Former chief usher of White House offers rare glimpse of first families

Monday, June 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush's springer spaniel, Spot, was old and ailing. The night before Spot was to be put to sleep, Bush carried his dog, a descendant of former first dog Millie, out to the South Lawn. They had chased many balls together near the helicopter landing spot, and now it was the winter of 2004.

The 43rd president stretched out on the ground and encircled his dog, lying there and stroking Spot's head.

The chief usher of the White House watched, from a discreet distance.

"I am getting emotional right now," Gary Walters said as he told that story. "These are the kind of things people don't know about the president."

Walters hasn't dished much since he retired two years ago. And the discreet 37-year veteran of White House service isn't ever likely to tell the real secrets of the seven presidential administrations he served.

But this past week in a lecture to a retirement community in Ashburn, Va., Walters told a few insider stories about the presidents, from Nixon to Bush 43. And he choked up a couple of times recalling some of the history he's witnessed.

The duties

The chief usher is charged with making the White House a home for the first family and running its many events. He supervises about 100 members of the household staff and has a long list of duties, including preparing the budgets for the executive residence (usually about $10 million to $12 million annually), preparing for state dinners and official ceremonies, and maintaining the museum part of the executive mansion.

And he, or she, observes the first family at their most human and often most vulnerable, before and after the public events that form the historical record of an administration.

Walters was asked to speak by his father-in-law, Henry A. Earp, 86, a resident of the retirement community. Earp introduced his son-in-law, 62, a University of Maryland graduate with a degree in business and a minor in criminology. After a stint overseas as an Army lieutenant, Walters joined the uniformed division of the Secret Service in 1970, then called the Executive Protective Service. He served as an assistant usher from 1976 to 1986 and was appointed chief usher in 1986 by Ronald Reagan, a post he held until his 2007 retirement.

Walters' presidential memories go back to the waning hours of the Nixon administration, when demonstrators' voices could be heard beyond the White House gates. Nixon had instructed that, when he walked back to the residence from his office on his final full day in power, "he didn't want to see anyone on that last trip," Walters recalled. The security officer on duty was told to keep himself hidden behind a large granite pillar, "sort of like a squirrel does behind a tree," and the press corps was locked in the briefing room until Nixon had passed by.

Ford's shower, Carter's  thermostat

He recalled a phone call from Gerald Ford early one Sunday morning, reporting he had no hot water in his shower. But instead of demanding an immediate fix, Ford said it had been that way for a couple of days, and there was no need to rush. "His response stunned me," said Walters. "He said, 'I've been using Betty's shower.' " He refers to Gerald and Betty Ford as "two of the most approachable people you could ever meet."

Jimmy Carter was much more exacting about house systems.

When Carter ordered White House thermostats set to 65 degrees, the one very large and drafty window in the tiny usher's office made the room frigid. Walters had the thermostat cover removed and the thermometer painted red at a perpetual 65 F. "We didn't want to defy the president," Walters said, "but we didn't want to freeze."

As for Ronald Reagan, "what you saw is what he was," recalled Walters. He said Nancy Reagan and her decorator, Ted Graber, made their inaugural move-in day the most organized of all. "Some thought she was a hard person to work with, but that was not the case. She always knew what she wanted. She was easy to work with."

Playing a joke on George H.W. Bush

When the springer spaniel Millie was about to birth her puppies, Walters moved a mattress into the White House beauty parlor so Barbara Bush could spend the night waiting. When George H.W. Bush got sick from a stomach virus on a state visit to Japan, Walters organized a gag upon the president's return to take the edge off his embarrassment. When members of the residence staff assembled to greet the returning couple, they all were wearing surgical masks.

Walters said he marvels at Bill Clinton's memory for names and faces. He described a mission in which he had to save the Clinton's cat, Socks, from near death when his harness got caught in a tree.

At the end of the presentation, there was hearty applause from the 130 retirement community residents in attendance, a few of whom knitted through the entire talk. There were a few questions.

Have you written a book?

"My wife doesn't want me to," said Walters, who lives with his wife, Barbara, in Great Falls, Va., "but historians do. We are still negotiating."

Which president was the most difficult?

"They were all difficult because they were all different," said Walters, ever the soul of discretion. "As for their personal lives, it will stay personal; it's up to them to divulge that."


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Eladio Rodriguez-Sanchez June 8, 2009 | 6:58 p.m.

His predecessor wrote a book about life in the White House, mostly dealing with his interactions with Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson. I read it and remember thinking that there were many things in that book that those women didn't want me to know about. The chapter on Mrs. Kennedy especially felt like a betrayal.

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