Trump isn't the first quirky resident of the White House

A new book about the Trump White House reportedly reveals the private eccentricities of a president with an outsize p...

Posted: Jan 5, 2018 12:09 AM
Updated: Jan 5, 2018 12:09 AM

A new book about the Trump White House reportedly reveals the private eccentricities of a president with an outsize public persona; according to excerpts of journalist Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury" published in New York magazine, President Donald Trump has domestic quirks that extend from housekeeping oddities to his well-known fondness for McDonald's cheeseburgers.

The book has not been released yet, and there is little way of confirming how much of it is true. But when writing my book "The Residence," about the approximately 100 men and women who work as chefs, maids, ushers and florists on the White House residence staff, I heard many strange stories. Some of them were disturbing, but they also made iconic presidents and first ladies more human.

Historically, it is the kind of seemingly small revelations of personal behavior and individual quirks like those included in Wolff's book that reveal the compulsive nature of some of the men who have occupied the highest office. In the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson made life hell, for example, for plumbing foreman Reds Arrington (who got his nickname because of his mane of bright red hair). For the five years he was in office, Johnson was obsessively focused on the water pressure and temperature of his shower. It was never hot enough, and the water pressure was never at the needle-like intensity he so desperately wanted.

Sitting in the Oval Office, Johnson would call Arrington while he was in the plumbers shop, located underground between the White House and the West Wing. "If I can move 10,000 troops in a day (referring to the Vietnam War), you can certainly fix the bathroom any way I want it!" Johnson would bellow. It's not hard to imagine Trump doing something similar.

LBJ's younger daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, is still defensive about his fixation. "A shower that had volume and force was one of life's few comforts," she told me. "I'm sure he probably expressed very specific guidelines and expectations and probably expressed them with a firm hand. But it's not much to ask for when you are the leader of the free world, getting that small little bit of solace and creature comfort."

Sometimes the stories I heard confirmed the public reputations of these men and women who are so famous but so unknowable at the same time. Maid Ivaniz Silva spent most of her time in the family's inner sanctum on the second and third floors of the residence and told me about accidentally walking in on a naked Ronald Reagan when she went to turn down the bed and close the curtains in the Reagans' bedroom. When Silva walked into the adjoining sitting room, she found Reagan sitting stark naked and reading the newspaper. She ran out of the room, her face bright red. When she passed him in the hallway later that night, Reagan looked at her, teasing: "Hey, who was that guy?"

"I don't know sir," she said, laughing shyly.

Wolff's excerpts indicate that Trump prefers McDonald's cheeseburgers because they're precooked and therefore a less accessible target for a would-be assassin. While that may sound odd, and true or not, it resonates with stories I've heard before. I interviewed more than 50 former residence staffers, including former executive chef, the late Walter Scheib, who told me one of his goals as the White House chef was to keep the first family alive. "This is no small consideration given all the people that dislike the president for whatever reason, whether it's international or national," he told me.

Scheib, who worked in the White House from 1994 to 2005, also said, "There is no one more important to the physical safety of the president than the pastry chef and the chef." Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier told me the same thing. He was hired by Rosalynn Carter and didn't leave the White House until 2006. He confirmed that even after 9/11, no food tasters stood by in the kitchen to make sure the president's food wasn't poisoned: "We were it," he said. "The system we had to buy the food was actually the safest it could be, the simplest way. You send someone to the store that doesn't have any public White House connection. Nobody knows who he is."

For many years, he was Bill Hamilton -- officially the White House storeroom manager, who retired in 2013 after being a member of the residence staff since Dwight Eisenhower's administration. Hamilton was responsible for buying food for family meals and state dinners, and he often ran out to pick up whatever the first family needed, from toilet paper to apples. He rode in an unmarked Secret Service van to pick up supplies. He wouldn't tell me which supermarket he went to, and it was clear that the key was anonymity: No one knew he was shopping for the first family, and no one was interested in tainting or poisoning the food he was buying. Trump's reported paranoia is easier to understand given this context.

Trump's alleged lack of trust in the household staff also sounds familiar. The head of housekeeping, Christine Limerick, left the White House for several years after an explosive fight with first lady Nancy Reagan, who was horrified when some of her extensive collection of hand-painted porcelain Limoges boxes were broken by accident during cleanings. Reagan was so furious that she had Limerick pack up her keepsakes and put them in storage for several months.

Limerick quit in 1986 after seven years and returned only when Barbara Bush became first lady. "It wasn't because Mrs. Reagan was who or what she was," Limerick told me. She left "because I realized that I was getting close to talking back." Members of the household staff began photographing the first family's bedrooms, bathrooms, sitting rooms and offices before major cleanings so they could have a record showing that everything was put back in its place.

When Limerick decorated the Christmas tree in the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor, Bill Clinton was upset. He is allergic to pine, but Hillary Clinton wanted a real tree for a few days -- the plan was to put the tree up around December 19 and take it down as soon as December 28. Limerick knew how much the President liked putting up the decorations with their daughter, Chelsea. It made him feel normal, even for a few minutes. But one year, Limerick told me, Hillary Clinton asked her to put up the ornaments because Clinton had an event that night. But when the president came up to the second floor after attending the event he was furious when he saw some of the decorations already hanging on the tree. "Who did this?" he yelled. Presidents feel out of control of their own lives and sometimes rely on small traditions to feel normal.

How people in positions of power treat those who cook and clean and generally pick up after them says a lot about their character, but the truth is that while genuinely bizarre, this latest alleged behavior from Trump is not much different from some of the men, and even one first lady, who came before him.

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