Pulling an Overnighter in Bush White House
There is a story--not apocryphal--about the night in January 1967 when George and Barbara Bush’s furniture arrived in Washington from Houston.
A snowstorm was in progress as the moving van pulled up at the Bushes’ Hillbrook Lane home shortly before midnight. The movers managed to unload the mattresses and bedding but not much more before the Bushes called a halt, invited them to spend the night and sent everybody off to bed.
Nobody remembers the movers’ names, but they surely rank first among equals in that exclusive group of Bush insiders on social Washington’s much coveted A-list. Twenty-two years later, when invitations to dinner or a movie at the White House are as common as a Washington rumor, overnighting with the Bushes is the new measure of status. Only a select few, toothbrush and pajamas in hand, make the cut.
They’re not necessarily famous or rich or even powerful, though many are all three. Most are family members or Bush friends--usually old friends, occasionally new friends, but always loyal friends. Friends such as Kentucky horse breeder Will Farish, Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, Pennzoil executive committee chairman Baine Kerr, fellow Yale Skull and Bonesman Thomas W. Moseley, and childhood friend FitzGerald Bemiss--to name a few.
Were there such a thing as an A-plus list, theirs would be among the names on it, for they, not kings or presidents, have been sleeping royally in the Queen’s and Lincoln bedrooms during the seven months the Bushes have been living in the White House. And if those second-floor bedrooms were filled, they moved up to the third-floor family quarters.
“It’s a storybook experience,” confirms Shirley Pettis, the former California representative who was a Bush neighbor here for 10 years. The Bushes invited Pettis and her husband, Ben Roberson, to stay with them during a trip to Washington in May. Shown to the Queen’s Bedroom, where five queens have slept in Andrew Jackson’s handsome four-poster bed, they were overwhelmed by the historic surroundings.
“Every place you turn there is a sense of your forebears,” says Pettis, equally impressed by how thoroughly her hostess had done her research. “Bar makes you feel you must know everything about this wonderful house, and because she knows every piece and can tell its story, the whole floor comes alive.”
Most Gracious Staff
Pampered by what Pettis describes as one of the world’s most gracious household staffs, guests find all the amenities of a luxury hotel--and then some. There are heavy terry-cloth robes in the bathrooms, crisp white stationery engraved with “The President’s House” on the desks, bouquets of fresh flowers everywhere and the best security system in the world.
Guests also are faced with such big decisions as whether to unpack their own bags or let the staff do it; what to order for breakfast (menu cards are left in their rooms each evening), and where to eat it--in their rooms or the East Sitting Hall. Pettis and her husband chose the latter and were enjoying the morning sun when who should come over to join them for a cup of tea but the President himself.
“He came romping down the hall. Fortunately, I was wearing my prettiest peignoir,” says an amused Pettis, who remembers that same spontaneous nature from when she and the late California representative Jerry Pettis lived next door to another freshman congressman, then-Texas Rep. George Bush, on Palisade Lane.
There are tales of other unexpected encounters. One house guest, awakened by gentle but persistent tapping on the door, heard Bush outside inquiring, “Is anybody up in there?” Another said it wasn’t unusual for the President to casually warn that he was taking someone through the room “so make sure you don’t have anything sitting around.”
Even if for only a night or two, living amid history takes some getting used to. Jack Steele of Houston, longtime Bush friend and a confessed Walter Mitty-type at heart, says he had trouble sleeping his first night in the Lincoln Bedroom so he stayed up looking at the Washington Monument and writing notes at the desk where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
He isn’t the only one who’s had trouble sleeping. Houston friends David and Ann Peake were put up in the Queen’s Bedroom, where the original copy of “The Star Spangled Banner” hangs on one wall. In the morning, Peake--a friend of Barbara Bush from her childhood in Rye, N.Y.--asked his wife--a history buff--if she’d slept well. “Not particularly,” she replied. “What a waste of time!”
Some guests--like the Peakes and Baine and Mildred Kerr--have been invited to spend the night after a state dinner. Sadruddin Aga Khan, a former United Nations official and tennis friend to whom Bush turned recently in the current hostage crisis, stayed the night that Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was an official visitor in June. Invited to stay after other state dinners were country singer Crystal Gayle; Steve Fisher, coach of the national college basketball champion University of Michigan Wolverines; and Bush cousins John and Shelley Jansing of New York.
Another recent guest was New York socialite Mildred Hilson, the Bushes’ Waldorf Towers neighbor when George Bush was ambassador to the United Nations in the early ‘70s. Barbara Bush’s favorite interior designer, Mark Hampton of New York, has stayed, too. So have all the Bushes’ children and grandchildren, most of the Bushes’ siblings, and many of their nieces and nephews.
The Bushes are similarly generous with their invitations to Camp David. Their firstborn, George Walker Bush, and his wife, Laura, up from Texas for the Texas Rangers’ three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles, and Bush cousins Craig, Debbie and Walker Stapleton, down from Connecticut, spent last weekend with the Bushes there.
Cabinet members and their spouses, and some key presidential aides, have been weekend guests. Some non-family guests, such as Jack Steele, are also twofers--welcome at both the White House and the Catoctin Mountains retreat. Steele describes that setting as “glorious--we walked in the woods and that night sat with our feet up and watched a movie.”
For the unathletic, the pace is relaxed; for others, it’s highly competitive, as when Bush invited Pam Shriver and a group for a recent weekend of tennis. Bush also likes “wally ball,” a corrupted version of volleyball played on a squash court. Even before Marine One, the presidential helicopter, touches ground, Bush, sometimes with his grandchildren in tow, starts marshaling the troops to suit up and report for jogging.
The White House, by contrast, is a bit more formal. Everyone is on best behavior, and those who aren’t can expect a refresher course. At dinner time recently when the First Lady realized that her twin granddaughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush (George W. and Laura Bush’s children), were not at the table, she asked the butler if he knew where they were. In the bowling alley, he informed her, waiting to be served. They didn’t wait much longer. Barbara Bush ordered them back to the family quarters by sending word that Bush grandchildren do not eat in the bowling alley, they eat with the family in the dining room. She also warned the White House staff to beware of young charm artists.
There are also rules at the family’s Walker’s Point compound in Kennebunkport, but, according to Barbara Bush, no one keeps them. She has posted notes such as: “Picnics should be planned early for the beach,” and “Please pick up wet towels and use them twice,” and “Please be down for breakfast between 7 and 9 or no breakfast.”
“You’re so absorbed into their activities that you don’t think of yourself as a visitor because you become an instant member of the family,” says former Bush spokesman Pete Roussel, who has stayed at Walker’s Point several times.
Decades of Guests
The Bushes have been putting up house guests in their 15-room, seven-bath, stone-and-shingle “cottage” there for almost a decade. Before that, they put them up at the house they owned across the road. Bush’s family has been spending summers at Kennebunkport since the 1880s and at Walker’s Point since 1902, when it was bought by the President’s grandfather. Dorothy Walker Bush, the President’s mother, still has a cottage within the compound.
It is George Bush’s favorite place on earth--"politics be damned,” he says fearlessly--and perhaps the most coveted overnight of all. French President Francois Mitterrand has already spent the night--in a rented king-size bed for which Barbara Bush herself brought in the sheets, according to the furniture store owner who supplied it.
At the moment, the doorstep is being swept in preparation for an an Aug. 24 overnight visit by Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlueter and his wife, Anne Marie Vessel, and an Aug. 30 overnight visit by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, and their children, Caroline, 15; Benedict, 13; Mark, 10, and Nicholas, 3.
The Schlueter and Mulroney visits raise prospects for yet another A-plus list category, this one of world leaders whom Bush might single out for more intimate get-togethers than are possible during the highly ceremonial state and official visits.
“You can avoid misunderstandings if you can go one-on-one in a relaxed, personal way,” Bush has said.
The Schlueters are stopping on their way to Mexico, where they’re making an official visit. Schlueter and Bush have been friendly since they met in 1982, and when the new Danish ambassador mentioned the Mexico trip as he was presenting his credentials at the White House earlier this month, Bush extended the invitation on the spot. The Mulroney invitation grew out of an expansive moment in Paris last month when the company-loving President invited his Canadian neighbor to bring the wife and kids down from Ottawa for a few days in August.
In a mood of similar unsuppressed hospitality at the Tokyo funeral of Emperor Hirohito in February, Bush invited France’s Mitterrand and his wife, Danielle, to be overnight house guests. The Mitterrands came in May on their way to Boston, where honorary degrees awaited both Mitterrand and Bush at Boston University.
Walker’s Point guests can expect a rigorous workout. Mitterrand, not usually identified with informality or sports, nonedheless brought along his corduroys, plaid shirt and hiking boots for a walk with his host in the mosquito- and black-fly-infested woods nearby. When Bush invited him to take a spin in his high-speed Cigarette boat, Mitterrand, who gets seasick, declined and headed indoors for a rest.
Schlueter plays some tennis and likes to bike, and Mulroney is the All-Canadian Boy type who reportedly likes horseshoes, boating, fishing, tennis (he met his wife at a Montreal tennis club) and just about any other sport, except golf, that Bush might propose.
Mulroney is also an all-star first baseman, as he proved earlier this summer when he was named “most valuable player” during a charity softball appearance in Vancouver.
Since Bush is no slouch with the horsehide himself, a pickup game featuring Bush and Mulroney on opposing teams would surprise no one at all.