Former Chief Usher at White House Observed First Families at Their Most Vulnerable

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

President George W. Bush's springer spaniel, Spot, was old and ailing. The night before Spot was going to be put to sleep, Bush carried his dog, a descendant of former first dog Millie, out to the South Lawn. They had chased many balls together near the helicopter landing spot, and now it was the winter of 2004.

The 43rd president stretched out on the ground and encircled his dog, lying there and stroking Spot's head.

The chief usher of the White House watched, from a discreet distance.

"I am getting emotional right now," Gary Walters said yesterday as he told that story. "These are the kind of things people don't know about the president."

Walters hasn't dished much since he retired two years ago. And the discreet 37-year veteran of White House service isn't ever likely to tell the real secrets of the seven presidential administrations he served.

But yesterday in a lecture to the History Club at Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn, Walters told a few insider stories about the presidents, from Nixon to Bush 43. And he choked up a couple of times recalling some of the history he's witnessed.

The chief usher is charged with making the White House a home for the first family and running its many events. He supervises about 100 members of the household staff and has a long list of duties, including preparing the budgets for the executive residence (usually about $10 million to $12 million annually), preparing for state dinners and official ceremonies, and maintaining the museum part of the executive mansion.

And he, or she, observes the first family at their most human and often most vulnerable, before and after the public events that form the historical record of an administration.

Walters was asked to speak by his father-in-law, Henry A. Earp, 86, an Ashby Ponds resident. Earp introduced his son-in-law, 62, a University of Maryland graduate with a degree in business and a minor in criminology. After a stint overseas as an Army lieutenant, Walters joined the uniformed division of the Secret Service in 1970, then called the Executive Protective Service. He served as an assistant usher from 1976 to 1986 and was appointed chief usher in 1986 by Ronald Reagan, a post he held until his 2007 retirement.

Walters's presidential memories go back to the waning hours of the Nixon administration, when demonstrators' voices could be heard beyond the White House gates. Nixon had instructed that, when he walked back to the residence from his office on his final full day in power, "he didn't want to see anyone on that last trip," Walters recalled. The security officer on duty was told to keep himself hidden behind a large granite pillar, "sort of like a squirrel does behind a tree," and the press corps was locked in the briefing room until Nixon had passed by.

He recalled a phone call from Gerald Ford early one Sunday morning, reporting he had no hot water in his shower. But instead of demanding an immediate fix, Ford said it had been that way for a couple of days, and there was no need to rush. "His response stunned me," said Walters. "He said, 'I've been using Betty's shower.' " He refers to Gerald and Betty Ford as "two of the most approachable people you could ever meet."

Jimmy Carter was much more exacting about house systems.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company