Making The White House Work

October 16, 1994|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Writer

History may remember President Johnson for his Great Society programs and the Vietnam War, but it's LBJ's shower that stands out in Howard Arrington's memory.

From the time Johnson took office in 1963 until he left the White House five years later, the president's quest for a perfect shower -- and Mr. Arrington's heroic but frustrating efforts to provide him one -- united the two men in a Chaplinesque comedy.

The hot water wasn't hot enough. The cold wasn't cold enough. The pressure was too weak, the shower head wasn't right. No matter what he did, the chief White House plumber couldn't satisfy Johnson.

One day, the president's valet called with ominous news, recalls Mr. Arrington, who lives in Mayo near Annapolis and is a star of a humorous new documentary film, "Workers at the White House."

"When the president got out of his shower this morning, he had green pipe dope all over his back," the valet said. "I didn't say a word to him."

Fortunately for Mr. Arrington, Johnson never saw the colored putty that plumbers had applied to pipe threads during yet another attempt to improve the shower. The valet phoned Johnson's masseur at the White House, warning, "When the president comes in, don't ask him what's all this stuff on his back. Just take . . . alcohol or something and just kind of clean him up."

Mr. Arrington, who retired in 1979 after 34 years at the White House, is one of several former White House workers who reminisce in the 30-minute film produced by the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies. Narrated by historian David McCullough and directed by Smithsonian folklorist Marjorie A. Hunt, the film is part of an exhibit on White House workers at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives in Washington.

The exhibit provides a revealing, sometimes funny glimpse of life behind the White House walls. But don't expect lurid stories about Marilyn Monroe visiting John F. Kennedy. In a city of leakers, the White House staff keeps secrets better than the Mafia.

The slightest violation of the first family's privacy can cost a worker a job. This year a White House usher, a Howard County man who tended to the personal needs of the Clinton family, was fired for making phone calls to Barbara Bush.

Even former staffers are careful to protect the privacy and reputations of the presidents they served. Asked about Monroe, Mr. Arrington will say only: "She may have been there, but I never saw it."

Though they skirt scandal, the former workers are a historian's best friend, brimming with anecdotes about the quirks and foibles of presidents, their families and visiting world leaders and celebrities.

Any biographer of Winston Churchill would want to hear Alonzo Fields, former chief butler and maitre d' at the White House, describe his encounter with the hard-drinking British leader, a frequent overnight guest.

Churchill started the day with sherry, switched to scotch at lunch, drank champagne at dinner, then went to his quarters to work, a bottle of French brandy at hand and Fields on call. At 1:30 a.m., the prime minister asked for another bottle, then said, "I'm not too sure about you. . . . I need somebody I can depend on."

When the puzzled Fields asked how he might serve, Churchill responded, "If ever I am accused of being a teetotaler, I want you to come to my defense."

"And I replied to the prime minister," Fields says in the film, a smile lighting his face, 'I will defend you to the last drop.' " Stories like these grow out of the daily contact that the first family and visitors have with the 90 people on the permanent household staff, including butlers, chefs, maids, ushers, doormen, florists, engineers, electricians, carpenters, calligraphers and plumbers.

The staff and first families often forge lasting bonds. Eugene Allen, who rose from pantryman to chief butler and maitre d', was invited back to the White House by the Reagans after he retired -- as a guest at a black-tie state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Taking part in history

Many White House workers accumulate impressive collections of photographs of themselves with the first family and other mementos. Mr. Arrington treasures the invitation he received from the Kennedy family to attend services for the slain president at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington.

"All these heads of state" at the funeral, says Mr. Arrington, 67, in the accent of his native Roanoke, Va., and "here was a little old plumber from the White House."

He also has neckties given him by President Eisenhower. His wife, Margaret, has a small bottle of Le Galion perfume she received from Mamie Eisenhower. On their wall hangs a photo of a radiantly young Lynda Bird Johnson, daughter of LBJ, and Chuck Robb, now a Democratic senator from Virginia, before they were married. It's inscribed to Mr. Arrington, "Who stopped all the noises in the bathtub."

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