"Imagine what it's like to fly first class on the best airline," says one Bush aide. "Well, think of one level better; now you're getting close to what White House travel is like." Bragging perhaps, but the sad truth is that he's right. And the perks don't just come at 20,000 feet; back on earth there's the White House Mess, the 29-car limo fleet, the health care benefits, the free gym, and more. How could this be, you ask? Didn't they clamp down on all those White House freebies back when they put the House bank out of business? Not a chance. Despite the podium pounding and the mea culpas from congressional and White House big wigs over perks, the dirty little secret on West Executive Drive is that as far as White House goodies go, it's business as usual.
And quite a business it is. The White House employs a staff of nearly 100 butlers, doormen, maids, drivers, chefs, waiters, "gift analyzers,'' florists (four of them), and calligraphers (five). Travel costs for the president and his staff come to more than $100 million annually. The total budget for White House expenses? About $150 million. The real cost of presidential perks, however, can't be measured in dollars, but by the attitude it engenders among the president's top aides. Eating lunch, for example, means a short walk down to the Mess where the waiter (who has been your personal waiter for the past two years) sits you down (at the table with an engraved pewter ingot that bears your name), and serves you a drink (which you didn't have to order because he already knows what you like). After that kind of treatment, you might just feel a little grander than the average person.
Of course, with the arrival of Bill Clinton, there's some hope that this may change. After all, central to his anointment was his ability to convince people that he does in fact empathize with the average American; that he's as likely to lunch at a Northeast McDonald's as at the West Wing Mess. But there's no guarantee that the Clintonires won't rely on the same arguments as have administrations before them to preserve their special status--namely that the perks make them more efficient and the freebies are no grander than those enjoyed by, say, business leaders or high priced lawyers.
That, of course, may be true, but it's also true that their private sector counterparts don't make policy for the rest of America. Which is why the issue of perks can't simply be dismissed, as it often is, as a matter of a few harmless goodies that make life just a little bit easier for hard working White House staffers. Consider the health care perk, which is arguably the most damaging of them all, as it can easily blind top policymakers to the urgency of the nation's problem. White House big shots not only automatically receive the very best of health insurance plans (for just $100 per month), but have access to some of the best doctors and most sophisticated medical facilities in the nation. The White House medical unit, led by the president's personal physician, is on call 24 hours a day to care for any medical emergencies that any White House brass or Cabinet members may encounter. And while the nation's first doctor and his staff won't offer regular checkups, the office does work as a referral service. "We'11 make sure you get into the best location at the best price," said President Bush's physician Dr. Burton Lee III. If such solicitous service were not a given at the presidential mansion, we might today be debating how to improve on our universal health care plan instead of still trying to create one.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress, although still clinging to some of its perks --such as free parking in and around the Capitol and at airports, amnesty from parking tickets in D.C., and limousine privileges--has at least cut out some of its freebies. Gone are the discount gym, car wash, and haircuts, free flowers, bargain gift shop, and House bank. It wouldn't hurt for the Clinton administration to pick up where Congress left off. No one, of course, wants our government leaders to go without health insurance or be forced to walk to lunch in the rain, but as Clinton's top aides find themselves drawn into the presidential bubble, one way they can keep their feet on the same ground as--and their ears attuned to the problems of---the rest of America, is to close the gap between the way the White House staff and the rest of us live.
And just what sacrifices would that entail? For one, it would mean making travel with the president a little less regal. Here's a sketch of what it's now like to be a part of the president's travelling entourage:
About the only strain is getting yourself and your bags to your White House office. Once there, a member of the trip crew will ferry your personal belongings to the plane. A limousine or helicopter will be waiting outside the White House to rush you to Andrews Air Force Base where you'll board Air Force One. Once in your seat (and every seat is first class caliber), you'll most likely be served---even though you didn't place an order for--your favorite drink in a crystal glass. "The stewards make it a point to know what each of us likes," explains one White House frequent traveller. "And from then on, the flow of food and service is endless"--which helps explain the $40,000 per hour cost of maintaining the plane. Perhaps you need to conduct some business? Secretarial support is at the ready to place a call or take a memo. "It's what I call 'low impact travel,'" explains one Bush aide. "High impact travel is lugging your bags to the airport, standing in line, and arguing when you can't get a seat. None of that here."
Once you've touched down, the presidential party is led to the waiting motorcade, which is where perk-mongering can get competitive. The goal is to land yourself a seat in one of the frontmost cars, known as the "secure package" the group of limos that carry the president, his most trusted advisors, their aides, and various other hangers-on. Why the pressure to get in (aside from the glee of inciting the envy of your co-workers)? The secure package takes you from the airport to the most convenient of disembarking points, perhaps a special entrance to the hotel. The rest of the president's court will be unceremoniously dropped off perhaps a few yards away from the hotel entrance and face the humiliation of hooting it to the lobby from the curb.
Once at the hotel, you can keep your Ramada Reward card in your wallet. Accommodations are almost always first class (the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills--at about $300 per night for a single room--and the Marriott in Century City--at about $200 per night--were two of Bush's West Coast favorites). Inside, staff escorts will be waiting to take you to your room. (In fact, during the trip, you'll never have to deal with anyone but federal employees.) No mad scramble to the check-in counter here. Your room is preselected and your bags (remember, the last we saw them was in the White House) are there waiting.
For those annoying cases when your escort forgets which room is yours, you're still in good shape. Staffers' names are written in calligraphy on cards placed on their room doors. And if you're worried about drawing a room with, say, the Simpsons next door, no sweat. Presidential parties don't reserve rooms, but floors. The big shots, such as the Bakers and Scowcrofts, will get suites while the rest will have to make do with singles. To soften the blow, however, each staffer will be greeted with a basket of fresh fruit and a cheery note from the manager.
But before taking a bite out of that mango, check the phone to see how you're doing in the White House pecking order. If you're a bigfoot, your phone will have already been rewired so that it is part of the White House system back in D.C. No need to trouble yourself hitting that nasty eight key to place a long distance call. But pick up the phone and get the hotel operator, and you'll know you're still not in the upper echelons of the White House staff.
And what's it like when it's time to leave the hotel? Consider the eight day, May 1989 presidential trip from D.C. to Rome, Brussels, Bonn, and London, which cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million to move and house 107 staffers (including, among others, an assortment of assistant press secretaries, scheduling secretaries, and personal aides to the First Lady). For one 15-minute drive down London's Downing Street to attend a reception hosted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a few dozen staffers were reined by a caravan of 18 vehicles. The first four held the president, a British dignitary, and secret service. The next held John Sununu, followed by cars carrying Marlin Fitzwater and James Baker. In the middle cars were Brent Scowcroft, Margaret Tutwiler, Andrew Card, and the White House chief of protocol. Then came various aides, empty follow-up vehicles, a camera car, police cars, ambulances and, last and least, the press van.
Eventually, of course, the entourage comes home, and while life isn't nearly as cushy, no one's griping about the comfort level at 1600 Pennsylvania. Perhaps the most coveted of White House perks is the right to dine in the White House Mess--which is to lunch what Steuben is to glass. "The beauty is not the room or the food," explains one Bush aide, "but the prestige. It's the ultimate invitation."
How so? Executive Mess rights are the precious privilege of about 30 of the president's top aides, including Cabinet secretaries, assistants and deputy assistants to the president. "Many will call, but few are chosen," explains one aide with a seat in the Mess. (It's called the Mess because it's operated by the Navy.) That seat entitles him to breakfast or lunch (no dinner is served there) in the tastefully appointed room--seven tables, wood paneled walls adorned with pictures of Navy carriers, upholstered seats---located in the White House basement.
Upon arriving for lunch at the Mess, you're greeted at the door by a Navy steward who, of course, knows your name and where you like to sit, which is likely to impress even the most cynical of guests. On the way over to the table, chances are good you'll pass by the president. While the meals are not extravagant, the food is top quality, similar to what you might find at a small, fine restaurant. The menu changes daily and there's always a fresh fish of the day, as well as an assortment of salads. (Thursday--Tex/Mex day--is especially popular, staffers eagerly volunteer, as is Friday--crab cake day.)
Of course, the food's not free, but none of those I talked to knew the price of the meals. Why not? Everything goes on a monthly tab. But, they assured me, the costs were about 25 percent cheaper than what you'd find in a comparable restaurant in the outside world.
For those who don't make it into the top 30, you can watch with envy, but in sufficient comfort, from the Staff Mess located next door. Hardly a booby prize, Staff Mess privileges are doled out to about 100 White House workers, mostly commissioned officers to the president. The main difference is basically prestige, as the kitchen is shared, but the walls are there so the big shots don't have to rub elbows with the lower echelons of the staff.
If you do decide to take your lunch---or any excursion-outside the compound, you can show off your special status by making use of the White House's limo service. Simply call down for a car and a Chrysler New Yorker (equipped with a car phone) will be at the ready to ferry you three blocks or 30 miles. For most staffers, the only place the cars won't take you is home. That perk, known as portal to portal, is reserved for Cabinet secretaries, deputy Cabinet secretaries, and any six aides the president chooses. In the past, portal to portal privileges have gone to the chief of staff, the chief economic advisor, the national security advisor, the budget director, and the chief of protocol.
Other goodies, such as free parking on West Executive Drive just outside the White House, certainly make life easier for the staff, but ultimately drive a wedge between the leaders and the led. White House biggies also have access to the president's private tennis court, located on the South Lawn. (It's a single, hard surface court that one staffer complained "is on a slant.") For rainy days, there's the private gym in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building, complete with weights, a tread mill, exercise bike, nautilus machines, sauna, jacuzzi, and shower. (The swimming pool, bowling alley, and movie theater are reserved only for the president, his family and guests.) And about 100 of the top staff can sign up to use the presidential box at the Kennedy Center, which seats up to twelve. (Use of this perk, however, was frowned upon in the Bush White House. "They made us jump through hoops to get them," groaned one aide.)
While the Bushies may have been forced to rely on some savvy to cash in the free tickets, it's a far cry from the attitude in the Carter White House, which marked the last time there was any attempt to keep a lid on the perks. Carter perhaps took too personal a role in restricting perks (as when he insisted that he personally monitor the list of who was using the White House tennis courts), but his heart was in the right place. When he closed down the Executive Mess (which Reagan later restored) and insisted that Kennedy Center tickets be issued only as rewards for exemplary work, he knew he was not only sending a signal to America that White House staff are no more special than the rest of us, but a message to his team not to forget whence they came.
Bill Clinton can't rely on Congress to send that message to his staff. (While there is currently a bill pending in Congress dealing with White House expenses, the furthest it goes is requiring the White House to disclose exactly how it spends its operating budget.) Only the president can set the tone.
If he doesn't, he'll be faced with the same kind of attitude expressed by one senior level Bush White House aide, who remarked that "It's not important to me that Brent Scowcroft knows the price of peanut butter, but it is important that he knows what's going on in Somalia." Scowcroft is, no doubt, a smart guy. There's no reason why he---or whoever fills his office in the White House--shouldn't know both.
Christopher Georges is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Elliott Beard and David Smyth.
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|Title Annotation:||White House perks|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1993|
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