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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Gary Walters

October 3, 2003

Joyce, from Singapore writes:
Good morning sir! How is your role as the White House Chief Usher related to State Visits? What other events will you always involve in? I thought the word usher means to give others, perhaps the tourists visiting the White House directions and routes? Do you often meet with the President? Do you have an office in the West Wing? Pleas please please enlighten me...I'd been taking part in the Ask the White House online discussions since its launch in April. But I always failed to get my questions answered. Thanks a lot!! Have a good day and cheers!

Gary Walters
The Chief Usher is responsible for activities that occur in the Executive Residence and on the grounds, so our involvement begins with the Arrival Ceremony and the set up of stages and continues through the evening for the Dinner. Part of our staff, the Chefs, prepare the food; the butlers serve it; and we work closely with the Social Office on protocol to ensure that the President's guests have an enjoyable evening.

Peter, from New York, New York writes:
Does your job require you to be in the office before the President gets in - and stay until he retires for the evening? Can you walk us through an average day?

Gary Walters
The residence staff is responsible for the cleanliness of the President's office. The ushers staff has people in the office before the President arrives and after he retires for the day. There is really no average day. We follow the activities of the President and the First Lady.

Hannah, from Greenville, SC writes:
How far in advance do the chefs start preparing the food? Will they be cooking all weekend long? Also, is there a butler at the White House? Who opens the door for all the guests?

Gary Walters
The chefs plan the menus as soon as we receive information that a dinner is on the schedule, which could be a month or two in advance. And after the menu is approved by the First Lady, we actually begin to prepare the food a day or two early. Yes, there are seven butlers. One of whom is the maitre de. There are military door openers for official events.

Renee, from Marshall, KY writes:
Let's say a foreign leader requested Count Chocula cereal for an appetizer. Would you prepare it? Has that ever happened?

Gary Walters
Yes, it is our role to make the guests comfortable and provide for their needs. No, it hasn't happened but we'll be prepared.

Mark, from Santa Fe writes:
Do you recall each state visit you worked on? Was there a state dinner that received more media attention than others?

Gary Walters
Not individually but after 30 years there are some that are more memorable than others. Yes, in the Reagan administration, the first state dinner between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev.

Howard, from DC writes:
As the state visit begins Monday, what will you and your staff be doing this weekend?

Gary Walters
Well the chefs will be preparing the food. The butlers will be readying the service pieces; the gardeners will be preparing the gardens and the housekeeping staff will be cleaning the house. And additionally, this weekend we will also be taking care of an event that deals with Mrs. Bush's book fair which is being held at the Library of Congress and the White House.

Neal, from Brighton writes:
How many people work on a state dinner?

Gary Walters
It probably is around 120 which includes the butlers the chefs, and all the residence staff. And although we only have 94 on the residence staff, we need to bring in additional servers from the outside. These are people who have been involved in the White House for years.

Wang, from New YorkNew Jersey area writes:
Did one President have more state dinners than others?

Gary Walters
Obviously a President who has two terms has more dinners than others. I believe that President Reagan in recent history had more than others.

Ted, from Champaign, Illinois writes:
Do state dinners ever run late? How late may they run? And how long does it take to clean up after a state dinner?

Gary Walters
That really is the preference of the First Family as to how early or late state dinners conclude. In the Ford Administration, Mrs. Ford was a dancer and liked to dance after the state dinners until one or two in the morning. The current President dances less and dinners are usually over before midnight.

Jason, from East Lansing, Michigan writes:
Mr. Walters, I firt want to say I think you have done a great job as White House Chief Usher over the years. No my question. When planning a state visit, does it ever feel like there is simply too much to do? How do you get everything done? Thanks for your time and good luck with the visit.

Gary Walters
No, the staff has been doing this for many years as have I and we just need to get the information to allow us to conduct a State Visit and particularly make the President's guests feel comfortable.

Paula, from Prinsengracht writes:
Of all the days you've worked at the White House, do you have a favorite? And what was the most memorable day?

Gary Walters
Once again , I'd have to say that it was the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit at the White House because it was the beginning of the thawing of the Cold War. And we were lucky enough to be part of it.

aple, from norfolk, va writes:
do foreign leaders get to stay in a guest bedroom in the white house when they come to visit? do they get to stay in the lincoln bedroom?

Gary Walters
The President has a guest house across from the White House that is named Blair House. That is actually a combination of townhouses where the guests stay. The President could, if he wished, have guests stay in the Lincoln bedroom, but there usually is a tremendous amount of activity with a foreign visit, which also means a lot of people. This would be disruptive to the family activity in the home. Churchill stayed in the Queen's Bedroom during the Second World War, but as of recent they haven't.

Halson, from Fort Kearney writes:
During the course of a State Dinner, isn't there usually some kind of musicial entertainment? Who chooses the entertainment? Who is it for this State Dinner?

Gary Walters
Music is an important part of a State Visit. Music is present from the Arrival ceremony in the morning with the playing of national anthems and through the evening both when the guests arrive, during and after dinner. There is entertainment after dinner that is chosen by the President and the First Lady in conjunction with the Social Office.

Sue, from Wyoming writes:
Have any of the first families you've worked under, ever made any major changes in the daily running of the Presidential living quarters? If so, what were they?

Gary Walters
The residence staff changes to accommodate the activities of each First Family. The White House staff including the residence reflects the activities of the President, not the other way around.

Ron, from Danton writes:
Has there ever been shag carpet in the White House? I bet there was in the 70s.......

Gary Walters
Not in the 30 years that I've been here. And having been here since the 70s I can say that that is the case.

Alan, from Chicago writes:
Have you encountered Lincoln's ghost while you've worked at the White House?

Gary Walters
Not sure. There was an incident where a door closed in front of me without anyone around and with no explanation. It may have been Lincoln. That was about ten years ago and there have been other staff members who have had similar experiences.

Elizabeth, from Independence, Ohio writes:
When Planning the menu for a state visit, do you choose foods that are unique to the United States or the visiting country?? Thanks

Gary Walters
We do not try to duplicate a foreign visitors' cuisine. They can do it better than we can. The Presidency attempts to showcase the best of American foods and of course we are a melting pot so we have the opportunity to showcase numerous foods but they are from the United States.

Neil, from Tulsa writes:
What is Chef Roland's background? He seems to be a very gregarious and flamboyant chef. Is he fun?

Gary Walters
Roland Mesnier is a pastry chef by trade. he received his initial training in France, but soon after came to the U.S., worked in Bermuda, then at the Homestead in Virginia and was hired by the White House and has been here ever since. He has been here since the Carter Administration.

Yes, he is fun. And quite accomplished.

Thom, from Roswell, New Mexico writes:
Gary What was the first State Visit you worked on as Chief Usher? What do you recall from it?

Gary Walters
That was in 1976 for my first State Dinner in the Ford Administration. That was the bicentennial year. We did numerous State Visits on the anniversary of America in a tent in the Rose Garden. I don't remember my first state dinner as Chief Usher without looking in a file, but it was in the Reagan Administration.

Rich, from St. Louis, MO writes:
Mr. Walters Is the historic Presidential China ever used for functions? Do you have a favorite?

Gary Walters
Absolutely. Presidential China is for Presidential functions. Each First Lady has a choice of Chinas that are in our inventory. Truman, Roosevelt, Wilson, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton to choose from. And they use them frequently. All of them are my favorites.

Up until around 1900, the Presidents brought their own china and when they left they took it with them. It wasn't until later years that china was purchased by the government and remained property of the government. So we don't have much in the way of early Presidential china, mostly just the display pieces.

Wayne, from New Jersey writes:
Are you the guy that holds the umbrella for the President when it is raining?

Gary Walters
The answer is, if that is necessary, yes. And I've done it many, may times.

Jerry, from Chicago writes:
How do you establish protocol for visiting Heads of State? Is there a formal reference?

Gary Walters
Protocol is decided by the State Department and the information passed via the social office to the usher's office and yes there is a formal reference but that would be a question for the State Department.

John, from Michigan writes:
Mr. Walters, Can you please tell me if you are a Rolling Stones fan? Have any of the Stones ever been to the White House? Which one do you like best? I am a Jagger fan myself. Thanks, John

Gary Walters
I enjoy all kinds of music. Certainly a few years ago I was more of a Rolling Stones fan than I am now.

Not to my knowledge, but if they were it would have been as a tourist.

I know for a fact that the Stones have not played for a State Dinner.

Ben, from Seattle writes:
What does a usual day entail for the White House Usher? How many Ushers have there been?

Gary Walters
Based on the President's and First Lady's schedule, I try to gather information and represent it to the staff in such a way that we are able to perform whatever duties we need to do.

Sammy, from Portland writes:
Is being usher sort of like being the President's butler?

Gary Walters
No, the butlers take care of food and beverage service for the President and the Usher is responsible for making sure that the butlers serve the President.

Johnson, from Johnson City writes:
How is it different in the White House when there are children that live in the White House at the time?

Gary Walters
Children make the White House come alive. They add an aspect of fun and spontaneity that is not normally present in such a formal residence. During my years, I've had the opportunity to watch a number of the children grow. Susan Ford's junior prom in the East Room, weddings in the garden, Chelsea grow from a young girl to a young woman, former Bush grandchildren grow into wonderful young people. As I said, it brings the house alive.

Ken, from Polka Point writes:
Are you called in the middle of the night often? If so, what do you have to do?

Gary Walters
Infrequently, but occasionally. It may have anything to do with a plane that crashed into the White House a few years ago, to a loose cat on the South grounds.

Linda, from Miami writes:
Does the First Family do their own laundry, cooking or cleaning? Do they even have an option to do those sorts of things for themselves?

Gary Walters
They have the opportunity to, but their schedules are so busy that is why the residence staff exists. We attempt to make their lives somewhat easier by taking care of the everyday chores.

Steve, from Westchester writes:
What was your day like the day Nixon resigned? Do you still have colleagues working with you from those days?

Gary Walters
On that day, I was working as a unformed division officer of the Secret Service assigned to the control center and I watched things from afar. There are only a few of us left.

Lauren, from Biloxi, MS writes:
Have you read the books written by previous employees of the White House, such at Upstairs at the White House by J.B. West? Would you consider writing a book after retirement as you have a truly unique perspective on the lives of the Presidents and their families? The story about the Trumans breaking their bed in Blair House after Margaret moved out is a hoot!

Gary Walters
Yes, I've read Mr. West's book. I read it before I joined the Ushers staff. Yet to be determined about writing a book.

amy, from adison, wisconsin writes:
can the President grab a ham sandwich out of the refridgerator if he's hungry?

Gary Walters
The chefs keep the refrigerators stocked with those things that the President and First Family enjoy and if there was ham available, he could actually make himself a ham sandwich if he wanted to.

Hannah, from Australia writes:
What is the most suprising thing you have seen doing your job at the White House?

Gary Walters
The media attention. Presidents and their First Families can't do anything without enormous media attention. And at times, I believe it becomes intrusive into their personal lives.

Cody, from Anchorage, Alaska writes:
Gary, if you weren't White House Chief Usher, where do you think you'd be today?

Gary Walters
I've been at the White House for so long, it is almost impossible to answer this one. History is hard to replace and I've had the opportunity to see a great deal.

Laura, from Iowa writes:
What is your job as White House Chief Usher?

Gary Walters
I don't carry a flashlight. The Chief Usher's responsibility is the operation of the Executive Residence and all the activities that take place in the residence and on the grounds. And first and foremost is the privacy of the First Family.

Jurgen, from The Netherlands writes:
Thank you for reading my question. My questions is how is life in The White House and can you remember your first day. And how you felt then? I think President Bush going a good job, i support him.

Gary Walters
I assume you are asking about family life at the White House. We look each day at the First Family and look for a smile on their face. And hopefully we find that smile and know that we are doing things appropriately.

Maggi, from Michigan writes:
Gary, Thanks for taking questions today! I'm sure you have met so many interesting individuals over the years at the White House--including of course, Presidents and First Ladies. Do you keep in touch with past administrative officials or indiviudals you have met while working at the White House? Or do you have to solely concentrate on the current administration? Thank you!

Gary Walters
We do have contact with former First Family members and administration officials. Obviously in this administration there are many faces and names and friends from the former Bush administration and for me it is most fun to see grandchildren from the Bush 41 administration now coming back to their Uncle’s house for brief visits.

When President Ford had his 90th birthday party hosted by the President and Mrs. Bush, we had an opportunity to visit with him and his family members and some of their staff.

Dakota, from Alabama writes:
how many rooms are in the white house?

Gary Walters
Since the renovation in 1952, there are now 132 rooms in the White House.

Evan, from Laurens SC writes:
how many people will the dining room Seat?

Gary Walters
For a State Dinner, the room is configured with 13 five foot round tables with 10 persons at each table for a total of 130. On occasion, we have increased the number by adding two six foot tables as replacement for the five-footers, giving us an additional four seats for a total of 134.

Stephanie, from Rockford,Illinois writes:
I am quite shocked. First Mrs.Bush went on a 5 day trip to Europe,I would be worn out in several days I hear that she is going to be putting on her annual book festival the Whitehouse and then next week there is a State Dinner! I know that all three of these events must have been planned carefully for months and months and with all this activity going on is the Whitehouse in a state of chaos right now?

Gary Walters
Controlled chaos. : ) With the help of good advance planning, we have the ability to handle multiple events and prepare appropriately.

Bryan, from Atlanta Georgia writes:
Is there ever a specialty requested by a foreign leader that the White House hasn't served before? If so, what do you do?

Gary Walters
If there is, I'm not aware of it. But our chefs are world-class and they would find out what it is and how to prepare it.

Gary Walters
Thank you all. Glad to get the questions and hope the answers were helpful and informative. I hope to answer some more at another time. Thanks again.

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