The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 21, 2001

A slice out of the White House past
By Bimal Bhatia

WHAT are the occupants of the White House in Washington like? White House will witness a change of guard on January 20. Much speculation within the power echelons of world politics has already taken place. But ordinary people are more interested in the lighter and personal side of the bigwigs occupying a high office such as the president of the United States.

George and Laura Bush will occupy the White House on January 20Are they like us? What is their personal life like? These questions crop up in the minds of commoners, and a slice from the lives of the past occupants of the White House will whet your appetites.

Talk of luck and accidents of history. Gerald Ford was the first man to become a US President by appointment. He was, in the words of his wife, "An accidental Vice-President, and an accidental President, and in both jobs he replaced disgraced leaders." Earlier, President Nixon had appointed him Vice-President when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. He later became the 37th US President when Nixon himself resigned under the threat of impeachment.


While supping with his family, one of Fordís dogs had an accident, and a red-jacketed White House steward rushed to clear up the mess. Ford left his table at once, took the rag away from the steward, and proceeded to clean the floor himself. "No man,"he exclaimed, "should have to clean up after another manís dog." Ford was unassuming and wanted to show that there was nothing "imperial" about his presidency.

President Harry Truman was criticised for using brusque language and threw in an occasional "hell", "damn", or "s.o.b." into his public comments of matters that deeply stirred him. When journalists started commenting on the type of advisers he should induct on his staff and in the cabinet and whom he should get rid of, Truman blew his top in an after dinner speech. "No s.o.b. is going to dictate to me who Iím going to have."

For this he got duly reprimanded by his wife. Later, a clergyman bailed out the President saying that under similar provocations he might have said the same thing. An exalted Truman turned to his aide and shot: "I just wish that rector would go talk to my wife."

White House: Home to historyDespite a fusillade of criticisms, Truman added to his poise and, as he learnt the ropes of the high office, even became over-confident. "If you canít stand the heat," he declared, "stay out of the kitchen." On his White House desk he kept two mottoes. "The buck stops here," read one, and the other quoted Mark Twain: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

When Franklin Roosevelt was a little boy, his father took him to Washington where President Cleveland greeted the lad by shaking his hands. "Iím making a strange wish for you, little man," whispered Cleveland, placing his hand on the boyís head, "a wish I suppose no one else would make. I wish for you that you may never be President of the United States."

Later in his career Roosevelt had to move to Washington when appointed assistant secretary of the navy, a post he held through World War I. The Roosevelts occasionally visited the aging historian Henry Adams, who lived near the White House. Once when Roosevelt unburdened some of his problems in the Navy Department, Adams cut him short: "Young man, I have lived in this house many years and seen the occupants of the White House across the square come and go, and nothing you minor officials or the occupant of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long."

Tragically, in 1921 Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis, which left his legs paralysed. Therapy enabled him to stand or walk a few steps with the help of leg braces. Yet, he rose to be the 32nd US President from 1933-45. He was the first president to break the "no third term" tradition in 1940, and despite failing health was elected to a fourth term in 1944. (A later amendment to the US Constitution in 1951 stipulated that no person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice. He did not live to see the end of World War II through which he lead his country, succumbing to cerebral haemorrhage in April 1945.

Side-view of the White HouseMrs Roosevelt was deeply concerned about improving the living conditions of the servants in the White House. She set about making the servantsí quarters humanly livable. The kitchens also got a facelift, and even the upper servants not involved in basement or kitchen work felt the impact of Mrs Rooseveltís drive to improve the working conditions of the lot.

An old Negro doorman, who had served the White House for long, was complimented by a visitor for the courtesy and graciousness of the coloured servants. He thanked her with proper dignity. Now the visitor remarked that she had always loved to visit the White House but was not sure whether she would like it as much after the Roosevelts left. Dropping his dignity and her bags, the liveried man turned and exclaimed: "Oh, Maíam, I donít know what weíll do without Mrs Roosevelt here."

John F. Kennedy became the youngest man ever elected president. He was 43 when he took the oath of office in January 1963, and also the first president to have been born in the twentieth century. His charisma is legend and he became the role model of the younger generation, including Bill Clinton then a future aspirant for the White House. Always looking younger than his years, Kennedy was once mistaken for an elevator boy and as a pageboy on several occasions when he entered the House of Representatives. Why, even after he became a senator, Kennedy was refrained by a guard from using a special telephone: "Sorry, mister. These are reserved for the senators."

Amply endowed with a sense of humour, Kennedy once presented a silver beer mug to a friend with the following inscription: There are three things which are real:/God, human folly and laughter./ The first two are beyond our comprehension/So we must do what we can with the third.

A White House aide noted that holding the top job actually sharpened Kennedyís ready wit. Once while on board Air Force One (the US Presidentís official aircraft), JFK was asked by a reporter what would happen if the aircraft crashed. A smiling Kennedy responded: "Iím sure of one thing. Your name would be in the paper the next day, but in very small type."

Clinton felt constrained by the White House regimenLyndon B. Johnson was the first southerner since Woodrow Wilson to become President. LBJ was typically Texan ó big, brash, loud and friendly. His folksy humour surfaced easily. Once, after reviewing some Vietnam-bound marines he headed towards a helicopter. An officer stopped him, pointed to a different direction and explained, "Thatís your helicopter over there, sir." "Son," blurted LBJ, "they are all my helicopters."

Calvin Coolidge was another president propelled into the White House by fate in 1923. News of President Hardingís death reached Vice-President Coolidge who was on vacation. "Guess weíd better have a drink," remarked Coolidge after a call was made to Washington to ascertain whether his father, a notary public, could swear his son as president. Accompanied by a few persons, he then proceeded to the general store to celebrate.

The country "wanted nothing done" while Coolidge was president, it was said, "and he done it." In 1924 Coolidge ran for president and defeated his Democrat rival by a landslide. "Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge" was the Republican campaign slogan. He demonstrated his sparing use of words during the presidential campaign when reporters sought him out. "Have you any statement on the campaign?" asked one. "No," retorted Coolidge. "Can you tell us something about the world situation?" queried another. "No." "Any information about prohibition"? ventured another scribe. "No." Just as the disappointed reporters started to leave, Coolidge called from behind: "Now, remember ó donít quote me."

In the White House front porch he put out a rocking chair and passed his evenings smoking cigars. His chief feat during five years and seven months in office, according to Mencken, was to "sleep more than any other president ó to sleep more and say less."

When he succumbed to a heart attack in 1933, New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker was told that Coolidge was dead. "How can they tell?" she exclaimed.

What a contrast with Bill Clinton who refused to tire down even as the fag end of his two long and trying terms. Did he like the White House? By the time he became President, he had to give up what Mrs Clinton called "a zone of privacy" in their lives. Covered by the media were their daily activities while a strict schedule and tight security regulated their activities. In the words of Paul F. Boller, Jr., the White House had begun to seem like a "Great White Jail" to some of its occupants. Clinton loved his job but felt constrained by the regimen. As he quits his high office and the White House, you can be sure that Bill Clinton wonít just fade away. Heís certain to make good use of his new found freedom and remain in the public gaze.

Home Top