White House Florist Ronn Payne remembers one day during the Clinton presidency when he was coming up the service elevator with a cart to pick up old floral arrangements and saw two butlers gathered outside the West Sitting Hall listening in as the Clintons argued viciously with each other. The butlers motioned him over and put their fingers to their lips, telling him to be quiet. All of a sudden he heard the first lady bellow “goddamn bastard!” at the president—and then he heard someone throw a heavy object across the room. The rumor among the staff was that she threw a lamp. The butlers, Payne said, were told to clean up the mess. In an interview with Barbara Walters, Mrs. Clinton made light of the story, which had made its way into the gossip columns. “I have a pretty good arm,” she said. “If I’d thrown a lamp at somebody, I think you would have known about it.”
Payne wasn’t surprised at the outburst. “You heard so much foul language” in the Clinton White House, he said. “When you’re somebody’s domestic, you know what’s going on.”
As a White House reporter for Bloomberg News, I traveled around the world on Air Force One and on Air Force Two—filing reports from Mongolia, Japan, Poland, France, Portugal, China and Colombia—but the most fascinating story turned out to be right in front of me every day: the men and women who take care of the first family, who share a fierce loyalty to the institution of the American presidency.
In the more than 100 interviews with current and former White House staffers, senior advisers, and former first ladies and their children I conducted for my new book, The Residence, I had an unprecedented look at what it’s like for those who devote their lives to caring for the first family.
It wasn’t always easy to get them to open up to me; most recent and current residence workers follow a long-established code of ethics that values discretion and the protection of the first family’s privacy above all else. But after lunches and coffees, and hours spent on living room couches, these staffers eventually did share with me many of their personal memories, from small acts of kindness to episodes of anger and despair, from personal quirks and foibles to intense rivalries and unlikely friendships—painting an extraordinary portrait of what it’s like to work in the most famous, and best protected house in the United States.
In November 1995, Clinton began an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old former White House intern. He had almost a dozen sexual encounters with her over the next year and a half, most of them in the Oval Office. Though the public did not learn about Monica Lewinsky until January 1998, some residence workers knew about the affair when it was still occurring. The butlers saw the president and Lewinsky in the family movie theater, and the two of them were seen together so frequently that the workers started letting one another know when they’d had a Lewinsky sighting. The butlers, who are closest to the family, zealously guard such secrets, but from time to time they share fragments of stories with their colleagues—because the information could be useful, or sometimes just to prove their access.
One household staffer, who asked not to be named, remembers standing in the main hallway behind the kitchen that was used by East Wing and West Wing aides. “That’s her—that’s the girlfriend,” a butler whispered, nudging her as Lewinsky walked by. “Yep, she’s the one. She was in the theater the other night.”
Hillary certainly knew, too. Nearly two decades later, many residence workers are still wary of discussing the fights they witnessed between the Clintons. But they all felt the general gloom that hung over the second and third floors as the Lewinsky saga dragged on throughout 1998.
The residence staff witnessed the fallout from the affair and the toll it took on Hillary Clinton, but West Wing aides had long suspected the kind of drama that was playing out on the second floor of the executive mansion. “She would have hit him with a frying pan if one had been handed to her,” said the first lady’s close friend and political adviser Susan Thomases in an interview with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia for their collection of oral histories documenting Bill Clinton’s presidency. “I don’t think she ever in her mind imagined leaving him or divorcing him.” (Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)
Betty Finney, now 78, started as a White House maid in 1993. She spent most of her time in the family’s private quarters and remembers well how things changed in those final years. “Things were definitely more tense. You just felt bad for the entire family and what they were going through,” she says. “You could feel the sadness. There wasn’t as much laughter.”
Florist Bob Scanlan was less guarded about the atmosphere: “It was like a morgue when you’d go up to the second floor. Mrs. Clinton was nowhere to be found.”
During the height of the drama, Hillary routinely missed afternoon appointments. The details of running the executive mansion, understandably, took a backseat to saving her husband’s presidency and their marriage. For three or four months in 1998, the president slept on a sofa in a private study attached to their bedroom on the second floor. Most of the women on the residence staff thought he got what he deserved.
Even Butler James Ramsey, a self-proclaimed ladies’ man, blushed when the subject came up. He said Clinton was his “buddy, but … come on now.” As usual, during the Lewinsky scandal Ramsey said he kept his “mouth shut.”
Some on the staff have said that Hillary knew about Lewinsky long before it came out, and that what really upset her was not the affair itself but its discovery and the media feeding frenzy that followed.
The first lady’s temper was notoriously short during those difficult months. Butler James Hall remembers serving coffee and tea in the Blue Room during a reception for a foreign leader. Suddenly, the first lady approached him while he was still standing behind the bar.
“You must have been staring into space!” she upbraided him. “ I had to take the prime minister’s wife’s cup. … She was finished and looking for some place to put it.” Hall was dumbfounded—other butlers were working the reception with trays collecting drinks, and his job was to serve the drinks—but he knew that defending himself would be pointless. Clinton complained to the Usher’s Office, and Hall wasn’t asked back for a month.
“Working there during the impeachment wasn’t bad,” said former storeroom manager Bill Hamilton, but he agreed that working with Mrs. Clinton in those difficult months was a challenge. “It was just so overwhelming for her and if you said something to her she’d snap,” Hamilton recalled, shaking his head. Still, he says that he loved working for the Clintons, and although he retired in 2013, he sometimes wishes he had stayed at the White House, knowing that Hillary Clinton might one day return as America’s first female president. He says he would love to work for her again, even after the tumult of her eight years in the residence.
He is entirely sympathetic toward the first lady in those darkest days. “It happened and she knew it happened and everybody was looking at her,” Hamilton said.
Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier said he wanted to help Hillary feel better in any way he could. Her favorite dessert was mocha cake, and at the height of the scandal, he recalls, “I made many, many mocha cakes. You better believe it,” he said, chuckling. In the late afternoons, Hillary would call the Pastry Shop. In a small, unassuming voice—a far cry from her usual strong, self-confident tone—she’d ask, “Roland, can I have a mocha cake tonight?”
One sunny weekend in August 1998, just before the president made his confession to the country, the first lady called Usher Worthington White with an unusual request.
“Worthington, I want to go to the pool but I don’t want to see anybody except you,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am, I understand,” he replied sympathetically.
White knew exactly what she meant. She did not want to see her Secret Service detail, she did not want to see anyone tending to the White House’s extensive grounds, and she certainly did not want to see anyone on a tour of the West Wing. “She wasn’t up for any of that,” he recalled. She just wanted a few hours of peace.
White told her he would need five minutes to clear the premises. He ran to find her lead Secret Service agent and told him they would have to work together to make it happen. And fast.
“It was a twenty-second conversation but I know what she meant. ‘If anybody sees her, or she sees anybody, I’m going to get fired, I know it,’” he told the agent. “‘And you probably will too.’”