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Making the White House a Home

  • John Chadwick

He describes himself as one of the few people at the White House to personally witness then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing a nuclear arms control treaty. He is Gary Walters, now 62, who worked as the Chief Usher of the White House for 21 years before retiring in 2007. Walters said he believes that was a key moment in the East-West thaw that led to the end of the Cold War.

Chief Usher is the title given to the head of the household staff and operations at the White House, the official residence and principal workplace of the President of the United States, located in Washington D.C. Walters said it is somewhat like being a general manager of a major hotel. The chief usher serves at the pleasure of the president and coordinates both official and family life at the White House, also known as the Executive Mansion.

Walters supervised a household staff of 93 and operated with an annual budget of between $10 million and $12 million. The chief usher is responsible for all the activities at the White House, including those of the president’s family, the preparation of official ceremonies, maintaining the White House museum and the surrounding land on which the White House sits, as well as overseeing tours taken by thousands of visitors.

Walters worked at the White House for a total of 37 years. He began his career with the Secret Service, charged with protecting the president and his family, then as assistant usher until President Reagan appointed him to the post of chief usher in 1986.

He said his primary role was to make the White House a home to their family. It was, said Walters, a 24-hour a day responsibility. “I was on call. My bosses were the President and First Lady (the president’s wife). And, I was responsible for the activities that took place. So, the White House changes according to each administration. And, it’s the responsibility of the staff to change with the president for the four years, or the eight years, that the president is there. It’s their home and the staff’s responsibility is to make it a home, not just a house.”

His memories span seven presidents going back to the final days of the administration of Richard Nixon, who is the only president to have resigned his office in 1974 following the Watergate scandal.

In a recent interview, Walters referred to Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, and his wife Betty, as two of the most approachable people you could ever meet. He also served under Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Which one was the most difficult to work for? “They were all difficult because they were all different,” said Walters. Ever the soul of discretion, he added, “As for their personal lives, it will stay personal; it’s up to them to divulge that.”

As Chief Usher, Walters said he probably met every major head of state in the world who visited the White House. Will he ever write a book about his experiences? “My wife doesn’t want me to,” he was recently quoted as saying, adding, “but historians do. We are still negotiating.”

Since retirement his in 2007, Walters and his wife enjoy life at their home in Virginia, across the Potomac River, but a world away from the White House. He was replaced by Stephen Rochon, a retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral.

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