Travel

B.O. on what it’s really like to live in the White House

Former president offers an intimate glimpse of his private life inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in this sneak peek of his memoir “A Promised Land”.

What’s it like to live in the White House? In a word: “Weird.” Obama — who recently sat down with Oprah Winfrey for an episode of The Oprah Conversation, streaming for free now on the Apple TV app — explains why in this preview from his new memoir, A Promised Land.

Given how hectic everything was in the first few weeks after I took office, I barely had time to dwell on the pervasive, routine weirdness of my new circumstances. But make no mistake, it was weird. There was the way everyone now stood up anytime I walked into a room. “Sit down,” I’d growl, telling my team that those kinds of formalities weren’t my style. They’d smile and nod — and then do the exact same thing the next time we met.

There was the way my first name all but disappeared, used by nobody but Michelle, our families, and a few close friends. Otherwise, it was “Yes, Mr. President” and “No, Mr. President,” although over time my staff at least adopted the more colloquial “POTUS” (president of the United States) when talking to or about me inside the White House.

(AN) – There was the way my daily schedule had suddenly become a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between various staffers, agencies, and constituencies, each one wanting their causes highlighted or their issues addressed, outcomes spit out through a hidden machinery that I never fully understood. Meanwhile, I discovered that whenever the Secret Service agents whispered into their wrist microphones, they were broadcasting my movements over a staff-monitored radio channel: “Renegade heading to residence” or “Renegade to Situation Room” or “Renegade to Secondary Hold,” which was their discreet way of saying I was going to the bathroom.

And there was the ever-present traveling press pool: a herd of reporters and photographers who needed to be alerted anytime I left the White House complex and would follow me in a government-provided van. The arrangement made sense when we traveled on official business, but I soon discovered that it applied in all circumstances, whether Michelle and I were going out to a restaurant or I was heading to a gym to play basketball or planning to watch one of the girls’ soccer games at a nearby field. As Robert Gibbs, who was now my press secretary, explained, the rationale was that a president’s movements were inherently newsworthy and that the press needed to be on the scene in case something consequential happened. And yet I can’t recall the press van ever capturing any image more compelling than me getting out of a car wearing sweatpants. It did have the effect of eliminating whatever scraps of privacy I might still have had when venturing beyond the White House gates. Feeling mildly cranky about it, I asked Gibbs that first week whether we could leave the press behind when I went on personal outings.

“Bad idea,” Gibbs said.

“Why? The reporters crammed in that van must know it’s a waste of time.”

“Yeah, but their bosses don’t,” Gibbs said. “And remember, you promised to run the most open administration in history. You do this, the press will have a fit.”

“I’m not talking about public business,” I objected. “I’m talking about taking my wife on a date. Or getting some fresh air.” I’d read enough about previous presidents to know that Teddy Roosevelt once spent two weeks camping in Yellowstone, traveling by horse. I knew that during the Great Depression, FDR had passed weeks at a time sailing up the East Coast to an island near Nova Scotia. I reminded Gibbs that Harry Truman had gone for long morning walks through the streets of Washington during his presidency.

“Times have changed, Mr. President,” Gibbs said patiently. “Look, it’s your decision. But I’m telling you, getting rid of the press pool will create a shitstorm that we don’t need right now. It’ll also make it harder for me to get cooperation from them when it comes to the girls …” 

I started to answer, then shut my mouth. Michelle and I had already told Gibbs that our highest priority was making sure the press left our daughters alone when they were out and about. Gibbs knew I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize that. Having successfully repulsed my rebellion, he was wise enough not to gloat; instead, he just patted me on the back and headed to his office, leaving me to mutter under my breath. (To their credit, members of the press would place Malia and Sasha off-limits for the duration of my presidency, an act of basic decency that I deeply appreciated.)

My team did throw me one bone when it came to freedom: I was able to keep my BlackBerry — or, rather, I was given a new, specially modified device, approved only after several weeks of negotiations with various cybersecurity personnel. With it, I could send and receive emails, though only from a vetted list of twenty or so contacts, and the internal microphone and headphone jack had been removed so that the phone function didn’t work. Michelle joked that my BlackBerry was like one of those play phones you give toddlers, where they get to press buttons and it makes noises and things light up but nothing actually happens.

Given these limitations, most of my contact with the outside world depended on three young aides who sat in the Outer Oval: Reggie Love, who had agreed to stay on as my body man; Brian Mosteller, a fastidious Ohioan who organized all my daily events within the complex; and Katie Johnson, David Plouffe’s no-nonsense assistant from the campaign who now performed the same function for me. Together they served as my unofficial gatekeepers and personal life-support system, patching through my phone calls, scheduling my haircuts, providing briefing materials, keeping me on time, alerting me to upcoming staff birthdays and purchasing cards for me to sign, telling me when I’d spilled soup on my tie, enduring my rants and bad jokes, and generally keeping me functioning throughout the course of twelve- to sixteen-hour days.

The lone denizen of the Outer Oval past his mid-thirties was Pete Souza, our White House photographer. Middle-aged, compactly built, and with a swarthy complexion that reflected his Portuguese roots, Pete was on his second tour at the White House, having served as an official photographer for the Reagan administration. After various teaching stints and freelance assignments, Pete had landed at the Chicago Tribune, where he’d covered the early stages of the Afghan War as well as my start in the U.S. Senate. 

I had liked him right away: In addition to having a photojournalist’s gift for capturing complex stories in a single image, Pete was smart, unpretentious, a bit curmudgeonly, but never cynical. After we won, he agreed to join the team on the condition that I allow him unfettered access. It was a measure of my confidence in him that I gave the okay, and for the next eight years Pete became a constant presence, skirting the edges of every meeting, witnessing every victory and defeat, occasionally lowering himself onto a creaky knee to get the angle he wanted, never making a sound other than the constant whirr of the camera’s shutter.

He also became a good friend.

In this new, curiously sealed habitat of mine, the fondness and trust I felt toward those I worked with and the kindness and support they showed me and my family were a saving grace. This was true for Ray Rogers and Quincy Jackson, the two young Navy valets assigned to the Oval Office, who served refreshments to visitors and whipped up a solid lunch for me every day in the tiny kitchenette wedged next to the dining space. Or the White House Communications Agency staffers, among them two brothers named Nate and Luke Emory, who set up lecterns, prompters, and video shoots at a moment’s notice. Or Barbara Swann, who brought the mail each day and appeared incapable of anything other than a smile and sweet word for everyone.

And it was true of the residence staff. My family’s new living quarters seemed less a home than an extended series of suites in a boutique hotel, complete with a gym, pool, tennis court, movie theater, salon, bowling alley, and medical office. The staff was organized under the direction of chief usher Steve Rochon, a former Coast Guard rear admiral who was hired by the Bushes in 2007, becoming the first African American to hold the post. A cleaning crew came through each day, keeping the place spotless; a rotating team of chefs prepared meals for our family or, as sometimes happened, for a few hundred guests; butlers were on hand to serve those meals or anything else you might want; switchboard operators sat ready to put through calls at all hours and to make sure we woke up in the morning; ushers waited in the small elevator every morning to take me down to work and were there to greet me again upon my evening return; building engineers were on-site to fix what was broken; and in-house florists kept every room filled with magnificent, ever-varying, freshly cut flowers.

(It’s worth pointing out here — only because people were often surprised to hear it — that a First Family pays out of pocket for any new furniture, just as it does for everything else it consumes, from groceries to toilet paper to extra staff for a president’s private dinner party. The White House budget does set aside funds for a new president to redo the Oval Office, but despite some worn upholstery on the chairs and sofas, I decided that a historic recession wasn’t the best time to be going through fabric swatches.)

And for the president, at least, there was a trio of Navy valets, first among them a soft-spoken bear of a man named Sam Sutton. On our first full day in the White House, I walked through the hallway closet that connected our bedroom to my bathroom only to find every shirt, suit, and pair of pants I owned perfectly pressed and hung in orderly rows, my shoes shined to a high gloss, every pair of socks or shorts folded and sorted as if in a department store display. When in the evening I returned from the Oval Office and hung my (only lightly mussed!) suit in the closet (a significant improvement over my normal practice of draping it on the nearest doorknob, one of Michelle’s pet peeves), Sam came up beside me and gently but firmly explained that it would be better if from now on I just left the care of my clothes up to him — a switch that not only improved my general appearance but no doubt helped my marriage.

None of this was a hardship, of course. Still, it was a little disconcerting. During the campaign, Michelle and I had become accustomed to always having people around, but they hadn’t occupied our house, and we definitely weren’t used to having butlers and maids. In this new, rarefied air, we worried that the girls would get too coddled and slide into bad habits, and we instituted a rule (enforced with only average success) that they had to clean their rooms and make their beds before school each morning. My mother-in-law, Marian, loath to have anyone waiting on her, asked the staff for a lesson on using the washers and dryers so she could do her own laundry. Feeling a little embarrassed myself, I tried to keep the Treaty Room, which served as my personal office in the residence, free of the stacks of books, papers, and assorted junk that had characterized all my previous “Holes.”

Gradually, thanks to the steady generosity and professionalism of the residence staff, we found ourselves settling in. We became especially close to our regular crew of chefs and butlers, with whom we had daily contact. As with my valets, all of them were Black, Latino, or Asian American, and all but one were men. (Cris Comerford, a Filipino American, had been recently appointed as the White House’s executive chef, the first woman to hold the job.) And while they were uniformly glad to have well-paying, secure jobs with good benefits, it was hard to miss in their racial makeup the vestiges of an earlier time, when social rank had clear demarcations and those who occupied the office of president felt most comfortable in their privacy when served by those they assumed were not their equals — and, therefore, could not judge them.

The most senior butlers were a pair of big, round-bellied Black men with sly senses of humor and the wisdom that comes from having a front-row seat to history. Buddy Carter had been around since the tail end of the Nixon presidency, first caring for visiting dignitaries at Blair House and then moving to a job in the residence. Von Everett had been around since Reagan. They spoke of previous First Families with appropriate discretion and genuine affection. But without saying much, they didn’t hide how they felt about having us in their care. You could see it in how readily Von accepted Sasha’s hugs or the pleasure Buddy took in sneaking Malia an extra scoop of ice cream after dinner, in the easy rapport they had talking to Marian and the pride in their eyes when Michelle wore a particularly pretty dress. They were barely distinguishable from Marian’s brothers or Michelle’s uncles, and in that familiarity they became more, not less, solicitous, objecting if we carried our own plates into the kitchen, alert to even a hint of what they considered substandard service from anyone on the residence staff. It would take us months of coaxing before the butlers were willing to swap their tuxedos for khakis and polo shirts when serving us meals.

“We just want to make sure you’re treated like every other president,” Von explained.

“That’s right,” Buddy said. “See, you and the First Lady don’t really know what this means to us, Mr. President. Having you here …” He shook his head. “You just don’t know.”

Excerpted from A Promised Land, by Barack Obama© 2020 by Barack Obama. Reprinted by permission of Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio, read by the author. 

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