My Book Bag: Upstairs at the White House

Last week, I wrote about The Residence, a book about life in the private quarters of the White House. I suppose I take “nerd” to the next level, because I often peruse the notes section of books, or read the bibliography listed in the back. In this case, The Residence quoted a book called Upstairs at the White House by J.B. West, more than once. A quick search of my library’s website revealed that they had the book.

It’s a pretty long book, almost 400 pages, but I found it to be even more interesting than The Residence! J.B. West was employed upstairs at the White House for about 30 years. He worked his way up the chain to become the Chief Usher – don’t let the title fool you – it’s an important job. The Chief Usher oversees all operations of the private residence of the White House, mostly dealing with the budget. The White House operates on a definite budget, and no President can overspend his share while in office. In fact, many things come out of the President’s personal money. For example, the President pays for all of his meals. Not state dinners, but any meals which are eaten by any person in the private residence. The President gets an itemized bill: one egg, two slices of cheese, one orange, etc. The food is purchased by White House staff who look like everyday citizens so that no one knows who shops for the President. This prevents outsiders from tampering with his food. I found this type of information fascinating since I had never considered how the President bought groceries! West shares how he had to tell several Presidents and First Ladies “no” due to budget constraints more than once. Not many people can claim to have done that.

This book begins with the very end of FDR’s final term in office and proceeds through the very beginning of Nixon’s term. Mr. West was good friends with Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Eisenhower, despite their opposing politics. Mr. West learned the tastes of each first family and worked to make sure the staff did all they could to make them feel at home. He viewed the White House residence as a place of escape for the first family, even though it’s located only one floor above the museum portion of the house, and is on the property of the President’s office, located in the West Wing.

If you want to get a great inside look into the White House of years gone by, this is the book for you. You will live through JFK’s assassination, his funeral, and the transition from Kennedy to Johnson from the eyes of one who saw it all unfold firsthand. You will hear about the many important guests that visited the White House, and about how life in the White House was for the children of these first families. You will also hear about the particular tastes of various Presidents: Johnson’s love of high water pressure in the shower and Nixons love of gadgetry, just to name a couple. And who knew that the intricacies of cleaning and decorating could make interesting reading? Well, I found it is when it’s happening at the White House!

In case you can’t tell, I highly recommend this book. If you can only read one book about the private lives of the Presidents, read this one. I have a few more titles on this topic on my “to read” list, but haven’t been able to locate copies yet. When I do, I’ll let you know.

Thanks for dropping by today! I hope you will enjoy reading Upstairs at the White House by J.B. West.

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