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Monday, February 2, 2009

Archives Presents: White House Transitions

By the Queen of Free

From left to right: Gary Walters, former White House chief usher, Ann Stock, Bill Clinton's social secretary, Sharon Fawcett, Presidential archivist, and Frederick Ryan, Ronald Reagan's chief of staff.

One of the many joys of living in Washington, D.C. is the opportunity to attend and hear free presentations by “insiders” who reveal new stories about employers, Washington celebrities and other VIPs. The entertainment value usually far exceeds that which one pays to see and hear on screen and stage.

That is, if you like this sort of thing. We live here and like it!

At Archives recently, two panels of insiders told stories about Presidential transitions and moving day to the overwhelmingly Caucasian, mixed-aged audience which mostly filled the magnificent William G. McGowan Theatre.

Some of the panelists were the former White House chief usher, Gary Walters; Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Frederick Ryan; and Bill Clinton’s social secretary, Ann Stock.

Mr. Walters said the house transforms from a home for one family into a home for another family within hours, all on January 20. “The clothes are hung,” favorite foods are stocked, and “all boxes are emptied” so that the new first family feels immediately “comfortable.” The First Family pays to move its personal possessions.

Preparation for the change begins right after the November election and continues through “to the end of the day,” (meaning January 20, I think).

Ms. Stock said the Obamas' organization and planning should serve as a transition “model” for they moved quickly on White House transition planning. Michelle Obama immediately picked 26 to help staff the White House, Ms. Stock said, unlike any other First Lady. (The White House staff totals around 90 persons.)

Between 100 and 150 events occur in the social life of the White House in the first 100 days of a new administration.

Who pays to move them in and move them out?

They do!

However, the federal government pays to move records, Mr. Walters said. The First Family pays for all their and their guests’ food and beverages, he said. The total cost shocked Laura Bush (I think he said Laura) the first time he presented a bill to her. (What about state dinners?)

Children in the White House make it “a lot more fun,” Ms. Stock said. “They bring life to the White House and to everyone who works there.” The nice thing for the Obamas is they “live over the store.”

One time Chelsea Clinton climbed out on a ledge at the White House to sunbathe, and members of the press brought it to the attention of Walters.

Sharon Fawcett, a Presidential archivist, said Archives keeps the official daily diary of the President. Ronald Reagan’s diaries which he kept and which were published after his death were his own personal diaries. The Archives staff is frequently contacted to find Presidential events and dates which they locate generally within two hours.

Presidential papers are supposed to be accessible five years after the President leaves office.

The White House has no restrictions on pets kept by occupants. Mr. Walters said many different animals have been pets to first families including parakeets, snakes, and raccoons. The staff often supplied Barbara Bush’s dog, Millie, with treats, and Millie was no slouch. About every day the elevator operator at the White House took Millie down to the West Wing where she marched to get treats. Mrs. Bush would call Mr. Walters: “Where’s Millie?" And “stop feeding Millie!”

Terry Sullivan, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and executive director of the White House Transition Project, spoke on the second panel, "The Presidential Transition," about his experiences from President Eisenhower to George Bush I.

The people the President sees most often are not whom you would expect. The ones he sees daily number about five including the secretary of state, his national security advisor, and his chief of staff with whom he spends about five percent of his daily time.

The press secretary is one of seven to 11 persons the Presidents sees about three times a week, interacting with none on a regular basis (other than his COS).

The President does lots of different things every day “but nothing in particular every day.” (Obama’s and Bush II’s exercise? But he was speaking of practice before their terms.)

About 15 percent of the President's time daily is spent on diplomatic issues.

Another panelist, Roger Porter, a Harvard professor and presidential policy director, said people like to be consulted early, especially Congressional members who want to know about announcements before they are queried by the press.

Presidential scholar and University of Vermont professor John Burke talked about nominees whose pasts proved troublesome. Mistakes are recognized and names are quickly pulled. He listed Linda Chavez, Bush II's choice for Labor Secretary who did not make it.

Assigned parking places are a sensitive issue at the White House, noted Martha Joynt Kumar, the moderator of the second panel, who is a Presidential scholar and another White House Transition Project director.

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