Kate Andersen Brower’s work, The Residence details the lives of the domestic staff of the White House. These are the real inhabitants of the White House, we just rent it out to one family for four year periods of time. They rent, but these staff, the maids, the tailors, curators, chefs, florists etc. they serve administration after administration while one family rents the space at the leisure of the American public. The book captures the lives and experiences of people who we so seldom even think about as existing, which, in some way, is a sign of their professionalism.
Andersen Brower notes at several points in the book that it was hard to track down people willing to talk or that some stories were heard through others because they didn’t want to talk to the press. The staff’s dignity and integrity when fulfilling their job is a hallmark of why these hard workers are often under appreciated not by the First Family, but by the American people. These are the faces we seldom see in our popular culture. There are no maid scurrying around and ushering Olivia Pope from the White House in Scandal. There are no valets that make a prominent role in House of Cards. The domestic staff are trained to be shadows to the American public just as they become integral parts of the lives of our American Presidential families.
Imagine if the staff had less integrity. Any of the staff might have let slip a national security secret, let Americans into the secret lives of Presidents and violated the President and First Family’s trust. This would harm the nation as the President could not trust their own staff.
The Residence is full of fascinating stories, some funny others less so, about the First Families that have inhabited the White House. From President Johnson’s obsession over a shower, to the assassination of JFK to Watergate and the Clinton impeachment, these often silent observers of history get to see something that so many people rarely get to see: the President as (so far) man, and the First Family as individuals.
The book follows not a chronological trajectory, but a thematic one; in which sometimes several stories are mentioned in multiple chapters to get a more nuanced look at the lives of the staff and how their interactions in one instance are serving multiple purposes in their employment. With each chapter the reader’s adoration for the staff; for their dedication and hard work, grows. You grow to respect that these people, a select few. overcome political partisanship, overcome social movements and defy the expectations of a politics-driven D.C. These are men and women who serve in what they lovingly call “the house” out of respect for the office of the President and not the personality of any particular candidate.
Simply put, The Residence is hard to put down. Andersen Brower imbues the staff with such grace and character as to be a novel, yet there is a reverence in the novel; between the staff and the President, the staff and the White House and the author and the staff. Political junkies, history buffs and curious citizens alike will cherish the light hearted moments and the gut wrenching ones. After reading the book it is hard to look at politics the same way. For me, the stories in this book cause me to now give pause when I watch political debates and shows; now I cannot help but to image the person that the staff will see when that next President takes residence in “the house”.