Kate Andersen Brower, a former CBS News staffer and Fox News producer who covered the Obama White House for Bloomberg News, compiled conversations with White House residence staff for her New York Times bestseller, “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House,” capturing tales and impressions from over 30 butlers, chefs, florists and maids who have worked for first families as far back as the Kennedys. Brower’s second book, “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” is to be made into a television series produced by Reese Witherspoon and Robin Wright, and will be the topic of her talk tonight at Ron Robinson Theater, Central Arkansas Library System's Fred K. Darragh Jr. Distinguished Lecture, 6:30 p.m., free.
From your perspective and breadth of experience, is there some hallmark moment in this election process in which you realized we’d crossed a historical line?
Probably in the primaries when Trump was talking about the size of his, you know, genitalia. Or whatever you want to call it. When he was actually going there, I think that brought it to a whole new level, but the gloves were clearly off for Trump and Clinton from day one. I thought it was interesting when he talked about being president and putting her in jail; that’s another point we’ve never had in history. Talking about appointing a special prosecutor? That’s never been said during a campaign. That’s the most recent red flag, I think. I mean, it’s never been this personal before.
The two of them — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — you’re just not surprised by any of the allegations or any of the behavior. Even with her being ultra secretive, it’s kind of in keeping with how she was in the White House as First Lady, maybe a bit paranoid — and probably rightfully so — about people listening in on conversations, stuff like that. And nothing surprises me about what he says. When you hear that tape — if it was any other presidential candidate, you’d be shocked, but with that tape, it was just like, “Oh yeah, that’s Donald Trump.” That was in keeping with the way he speaks.
I want to ask you about that, too, about the idea of what we think of as “presidential.” Because Hillary is a woman (and because Trump is Trump) we’re in this place where what we’ve thought of as “presidential” in the past might look very different.
I think it will be really interesting to see a woman in this role, and how she navigates these expectations of her as president. I thought it was strange during the primary when she said that she would also help do some traditional East Wing activities, like looking at china, or looking at flower arrangements. No president in history has really been asked to do that, so there are these kind of gendered expectations of the role of First Lady. Bill Clinton won’t have to do any of it, and nobody would expect him to, but is it because he’s a man, or because he’s a former president? I mean, I think the idea that a woman would be expected to be, you know, a hostess and the leader of the free world is a little bit of a double standard. When I talk to Clinton staffers, they say that she’ll hire a really experienced social secretary to do a lot of this. I mean, there’s a lot of work that goes into planning state dinners, and guest seating charts and all of that, it’s very kind of, feminine, and therefore people think it’s less important, but it is important. I mean, you cannot do that and also make a deal about arms control. It’s too time-consuming. I was actually a little annoyed at that. I felt it was sort of pandering. You shouldn’t have to be in the Oval Office dealing with the East Wing staff at the same time. It’s never happened before, and it shouldn’t have to happen for future women presidents. I guess that’s just the feminist in me, but I found that to be really bizarre. ...
When she was First Lady, she got into a lot of trouble for having a West Wing office. ... So I think this history of overstepping what is expected of you as First Lady — hopefully she’s moved beyond that, having been a senator and a Secretary of State.
She’s been quoted as wanting her tombstone to read something other than “Former First Lady." She wanted to be elected herself, and when she got it, she was so empowered. For my first book about the White House staff, I talked to butlers and florists, and they described how the mood totally changed when she was campaigning, when she was out on her own and the president was supporting her, and one of the staff was quoted as saying that “Bill Clinton was in such a doghouse, he would’ve done anything for her.” He felt she deserved that. People forget that her star was on the rise when they met, and they’ve really traded off over the years.
You covered both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House. In the same way that there's a lot of talk about us holding Secretary Clinton to extremely rigorous standards about conduct and morality, I think there have been those high-bar sorts of expectations of the president and First Lady, which they seem to have met with grace and intellect, and without being disingenuous. Does it feel that way to you?
[Michelle Obama] has kept very true to herself, and he has, too, but I mean, people criticize the president for not golfing enough with members of Congress, or inviting them over in the way that Reagan did with Tip O’Neill. There’s definitely a level of arrogance there, but that’s also just his personality. He’s just more introverted and not as much of a glad-hander as someone like Bill Clinton. So he doesn’t do a kind of phony thing.
Do you think that would have helped him bridge a bipartisan gap?
It definitely would have looked good in the press, but in the end, I don’t think it would have mattered how many times he golfed with John Boehner or Paul Ryan. It’s a partisan country right now, and I think they saw that and thought, “It’s a waste of our time. The president has limited time he can spend on things, and maybe that’s not a great use of it.” It would have been a nice gesture, but it probably wouldn’t have changed the course of the
legislature in any way.
I couldn't help but think, when reading excerpt from “The Residence” about the mainstay staff in the White House who are African-American, that it would be fascinating to talk to some of them about how they saw Obama's presidency — particularly at the beginning — or about the way the staff in general views a potential Trump presidency.
It was very emotional for some of them, especially on Inauguration Day, when the Obamas officially moved in. … I interviewed some of them about working there under Donald Trump, and one of them said he wouldn’t go back if they paid him three times as much as he was paid when he worked there. … You serve at the pleasure of the president, but it’s not like a regular government job, you can be fired for any reason. Everything is very regimented in the White House, and he could come in and maybe bring his own chef. Some of them might take early retirement, I was told. Hopefully we won’t see any of this happen, but the idea of his presidency reverberates everywhere, especially to the housekeepers at the White House.
Right. It’s hard to think of the “You’re fired” guy as having the power of making sweeping changes that affect people who have worked there long enough to have built a career.
There are certain things he can’t touch, like the Green Room and the Red Room, really historic rooms. Like, he can’t go into the East Room and paint it pink. You can do almost anything to the second floor, though, or the third floor, the residence. He could do some crazy stuff, interior-decorating-wise, but it’s more the kind of human toll that could take if he did fire people. I have no sense of whether or not he’d fire anybody, but he’s been so unorthodox, I think that makes people wonder if he would also apply that to even the most basic things. I mean, he has a huge staff and a big entourage, and that could change a lot.
About half of the butlers — three of them — are the same butlers who worked for the Clintons when they were in the White House. There’s one butler there named Buddy Carter who I couldn’t interview because he’s still there, but he’s due to retire, and a friend of his said he’d probably stay if the Clintons come back, because he’s really close with them. They become like family with the president and the First Lady, and I think that’s very sweet.
Do you watch “House of Cards?”
I love “House of Cards.” It’s funny because in my book, I talk about Laura Bush and how, at the end of the day, she and the president would sit in the Treaty Room on the second floor and smoke together. She would smoke a cigarette and he would smoke a cigar, and crack the window, and the Secret Service would always get so mad because they would sometimes forget to close the window. They had to put in a whole process in at the usher’s office to make sure someone checks the window at the end of the night in the treaty room. Not that Claire is modeled after Laura Bush at all, but I always love the scene of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright smoking at the end of their day. You wouldn’t think that about the Bushes, but that is what they did. Except, you know, not plotting to kill people.
There is no admission charge for Brower's lecture tonight at Ron Robinson Theater, or for the preceding reception at 6 p.m. CALS asks that attendees register for the event here.