We still don’t know who the next president will be. But we know what prize awaits him — the best address on earth, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The White House is now celebrating its 200th anniversary, commemorating that moment in November 1800 when John and Abigail Adams arrived at their freshly plastered, partially furnished new home, where 41 presidents have now lived and worked.
Only two nights after Election Day, the Clintons invited all the living former White House residents to celebrate two centuries of presidential history. Joining them at the head dinner table in the East Room were George and Barbara Bush, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Gerald and Betty Ford, and Lady Bird Johnson.
It was the largest gathering ever of presidents in the White House, and perhaps it was appropriate that the fate of the election was still in doubt. That was the case 200 years ago on Nov. 16, when the Adams family moved into their new home, just after Election Day.
In those days, information traveled by horseback. The Adamses were just getting settled when they got the news that Thomas Jefferson had been elected. Four months later, they left.
Abigail wasn’t completely disappointed. She had been reluctant to leave Philadelphia and called Georgetown “the dirtiest hole I ever saw.”
But if the White House lacked cachet then, it now represents the very center of American democracy. And if that doesn’t impress you, what about a four-year, rent-free lease on a 132-room mansion complete with swimming pools, a movie theater, bowling alleys and a putting green.
Now do you remember why little kids want to grow up to be president?
A domestic staff of 91 servants to wash your clothes, cook your meals and shell your pistachio nuts might seem a little excessive. But keep in mind, the White House has 31 toilets to scrub, 147 windows to squeegee, 18 acres to mow, and then there’s state business to attend to in the West Wing. You need a little help around the house.
Poker Games, Pool Parties
“The White House is really the most amazing residence on earth,” says Carl Anthony, presidential historian and author of America’s First Families (Touchstone). “Real lives are lived on the ultimate stage — and the whole world is watching.”
Considering they called that sort of pressure cooker home, it’s fascinating to see how past presidents and their kin enjoyed (or endured) their days roasting on the public fire.
“Just about every president and his family left some sort of mark on the White House,” Anthony says. “And each one enjoyed it in a unique way. And the contrasts in personalities are amazing.”
After office hours, the swinging begins. Andrew Jackson threw a wild bash in 1829. Some 8,000 packed the executive mansion. To get folks to leave, crews had to put bathtubs of orange juice and whiskey on the front lawn.
At another party, Teddy Roosevelt threw himself into a pool, fully dressed with a lit cigar.
Of course, acceptable mores change with the times. But Prohibition didn’t stop Warren Harding from serving alcoholic drinks to his buddies as they played poker in the Oval Office, Anthony says. His little parties featured a pink doll that shook and winked.
Dwight Eisenhower held stag poker nights in the Treaty Room after dining on wild game.
To be sure, Eisenhower had a romantic side, too. On Valentine’s Day he surprised Mamie by wearing his “love bug” boxer shorts embroidered with little hearts. Anthony reports the first lady enjoyed sharing their bed because she could “reach over and pat Ike on his old bald head.”
I know it is hard to think about some of our wizened old presidents having sex. But after all, the White House was their home, and these people had to learn to live on public display. One morning Harry Truman’s wife Bess told a White House staffer: “[W]e have a little problem … It’s the president’s bed. Do you think you can get fixed today? Two of the slats broke down during the night.”
Some first ladies didn’t need to be so coy. When reporters asked Betty Ford how often she expected to sleep with her husband Gerald after he became president, she responded, “As often as possible.”
No one has trouble believing that a strapping, young John F. Kennedy had a healthy, if not runaway, libido. Anthony has written extensively on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and says that she was well aware of his philandering and, yet, the first couple were still intimate.
At noontime each day, the Kennedys closed themselves off in their bedroom for an hour, a tradition that remained up until his assassination in 1963. “Before leaving the White House,” Anthony writes, “she placed a plaque on the bedroom mantel stating that she and her husband ‘lived’ in that room.”
‘I Can’t Wait to Leave’
Of course, sexual scandals are not unfamiliar to the White House, especially in recent years. Some of our past leaders tried to insulate themselves with what might be considered hysterical prudishness.
James and Sarah Polk were all business. “No vacations, card games, horse races, billiards, dancing and — on Sundays — no music,” is how Anthony describes Sarah.
Dancing was actually banned, although Sarah did start the tradition of playing “Hail to the Chief” when the chief executive enters the room.
In 1849, after one term, Polk couldn’t wait to leave. He wrote, “I feel exceedingly relieved that I am now free of all public cares. I am sure I shall be a happier man in my retirement than I have been during the four years I have filled the highest office.”
Anthony duly notes that 103 days later Polk died.
James Buchanan, the bachelor president (who some historians speculate was gay) also couldn’t wait to exit. His message to incoming President Abraham Lincoln: “If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house as I am leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in the country.”
Problem Kids On top of all the other pressures, there’s the kids to think about. Only 10 presidents and first ladies had no living children while in the White House. “One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president!” Franklin Roosevelt said. “It’s a terrible life they lead.”
Roosevelt’s elder cousin, Theodore, put it a little more bluntly, telling folks he could either be president or control his daughter but he “couldn’t do both.”
The notion of the problem child goes back to the very beginning of White House history. John Adams once said, “My children give me more pain than all my enemies.” His son Charles suffered from alcoholism and eventually died during his brief stay in the White House.
But in true White House fashion, Adams used the tragedy for political advantage. Rather than receive Jefferson at the executive mansion after Jefferson defeated him in a re-election bid, Adams snubbed him, claimed he was still mourning his dead son. “It was a lame excuse, considering that Charles had been buried three months earlier,” Anthony writes.
“Adams hadn’t attended the burial, but he had appeared at numerous public events since then.”
One of the more entertaining First Kid scandals involved Chester Arthur’s son, Alan, who was arrested by the police when “in the wee hours of the morning he was found swimming nude in the South Lawn fountain with the prince of Siam,” Anthony writes.
Yet America’s First Families shows so many White House kids try to lead normal lives under extraordinary circumstances. There are rare shots of Gerald Ford’s daughter washing her car, and Jimmy Carter’s daughter roller skating.
Franklin Roosevelt, who had the reputation of being a distant parent, is shown decked out as Caesar at a costume party, with his wife and daughters dressed as his “vestal virgins.” At one Halloween party, George Bush’s boy Marvin donned a Barbara Bush mask.
[Click on the slideshow to your right for a look.]
When you are living in the White House, you are truly living in a museum, one that welcomes some 6,000 visitors on many days. It’s hard to kick back and relax. Jimmy Carter apparently barely slept in his final days in office, when Americans were held hostage in Iran.
Carter disapproved of high living on the public’s dime. He sold off the presidential yacht as a gesture to populist frugality. Yet he did manage to renovate the billiards room and panel it with wood from his old barn. These days, that’s where Hillary Rodham Clinton occasionally plays pinochle, although the quasi-official favorite family game is Boggle.
And if you think Hillary doesn’t have a goofy side, Anthony reports the senator-elect from New York is a devoted fan of The Three Stooges and The Flintstones.
So, whoever the next president may be, if you are ready to move into the world’s most luxurious fishbowl, the keys are waiting. The place is 200 years old, there’s virtually no privacy, but you are pretty much guaranteed hot water. A lot of hot water.
Buck Wolf is a producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is a weekly feature. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.