Little Details (6/18/09)

Meanwhile, at the White House

June 18, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Are you wearing guest passes?” the Secret Service agent asked sternly.

My heart sank. We were busted.

As a parent chaperoning Williston Central School students at the White House on June 3, I relished wandering the Blue Room, Red Room and State Dining Room wide-eyed, dazzled by crystal chandeliers and carved mantelpieces.

Chatting with Secret Service agents provided numerous teachable moments. The kids learned to study hard in college, maintain good credit and never ever smoke marijuana. Landing a job protecting America’s political elite requires navigating multiple hoops of selectivity.

Asked about their favorite part of their job, the agents overwhelmingly answered, “Travel.”

“I’ve been to Europe more times than I can count,” one agent mused. “Pakistan was hard though. We drank bottled water that ended up being tainted. We got so sick.”

Friendly conversation ended abruptly as I struggled to respond to the agent’s question about our seeming indiscretion.

“Actually, Brian * told us to tuck them in our shirts during the self-guided tour,” I stammered. “He isn’t going to get into trouble, is he?”

“No,” the agent said, “but I need for you to hand me the passes.”

We reluctantly turned over the trinkets, which would have unlocked behind-the-scenes mysteries of the White House. Queen Elizabeth might get to see the President’s Reception Room. I wanted to rummage around the basement to meet real people who work to keep America’s First Home running smoothly. (We did see the Reception Room and the carpet Laura Bush commissioned but ultimately disliked. We thought it looked just fine.)

Crestfallen, we proceeded to our agreed-upon meeting place with Brian. I explained to the kids that, without passes, Brian wouldn’t be able to take us beyond tourist areas. I feared we got him into trouble.

Brian met us with a sly smile and playfully removed our passes from his pocket. He played a joke on us, enlisting the staid Secret Service agent in the ruse. His sister-in-law, my colleague in Vermont, warned me that he loved practical jokes.

Brian grew up in Montpelier and worked for Ben & Jerry’s before landing the job of HVAC guru at the White House. He keeps the First Family warm in winter and cool in summer. It’s clear he loves his job and enjoys his colleagues. He stressed that staff are apolitical — their job is to serve whoever is in office, regardless of affiliation.

Brian poked his head in the private movie theater and we were invited in by the cleaning crew. I asked if they felt well-treated by the Obamas.

“Oh, yes,” the woman said. “The president came into our break room and was like, ‘What’s up, guys?’”

“When the girls have friends over, they throw blankets on the floor in front of the seats,” Brian said. “The White House gets movies before they’re released to theaters.”

I guess Malia and Sasha will see the new Harry Potter flick before it hits Vermont.

Stepping inside President Obama’s elevator provided a personal thrill. Jay, the older black gentleman who serves as operator, welcomed us into the carved wood interior. I checked my hair in the mirror as the president might before returning upstairs for dinner with Michelle and the girls.

We left the gilded hallways of the main floor, descending into the basement. Carpeting gave way to cement and a doorframe bearing singed stonework from the burning of the White House by the British in the War of 1812. Thick pipes skimmed low ceilings. The hum of motors and machinery accompanied our visit to the florist, where friendly staffers arranged flowers from White House gardens. We stepped inside the walk-in refrigerator, dazzled by tantalizing, aromatic blooms — many of them roses, of course.

The kitchen, from which state dinners are prepared, appeared spotless amid a sea of stainless steel. It was far smaller than any commercial kitchen I’d ever worked in.

The White House bowling alley, a two-laner built during President Nixon’s administration, was a hit with the kids. We picked up balls emblazoned with the presidential seal but did not dare a roll.

The buzz of activity was palpable as staffers who kept the White House safe, clean and climate-controlled went about their business.

Brian, who’s worked in the White House since the 1980s, was once called to the Oval Office to address a problem with the fireplace. He opened the door and, to his surprise, found President Reagan sitting at his desk.

“Pardon me, Mr. President,” Brian said, a little startled. “I didn’t realize you were here. I’ll come back later, sir.”

“It’s no problem,” Reagan said. “Come on in.”

Brian worked on the chimney with his tools. Reagan engaged him in friendly conversation about football. Brian said Reagan changed his demeanor significantly when his wife Nancy was around. She held considerable sway over her husband and disapproved of his fraternizing with staff. Once Nancy departed, the banter resumed.

Brian spoke well of the current First Family’s graciousness and commented that, when home, President Obama requests a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call because he likes to get his girls up for school.

How you treat those who work for you is more telling than how you treat those who work with you. I delighted in learning that the current inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. treat behind-the-scenes staff well. To me, that’s real class.

* Last name omitted to protect confidentiality

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or