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White House Revealed (DVD Review)

19 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/20/10
$14.98 DVD
Not rated.
Narrated by Martin Sheen.

You have to believe that no one ever says “it’s just a job” when it comes to the 95 resident staffers in the White House detail, who begin and end their day (which can last up to 20 hours if a state dinner is on the calendar) serving the leader of the free world, family members and a dog or two. As a retired pasty chef notes, he saw every president in his tenure laugh — and every president cry.

Once upon a time, chief execs brought along their own domestics, but in 1840 Congress appropriated funds for an official crew — probably reasoning that 132 rooms were a prodigious challenge to dust. And especially so when the First Lady was Nancy Reagan, who had a zillion knickknacks in her varied collections — all of which had to be picked up and cleaned.

Martin Sheen (how apt) narrates this 50-minute history, which frequently cuts to the senior George Bush and first lady Barbara for warm recollections. She says she used to journey down into the bowels of the White House for staff visits her predecessors usually eschewed and once saw instructions on a blackboard to “wash the stinking dogs.” Meanwhile, Bush I initiated horseshoe tosses with his staff, which is tough to imagine JFK or Nixon ever doing. Herbert Hoover was different: He wanted his house staff out of sight and would ring three bells when approaching so that they would know how to scurry into some obscure hole.

As for sweet teeth, most presidents had them, and Clinton, we’re told, scarfed down lots of cake directly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke — when he was eating alone a lot. He loved chocolate, as did President Reagan (though Nancy worried a lot about his consumption and tried to keep an eye on it).

State dinners are the most complicated events, followed by the entire Christmas season. For the latter, the pastry chef was once instructed by Laura Bush to come up with a “Willy Wonka” theme, but he (French) initially didn’t know who Wonka was. For state dinners, the rule is “don’t get cute” — in other words, no octopus or garlic or tricky spices. As the White House executive chef says, the president isn’t in a position to take 10% off the check and offer a free glass of champagne if something is blown.

There are poignant first-hand remembrances of staff reactions to JFK’s assassination, the Lewinsky fall-out and, of course, 9/11. Someone points out that if you look at footage of Bush II arriving at the White House to make his first speech after the attack, you can see stacked-up picnic tables. Few know or remember that the White House was going to hold the Congressional picnic that day — which had it been a little later in the day and the White House had been attacked …

Though staffing has remained remarkably consistent through the transfer of administrations, there have been changes over the years reflecting society at large. From 1909 through sometime in the 1930s, the White House staff was segregated. Yet there came the time when Nelson Mandela visited — and he gave the employees quality personal time.

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