Weekly Feature

white house life, living in the white house
Charles Tasnadi/AP
Ronald and Nancy Reagan

White House Life: The President and First Lady at Home

November 18, 2008
by Jen O'Neill
The White House plays host to the world’s most powerful people and its most elegant soirées, but it’s also the primary residence of the president and first lady. FindingDulcinea explores what it’s like to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, America’s most famous address.

In the Oval Office

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Throughout the years, cameras have brought iconic images to the American people from within the Oval Office—among them, President Nixon talking to astronauts after a triumphant voyage, John Kennedy Jr. peering out from beneath his father’s desk, and President Reagan giving an emotional speech after the Challenger explosion.

Very few people actually make it into the Oval Office, but you can experience it through a video tour led by President Bush. He reveals some of the room’s intricacies, including the president’s HMS Resolute Desk; the center carpet, designed by Laura Bush; and additional items that make it feel like home.

The President, Inside and Outside the White House

“It’s very funny how quickly you settle in and your habits are formed, living habits and all the rest,” Reagan stated in a 1981 Time magazine interview after spending his first 23 days as president of the United States. While the job itself resembled his position as Governor of California, Reagan found the daily routine to be the most difficult adjustment, especially rising so early in the morning.

Yet, dining with “gusto,” and nibbling on jellybeans during meetings enhanced Reagan’s enjoyment of the daily grind. Time’s article also sheds light on how the president has to find ways to let off steam, through laughter, drawing doodles—and leaving the White House at regular intervals.

“The Oval Office is wherever the president of the United States is,” stated Kenneth M. Duberstein, former White House chief of staff during the Regan administration. “With the communications being what they are, the president can communicate instantly with whomever he wants anywhere in the world.” President Bush used this technology to conduct his presidential affairs from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that during his first term in office, Bush broke former President Regan’s standing record of conducting 335 days of work outside of the Oval Office.

“Spending time outside of Washington always gives the president a fresh perspective of what’s on the minds of the American people,” former White House press secretary Scott McClellan explained. “It’s a time, really, for him to shed the coat and tie and meet with folks out in the heartland and hear what’s on their minds.”

According to the Washington Post, Presidents have a long history of escaping life in the White House to seek comfort in their preferred spots. Harry Truman called the White House “the crown jewel of the American prison system.” The Post listed some of the past presidents’ getaways: “Richard M. Nixon favored Key Biscayne, Fla. Bush’s father preferred Maine. Bill Clinton, lacking a home of his own, borrowed a house on Martha’s Vineyard, except for two years when political adviser Dick Morris nudged him into going to Jackson, Wyo., before his reelection because it polled better.”

The Life of the First Lady

Hillary Clinton hardly had a moment to herself while she was living in the White House. The Washington Post acquired an actual day’s schedule of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, which included a meeting with Queen Noor.

Eleanor Roosevelt also known as the “First Lady of the World,” started the trend of presidential wives getting involved in their husbands' work, even though President Franklin Roosevelt rebuffed her offer to work as his assistant. Instead, Mrs. Roosevelt supported various social causes. According to MSN Encarta, just two days after FDR was inaugurated into office, she held a news conference to inform the public that she would hold weekly meetings with women reporters. Shortly thereafter, Eleanor Roosevelt aired her schedule for the day on live radio, and by 1935, she established “My Day,” a syndicated newspaper column.

Lady Bird Johnson “was often portrayed by contemporaries and some historians as a meek woman who silently endured her husband’s volcanic outbursts and infidelities,” the Los Angeles Times noted in her obituary. However, she spent much of her time as first lady pursuing various environmental projects and causes, took an active role in her husband's campaign for a full term and eventually founded  "a multimillion-dollar media business.”

“I am married to the president of the United States, and here’s our typical evening: Nine o’clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I’m watching Desperate Housewives— with Lynne Cheney. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife. I mean, if those women on that show think they’re desperate, they oughta be with George,” a tongue-in-cheek Laura Bush declared at the 2005 White House Correspondents Dinner.
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