A White House 'fairy tale' with no happily ever after

March 25, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

As he left the White House, Christopher Beauregard Emery tried to remember every step.

"I wanted to take it all in," he says. "I knew I'd never be back. I wanted to go out with my head up."

The lifelong Howard County resident had just been fired from his $50,000-a-year job -- working behind the scenes for first families for eight years. The conditions of his dismissal demanded that he not tell anyone.

"I have so many friends in the Secret Service," he says. "I pretended like everything was normal. It was very difficult -- leaving so many friends I'll never see again" and not being able to say goodbye.

Three weeks later, Mr. Emery, 36, doesn't know the "real reason" he became the first White House usher fired in the 103-year history of the little-known office. Since 1891, only 18 ushers have served in the executive mansion.

Until news of Mr. Emery's firing became public, the five people in the usher's office -- the chief usher, an administrative usher and three assistant ushers -- labored in obscurity, attending to the personal needs of the first family and their guests.

"Our primary function is to make the White House feel like a home rather than a museum," he says. "I'm more fortunate than most people. For eight years, I got up every morning eager to go to work at a job I loved. It was a fairy tale."

For Mr. Emery, midnight came at noon March 3. "My boss called me into his office and told me the first family -- Mrs. Clinton -- was uncomfortable with me. Friday, the next day, would be my final day. I told him I would leave now rather than wait. He was visibly upset, saying he had not wanted to do this, that it was the hardest day of his career. I told him it was the hardest day of mine, too."

Later that afternoon, someone from the White House called Mr. Emery at home, telling him that if the press called, he was not to talk and was to refer all calls to Neel Lattimore, Hillary Rodham Clinton's press secretary.

For a week, no one called.

Mr. Emery, a Republican whose wife has been active in area politics, sat at home wondering "what on earth it could have been" that caused him to be fired.

"I had what I thought was an excellent relationship with the first family," he says. "I am a professional -- apolitical. This [a firing] has never happened in the history of the usher's office."

Not a 'steppingstone'

Indeed, when he applied for the usher job, he was told that "people do not use the office [of usher] as a steppingstone. They either die or retire here."

Although he would not comment on the specifics of Mr. Emery's firing, Mr. Lattimore says party politics had nothing to do with it.

"I had no idea he was Republican," Mr. Lattimore says. "No one has ever gone around here to find out" what people's party affiliation is. "It is not an issue."

"Whoever serves in the office [of usher] has to have the utmost sensitivity -- that is paramount. For us to discuss any specifics [of Mr. Emery's firing] is not appropriate, not fair. We've sought to be very fair, very respectful" of Mr. Emery.

To think of the usher job or any other household employment at the White House in terms of a career is unrealistic, Mr. Lattimore says. Although the 89-member staff of butlers, calligraphers, carpenters, chefs, cooks, curators, doormen, electricians, florists, gardeners, maids, painters, plumbers and ushers are not presidential appointees, all "serve at the pleasure of the president," he says.

Things change when new first families move into the White House, Mr. Lattimore says, such as the current restructuring of the usher's office. "We had 63,352 people at White House events last year," up from 17,531 the last year of the Bush administration, he says.

An usher at Blair House, a guest house for heads of state across the street from the White House, has been brought in to help and has replaced Mr. Emery, at least until August, Mr. Lattimore says.

Gail Bates and William Thies, area Republican leaders who hold politically appointed jobs in the Howard County government, say the thing they found surprising about Mr. Emery's firing was that it occurred so far into the Clinton presidency.

Ms. Bates and Mr. Thies know Mr. Emery socially, but they say he has never talked to them about his work at the White House. They, like many other Howard County Republicans, assumed his job was political.

Calls to Mrs. Bush

Mr. Emery is on the payroll through April 4 and was given eight weeks' severance pay after that. His firing became public when a Washington Post reporter called to ask him for a comment about assertions by Mrs. Clinton's office that he was fired because of two phone conversations he had with former first lady Barbara Bush.

"That did it," he says. "I couldn't keep silent [with the press] after they brought her into it."

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