A Peek Inside the White House
A Peek Inside the White House
Consider the irony of being the so-called “leader of the free world.”

Powerful you are, but free you are not. You can’t take a spur-of the-moment walk around the block, have one cocktail too many or decide to go vegan. (What would the beef lobby say?). Your family is under the same intense scrutiny—meaning that your spouse can’t always speak her mind or pursue her own ambitions and your children can’t really make the mistakes that kids do.

You can see these dynamics played out in fascinating detail in “Graves,” a new original series from EPIX that lifts the curtain on the life and family of former president Richard Graves. Find out what happens as he comes to terms with his mistakes of the past 25 years with an eye toward course-correcting his presidential legacy. And read on to see how real first families have fared at being themselves while living up to the expectations of a fickle public.

The President

Ronald Reagan said this about life in the White House: “You’re a bird in a gilded cage.” Harry Truman called the White House a “glamorous prison” and “the great white jail.” And according to historian Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge (of “Keep Cool with Coolidge” fame) was sometimes “…so overwhelmed by the constant flow of people, he sometimes hid under his desk into the place where you put your knees.”

And lest we think that public intrusion into private life is a modern dilemma, the feeling of being uncomfortable in the spotlight most certainly predates Twitter: In a 1885 letter to his fiancée, President Grover Cleveland wrote:

I have been thinking a good deal lately how nice it would be to have a little house a few miles away and live there. Coming into the White House at regular times and having all the official dinners here, but have a place where it should not enter, and where the President and his family could live like other people.
Of course, that didn’t happen.
The Spouse

The world sees the president as a polished professional; the First Lady sees him as the guy who inhales a family-size bag of chips while dropping the ‘F-bomb’ as he tries to untangle the lights for the Christmas tree. Not only does she have to share her life partner with the entire country, she also has to watch the stresses of the job turn his hair gray. While this will change as gender roles begin to reverse in the White House, her own role is a delicate balancing act: First Ladies are expected to be fully supportive of their spouse while also having their own authentic identity and viewpoint.

There are certainly huge benefits to the position—from outsourced domestic duties to the opportunity to make a difference in areas like children’s literacy and veterans affairs. But it has a dampening effect on personal expression. “John F. Kennedy had to explain to Jackie that she couldn’t go shopping in Paris and she couldn’t be seen waterskiing off the Italian coast because she was the First Lady,” noted presidential historian Gil Troy. First Lady Grace Coolidge’s solution? She built a sunroom annex on top of the White House, where she retreated to spend time with her birds and photographs.

The Children

From kindergarten meltdowns to braces and first dates, growing up is hard. But where the usual developmental stages and adolescent traumas are tricky enough in real life, they are exacerbated in the White House. What might be considered ideal behavior for any other child could cause a political uproar: 14-year-old Amy Carter was criticized for offending guests by reading a book during a state dinner. Teddy Roosevelt’s 17-year-old daughter’s penchant for smoking cigarettes on the roof was called out when her father commented,

I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot do both.

What’s the long-term effect of growing up with a security detail? Some first kids, like Amy Carter, dodge the limelight after the presidency, not wanting to follow their parent’s path into public life. Others, like George W. Bush, carry their father's torch right back to the White House. Still others, like Caroline Kennedy and Susan Ford, strike a balance between private and public, contributing to select projects but leading a largely non-political life.

The Aftermath

What happens after public life comes to an end and the president and his family return to private life? Some first families prefer to withdraw: Presidents become doting grandpas, walks get taken, books get read, hobbies get explored. Others, like the Clintons and the Obamas, enter a new phase where the spouses and children come into their own and have the chance to shine.

But no matter what path first family members take after their term is over, the glare of the spotlight is bound to leave a lasting mark. As the circus of the current election makes clear, the scrutiny is only more intense in our age of non-stop social media. Presidential hopefuls beware: Freedom is the price you pay for power.

Watch the show
"Graves" premieres October 16th on EPIX at 10 P.M. ET/PT