, and it is: what is the most important piece of advice you can give for our generation?
Gary Walters: Get involved. And stay involved. Getting involved and dropping something is not the same as getting involved and staying involved. It is like I was saying earlier: whatever you’re going to get involved in, do it to the best of your ability, try to make the best of it. And if you don’t like it, move on. But when you get involved in something, you usually are going to get involved in it because you enjoy it. And stick with it and do things that give you some pleasure, because that will give you more incentive to stay with it. You can’t live life and not be involved. If you’re not involved in something, you’re just kind of play acting. So you need to be in a circumstance where you could enjoy yourselves while you’re doing something that’s productive. I mean, sitting under a tree and looking at the leaves is great, but you can only do that so long. Now, maybe you want to prune the tree, or see what kind of fruit is on the three, there are a lot of things that you can do, but involvement… You can’t beat involvement; and long-time involvement.
I think a lot of people that talk to people who have made a career out of helping other people – you know, people that work for the Red Cross and various… – they do it because they like what they are doing. They don’t do it because it’s a civic duty in most cases, they really like what they’re doing.
Sadanand Mailliard: Gary, clearly you’re in a service position; if there ever was one, this is service. And I know that inevitably, you’ve made sacrifices. I remember one year when we came and your daughter was applying for college, I remember you asked the kids…
Gary Walters: It scared me to death!
Sadanand Mailliard: I know. You made the mistake of asking us for some advice, and they said “don’t worry, if she doesn’t like the college she’s in, she can pick another one.” We teach our kids to be adaptable, you know. But do you really see it as a net sacrifice or do you see it as a net gain, all that you’ve contributed?
Gary Walters: For me? Personally, it’s been a tremendous opportunity for me. I can’t tell you the amount of history that I’ve had an opportunity to be involved in. Not witness, but literally be involved in. A little corner over here someplace, but at least I was involved. Some decisions that I have made that have affected a lot of things that go on around here. Some of them deal with making the president and their family happy.
President 41, I’ll refer to him as this president’s father, when they had their 50th wedding anniversary and invited the military band – just a couple of members – to play a favorite song of theirs and invited them downstairs under the pretense of needing to look at something in the East Room, and they came down the steps and I was able to have six members of the orchestra there to play a favorite song of theirs. Little things like that, bringing happiness to other people.
For me? I think my family’s probably the ones that have taken the greatest hit. I have a daughter and a wife obviously who have spent time at home wondering what I’m doing, sometimes not being able to get a hold of me or not seeing me for a few days at a time. So I think that if I had a regret, that’s it. I didn’t have as much time, although I made time. I took time. My daughter was in gymnastics, so I made sure that I went on Saturday and spent six hours sitting in the bleachers while she performed for 35 seconds, but those are the things you have to do at times.
So it’s a sacrifice, a family sacrifice, but I’ve had an opportunity to make the families that live here, hopefully, their lives a little bit better. Protected their privacy and had an opportunity as I said to see a lot of history, so it’s not something I’d trade.
Sadanand Mailliard: What college did your daughter go to?
Gary Walters: Boston College. Great school. Even though they did have some problems this past couple of days with secretary Rice up there.
Sadanand Mailliard: She graduated?
Gary Walters: Yeah. She graduated with honors, made the decision to go to that school based on the fact that she wanted to be involved in the academic program that they had as well as she was in gymnastics from the time she was three years old. They didn’t have a gymnastics program so she got involved in cheerleading at Boston College, and was the head of the cheerleading squad for three years and for two years also a cheerleader for the Boston Celtics, because they didn’t have the group of ladies on the court that danced. She liked the acrobatics of being thrown in the air and being caught. I like the caught part, myself. I thought that was an important part of the operation.
So she’s doing wonderful, thank you for asking. But it’s a sacrifice. If you ask them, I think they’d understand what I’ve done, and they’ve had the benefits of being at the White House. We have a picture – my daughter does – of every year of her life, being with the president at Christmas time and having a photograph. So from the time she was a babe in arms until this past Christmas, having a photograph of her with the President of the United States at Christmas time. So there are benefits that go along with it, but hardships too.
All: Thank you.