Steeped with majesty and mystique, The White House awes and inspires even the most cynical citizen.
It is an icon of our culture, with each President adding to its legacy and history. Not only is the White House the living and entertaining quarters of the President of the United States, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is also where the President works. Over the course of our national history, only 42 families have occupied the White House. George Washington was our only President not to live there. With 55,000 square feet, it has 146 rooms.
Many of those rooms are offices or open to the public and stay relatively untouched administration to administration. However, the private areas for the First Family and the Oval Office, where the President works, are allowed decorating modifications to suit the presiding POTUS.
Having no inside knowledge of such things, we reached out to someone that does. Ann McCoy, Social Secretary to President Bill Clinton, agreed to sit down with us and give us the inside scoop on how the White House changes hands.
Like most people in public service, Ann never dreamed she would hold a position in an administration, but her life experiences cultivated in her the exact qualities she would need to become the perfect candidate for the job. Ann has an indomitable spirit and a quintessentially optimistic attitude. Her youthful thirst of knowledge, Pollyanna view of life, impeccable manners and gracious Southern charm make her company irresistible.
She began her career as a receptionist in the Lt. Governors’ office. She loved meeting the dignitaries that came through and was intrigued with the inside look into Arkansas politics the job accorded her.
She changed course and began a successful career in real estate. This gave her a more flexible work schedule allowing her to be involved in her children’s school and activities. In 1983, her daughter became a nanny for Chelsea Clinton. During this time Ann got to know the Clintons who noticed her innate ability to engage comfortably with guests from around the state and beyond.
Then, tragedy struck. Her youngest child, Read, lost his battle with cancer. Read passed away on Christmas Day in his mother’s arms.
“The Clintons' reached out to me and offered me a position as Administrator of the Governor’s Mansion. It was a life saver, really, I was so busy with my duties there, I was unable to succumb to the grief of losing a child. Then, when President Clinton was elected, I was asked to go to Washington as Social Secretary. I didn’t even know the job description. I just said ‘Yes!’,” Ann recalled.
It turns out that the Social Secretary’s office is responsible for all events that happen in the White House, from planning celebrations, State Dinners, greeting dignitaries and guests of the President and First Lady, to escorting special guests on tours.
Prior to Inauguration Day, all of the President-elect’s personal effects must be packed and moved to Washington D.C., but the actual transition of living quarters between the old and new President doesn’t happen until after the Oath of Office is taken. As the Inaugural parade moves down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of a tuned in America, there is a flurry of activity happening behind the scenes.
Ann recalls, “At the Governor’s mansion, I coordinated boxing up all of the President-elect’s family’s things. We labeled the boxes as to what room they belonged in once we got to Washington. After the President was sworn in, I arrived at the White House with 14 people to help with the move, only to learn that our moving vans were being scrutinized by Secret Service. Two hours later, after we were given a delightful and complete tour of the White House, we frantically unpacked boxes, laying out clothes for the President and First Lady to wear to the Ball that evening. It was coordinated chaos, but we did it!”
On the President’s first day in office the Social Office was responsible for four events. The day began by coordinating a tour of the White House for 900 people welcomed by the Clinton’s. Next on the agenda was a tour for 125 Band members whose plane was late and missed performing in the parade. After that President Clinton met with 200 Democratic National Committee members in the East Room, and that evening a reception was organized in the Dining room for 250 friends and family.
The last guest left around midnight. “The pace was set and it never slowed down for the next eight years,” exclaimed Ann.
When asked about White House facts the public may not know, she informed us that the East Wing has a theater and bomb shelter; that there is a carpentry and florist shop in the White House; that Nancy Reagan had a room converted into a small beauty shop; and that the Oval Office is redecorated for every President. The designers redesign the office from the drapes down to the custom made oval rug and the President selects the desk he will use for the next four years.
They also redecorate the private living quarters to suit the new President and First Lady. The quarters include a modest kitchen, a nice size den, living room, dining room, the President’s private office (that was once Abraham Lincoln’s oval office), a master suite and 2 children’s rooms. The third floor has guest bedrooms, a small workout room and an oval solarium, where the First Family gathers with friends.
“Did you know the President and the First Lady receive about 30,000 letters a day; that all of the windows in the White House are triple-X bulletproof. Over 100 Secret Service agents are assigned to protect the White House. Now, that’s not the President’s detail. They are there to protect the house itself,” Ann said.
When asked if she missed it, she said she wouldn’t give up the experience for anything, but she didn’t think she could ever summon the energy to do it again. Eight years of operating on adrenaline was enough for her. Her fondest memories were of the people she met. Of them she said, “You know, I have had the opportunity to meet and engage with so many interesting and high profile people in the world, but when they were at the White House, the majority of them are like most people who visit, realizing they are in the presence of living history in the most powerful house in the world, It can be humbling…”
All those that serve with an Administration, from the President to the family members of all the staff , have left their homes and moved to a place that is temporary and uncertain. No wonder this place evokes awe within us. All who serve have made a very brave move to do so.
“I don’t know that it is necessarily brave, but making the move from Little Rock to Washington D.C. to start a job that I truly didn’t know allowed me to have new outlook on life and I was able see my son, Read, as an angel watching over me instead of falling into a life of grief.”