White House social aides have front seat to history
President Gerald Ford, resplendent in white tie and tails, pressed his right hand onto the small of Ginger Rogers’s back and with his left gently guided her onto the marble dance floor. Ford, who loved to dance, delighted in gliding across the Grand Foyer of the White House with the blond actress, an icon of American dance and film.
It was late in the evening of Oct. 2, 1975, and the president and first lady Betty Ford were bringing to a close the state dinner they had hosted in honor of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito. After the post-dinner entertainment — pianist Van Cliburn — Hirohito and Empress Nagako had departed. But the Fords remained and danced to American and Japanese music played by the Howard Devron Orchestra.
Rogers was without an escort that evening, so Betty Ford’s staff had asked a White House social aide, Coast Guard Lt. John Gaughan, to ensure that Rogers always remained engaged. Seeing Rogers alone after dancing with the president, Gaughan followed his orders and asked her to dance. Off they went, with Gaughan thinking of Rogers, Fred Astaire and their many films.
“You have wonderful rhythm, young man,” Rogers said after the music ended, “but your body seems awfully stiff.”
“Ma’am,” Gaughan replied, “that’s because of the duct tape that I wrapped around my stomach to look trimmer in my dress uniform.”
Rogers threw her head back and laughed. She leaned forward and whispered: “I know the feeling. We used to Scotch-tape our butt cheeks so our dresses wouldn’t crease.”
Young military officers in dress uniforms and formal aiguillettes have been fixtures at presidential parties for more than a century. Their role is to manage the thousands of guests who attend social events throughout the year in the Executive Mansion. The social aides will be out in force Tuesday when President Obama hosts a state dinner for French President François Hollande.
But social aides are to be seen, not heard. So few people beyond White House guests appreciate the challenges these officers face in this glamorous yet demanding job. Even fewer people know that social aides are volunteers who have day jobs.
“Our men and women in uniform never cease to amaze me, and those serving as social aides are no exception,” Michelle Obama said in a statement. “These service members make sure everyone who enters through the doors of the White House knows that this is truly the People’s House and feels right at home.”
The social aide program dates to 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt enlarged the White House and began entertaining with unprecedented gusto. First lady Edith Roosevelt took control of the social calendar and hired the first White House social secretary, Isabella Hagner. Edith and Isabella found it difficult to handle large numbers of guests with servants and police officers, so they appealed to Teddy. Roosevelt recruited a handful of local military officers to help out once or twice a week.
Only male officers could serve as social aides until 1969, when President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon approved using women.
Today, Max Doebler, the ceremonies coordinator in the White House Military Office, oversees the social aide program, which has 40 to 45 volunteers. He has a program manager, an experienced social aide, in each of the five services (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard) who recruits and conducts initial interviews. Candidates must be single, in the grade of major/lieutenant commander or belowand work in a job that is flexible enough to allow helping with an afternoon tea.
After an interview with Doebler, each candidate undergoes a lengthy background investigation. Most aides stay only a couple of years, leaving because they transfer out of Washington or marry. They receive no extra pay beyond their military salary.
“I send weekly summaries of future events to all of the social aides, and that list identifies the number of required aides from each service,” Doebler says.
He said each social aide works an average of two to four events a month, except in December when the number triples. They generally park on the Ellipse and change uniforms in an East Wing room. In the good old days, they parked on the North Lawn driveway, the ultimate parking perk.
State dinners are among the most demanding of White House events for social aides.
The dinner has long featured a ruffles-and-flourishes entrance by the president and first lady and the honored guests, a protocol-driven receiving line, sumptuous meal, after-dinner entertainment and dancing with the stars of international affairs. The number of guests has ranged from a mere 90 to President Bill Clinton’s giant soirees in South Lawn tents with 700.
During many administrations, social aides have danced with guests. At President Lyndon Johnson’s dinner for Great Britain’s Princess Margaret, aide Alan Merten — now president emeritus of George Mason University — confidently approached the guest of honor. “Your highness, would you like to dance?”
“Yes, I’d love to!”
Army aide Christian Hoff danced with actress Goldie Hawn at a Clinton state dinner. “I was really nervous, but it was a blast,” Hoff recalled. “It seemed like an hour but was probably two minutes.”
Julie Dean, an Army aide for Ford and President Jimmy Carter, said female aides were allowed to dance with guests if asked. “Cary Grant and Omar Sharif were my favorites,” she said.
But late-evening dancing has provided many unexpected turns. Dean recalled a state dinner at which Elizabeth Taylor, Sen. John Warner’s date and future wife, aggravated a previous leg injury. “I helped her into the elevator and took her downstairs to Dr. Lukash’s office,” Dean said. Rear Adm. William Lukash was Ford’s physician. “I opened his office door and said, ‘Dr. Lukash, have I got a leg for you.’ ”
At a Johnson dinner, Henry Ford II’s wife, Cristina, danced her way out of the top of her strapless gown. While Merten was discreet in his description, Bess Abell, Johnson’s social secretary, gave an unvarnished take: “After dinner, Mrs. Ford was dancing with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Fowler. They were doing some energetic dance, and her little puppies popped out of the top of her dress.”
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis suffered a zipper problem with her strapless dress at a George W. Bush dinner. She retreated to the usher’s office, where Coast Guard social aide Alex Joves delicately held up the front of Curtis’s dress, while another aide fixed the fastener in back.
Announcing guests always has been a job for smooth-talking aides. Former Coast Guard aide Chris Hollingshead related two stories about his colleagues who were on microphone duty.
During a Bush dinner, an announcing aide asked comedian and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movie star Chevy Chase how he would like to be introduced. Chase, with his trademark smirk, said, “Clark W. Griswold.”
At another Bush event, the announcing aide simply handed the microphone to the deep-voiced actor James Earl Jones and said, “Mr. Jones, the other guests would love to hear you introduce yourself.”
Those social aides whose assignments overlapped administrations had to adapt to different presidential entertainment styles. The Nixon and Ford social aides ate a full-course meal in the Navy Mess while guests dined upstairs. But Carter’s staff served cold cuts to the aides. Clinton would party until after midnight, but according to Christian Hoff, Bush would dance once and go upstairs. Clinton was notoriously late to events, but his successor was always on time.
Nixon seemed awkward on the dance floor, while Johnson thoroughly enjoyed himself. According to his daughter Lynda, Johnson didn’t want to dance too long with one partner. “He wanted to give as many guests as possible the chance to dance with the president at the White House,” she told me recently. Her husband, Chuck Robb, a Marine social aide who married the boss’s daughter, explained Johnson’s maneuver: “He would give a sign with his right hand to one of the aides. The officer would then cut in on the president. It looked like a terrible etiquette breach, but we all knew the drill.”
President Obama hosted the annual Medal of Freedom award ceremony Nov. 20, and it was chance to observe social aides manage a crowd. When the Obamas entered the East Room at 11 a.m., social aides had assembled the 16 awardees and a room full of guests for the “Hail to the Chief” moment. The aides had been at work for a while.
At 9:45 a.m., 16 social aides had met in the East Reception Room to go over the ceremony’s details. “We are expecting 220 guests today, including 16 members of Congress,” announced Air Force aide Maj. Stephenie Williams, the officer in charge at the event. “The doors open at 10:00, a reception in the Cross Hall starts at 10:15, and seating in the East Room begins at 10:40. We expect the Vice POTUS and Dr. Biden at 10:55, with POTUS and FLOTUS entering at 11:00.
“After the awards ceremony, we have 33 clicks scheduled in the Blue Room. We have a sequence for those, but it’s more important to keep the photo line moving. If an awardee and his or her family are grouped and ready for the POTUS photo op, it’s better to bring them to POTUS out of order rather than delaying the line.”
Friends and family members of the Medal of Freedom recipients filed through the East Wing Entrance between 10 and 10:45 a.m. Social aides greeted them at every corner.
“Good morning! Welcome to the White House,” said Air Force Capt. Joshua Needham, a well-scrubbed officer with a ramrod posture.
“We have a coat check provided down the East Colonnade for your convenience,” he said.
“They are the first people the guests see, beyond the Secret Service,” White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard told me. “They are great at helping visitors feel welcome.”
Halfway along the glassed-in colonnade, Coast Guard Lt. John Vasilarakis helped guests hand their coats to attendants, then asked the folks to continue on to the Center Hall of the Residence’s ground floor.
Needham and Vasilarakis had simple jobs by design — they are rookie social aides. There is continuous turnover among the officers, and the “new guys” work ground-floor assignments. Derrick Williams, a former senior Army social aide to Clinton and George W. Bush, described his approach for beginners: “I knew they would make mistakes, so I kept them as far away from the president as possible.”
Regardless of a social aide’s experience, each can help a visitor to the White House. “First-time guests are in awe of everything they see,” explained Marine Capt. Chris Biello, an Obama social aide. “They are all nervous, even the celebrities. You can see it on their faces.”
At 10:40 a.m., Army Capt. Laura Keenan, the lead seating aide, opened the doors to the East Room. She had assigned Navy Lt. Brian Higgins to stand in the center aisle separating two banks of chairs and identify those with reserved seats. Keenan personally handled the family of awardee Bill Clinton and members of Congress. “The crowd quickly outnumbered the aides,” Keenan said, “so we tried to get everyone seated as soon as possible.”
At the designated time, the medal recipients entered and took their seats on the dais, at least most of them. Clinton worked the room as if he were still on the campaign trail, and Oprah Winfrey mingled and cast her smile in all directions.
After the ceremony, Obama walked through a short cordon of social aides to the Blue Room for photo ops. The plan called for three photo sessions: all 16 awardees with the Obamas, each recipient with the first couple, and each recipient with his or her family and the Obamas.
Three “introducing” aides — Keenan, Coast Guard Lt. Stephanie Young and Navy Lt. Patrick Whitmore — took turns escorting guests into the Blue Room. “One of my roles was to perform introductions for the award recipients and their guests to the president and first lady,” Young said.
Each group then smiled into a bank of lights while White House photographer Pete Souza and an assistant accomplished the requisite “clicks.” The “pull-off” aide, Navy Lt. John Thomas, then directed the guests into the Red Room and beyond.
“Aides interact directly with high-profile guests who typically arrive without accompanying staff or assistants,” Whitmore said. “Away from cameras and supporting cast, the most remarkable thing I’ve learned about these guests — ambassadors, members of the Cabinet, sports stars or honorees — is that they are all, ultimately, still just people.”
The Obamas left after the photo sessions, and the guests enjoyed light snacks and drinks. At 2 p.m., social aides gently started clearing the room.“I like to talk with people and then begin to walk slowly toward the exit,” Biello explained. “Once you get one person walking, the others will follow.”
Camaraderie among the social aides is strong, built on both their intense shared experiences and after-hours partying. Throughout the Clinton, Bush and Obama years, social aides often repaired to nearby Old Ebbitt Grill after a White House event. They have enjoyed many a close-down-the-bar celebration.
Once women became social aides, the camaraderie took on a new dimension. At least 15 social aide couples have married since the early 1970s. In 2003, for example, Lt. Cmdr. Hollingshead married Air Force Maj. Bebe Duggan in the White House Blue Room.
Current and former social aides stay connected through the Society of White House Military Aides, which has more than 700 members. They reminisce about fun, favorite celebrities and a spectacular workplace. But one facet of their experience is paramount: the impact on their careers.
Four Johnson aides — Merten, Brian Lamb, Ed Mathias and Robb — have remained close for 45 years, and live in the Washington area. Lamb founded C-SPAN, and is its executive chairman. Mathias is managing director of the Carlyle Group. Robb became Virginia’s governor and a U.S. senator.
Each of the men spoke of how the social aide experience influenced his life. Lamb met mentors who steered him into politics and television. Merten and Robb spoke of the social skills they learned, and Mathias said it aided his admission to Harvard Business School.
“Social aides punch above their weight,” he said, “and that gave me confidence to get ahead.”
Washington author Michael K. Bohn was a Navy social aide under President Nixon. His book “Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions in the White House From Truman to Obama” will be published this year.
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