Presidents come and go in the White House, but the rats remain. The vermin squatters -- rats and mice -- have been holding their ground despite eradication efforts by the best and brightest of several administrations.
Some of this saga of mice and men has been publicized, but some is actually classified. Along the latter lines, we uncovered a report, still classified "top secret," from the Ford administration when the National Security Council was run out of the Situation Room by a rat.
The secure basement room is where the president and his brain trust gather for National Security Council meetings or during a crisis. On Nov. 25, 1975, there was no crisis, except the one stirred up by a large rat that derailed the NSC meeting.
The classified journal notes of one NSC staffer explain what happened. "Meeting was held in the Roosevelt Room rather than the Situation Room because one of the ladies saw a large rat in the Situation Room immediately before the meeting," the staffer wrote. "I looked, but couldn't find anything to club. The rat probably escaped into the wall space where the sliding map boards fit."
The meeting was chaired by none other than the current national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. He ordered the move in deference to the woman's report.
Descendants of that rat still inhabit the White House. Barbara Bush found one doing the backstroke in the swimming pool last year; George came to her rescue and drowned the offender. First dog Millie was bitten by a rat while cavorting on the South Lawn, and has since become the Bushes' premier rat hunter, although her practice of presenting the kill to the First Lady is unsettling.
Our favorite chapter in the rodent wars comes from the Carter administration when the president threw his full weight behind the battle. A small mouse scampering through Carter's office started it in 1977. Carter called for traps and tried to get on with the affairs of state. But the mice kept intruding. One died and stunk up the Oval Office just before the president of Italy was ushered in. Another was rotting in some unknown spot when Latin American heads of state arrived for the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty.
Carter lost his patience. The General Services Administration takes care of the White House, and the Interior Department grooms the lawn, so Carter summoned officials from both to his office for a dressing down. He did not understand how he could rid a peanut warehouse in Georgia of rodents and the federal bureaucracy couldn't do the same for one little house.
The GSA blamed the Interior Department, saying all the rats were outsiders. But Carter wouldn't let the GSA off that easily. In the summer of 1977, he demanded a purge of the rodents along with confidential reports from the front. The GSA filled the house with 48 traps baited with nearly 10 pounds of poison. On Sept. 12, the GSA claimed a body count of 19, boasting that they believed the kill probably was even higher because of "several incidences of foul odors."
On Sept. 22, the GSA reported that it was winning the battle, and as evidence pointed to the desperate mice that were eating roots in the White House flower pots because they were starving. On Nov. 4, the GSA declared victory after deploying 296 traps and 141 poison "bait stations." The enemy casualties had risen to a high point of 38 in September, then fell to 10 in October and only one in November. The rodents were beaten.
Almost. Perhaps Carter wanted to leave behind a little something for the incoming Republicans, because the vermin reared their little heads again in the Reagan White House. Bush inherited them and, today, the sweet smell of air freshener is a sure sign of a coverup in the White House.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp is close to a break with the White House. Bush and Kemp are not on the same wave length. Kemp advocates a dynamic growth package to stimulate the economy. Bush is cautious about making moves that might tilt the economy later. He believes the economy will straighten itself out if the political fixers leave it alone. Kemp would like the Republicans in Congress to begin the fixing now. Bush wants Congress to get out of town for the holidays to give him some time to prepare his own economic program.