Welcome to the Bushes.’ – the first family’s friends stay overnight at the White House

Donnie Radcliffe


There is a story–not apocryphal–about the night in January 1967 when George and Barbara Bush’s furniture arrived in Washington from Houston. A snowstorm was in progress as the moving van pulled up at the Bushes’ Hillbrook Lane home shortly before midnight. The movers managed to unload the mattresses and bedding–but not much more–before the Bushes called a halt, invited them to spend the night, and finally sent everybody off to bed.

Nobody remembers the movers’ names, but they surely rank first among equals in that exclusive group of Bush insiders on social washington’s much-coveted A-list. Twenty-two years later, when invitations to dinner or a movie at the White House are as common as a Washington rumor, overnighting with the Bushes is the new measure of status. Only a select few, toothbrush and p.j.’s in hand, make the cut.

They’re not necessarily famous or rich or even powerful, though many are all three. Most are family members or Bush frieds–usually old friends, occasionally new friends, but always loyal friends. Friends such as Will Farish, a Kentucky horse breeder; Jerry Weintraub, a Hollywood producer; Baine Kerr, a Pennzoil executive committee chairman; Thomas W. Moseley, a fellow Yale Skull and Bonesman; and FitzGerald Bemiss, a childhood friend–to name a few. Were there such a thing as an A-plus list, theirs would be among the names on it, for they, not kings or presidents, have been sleeping royally in the Queen’s and Lincoln bedrooms during the ten months the Bushes have been living in the White House. And if those second-floor bedrooms were filled, they moved up to the third-floor family quarters.

“It’s a storybook experience,” confirms Shirley Pettis, the former California representative who was a Bush neighbor for ten years. The Bushes invited Pettis and her husband, Ben Roberson, to stay with them during a trip to Washington in May. Shown to the Queen’s Bedroom, where five queens have slept in Andrew Jackson’s handsome four-poster bed, the visitors were overwhelmed by the historic surroundings.

“Every place you turn there is a sense of your forebears,” says Pettis, equally impressed by how thoroughly her hostess had done her research. “Bar makes you feel you must know everything about this wonderful house, and because she knows every piece and can tell its story, the whole floor just comes alive.”

Pampered by what Pettis describes as one of the world’s most gracious household staffs, guests find all the amenities of a luxury hotel–and then some. There are heavy terry cloth robes in the bathrooms, crisp white stationery engraved with “The President’s House” on the desks, bouquets of fresh flowers everywhere, and the best security system in the world.

Guests are also faced with such big decisions as whether to unpack their own bags or let the staff do it; what to order for breakfast (menu cards are left in their rooms each evening); and where to eat it–in their rooms or the East Sitting Hall. Pettis and her husband chose the latter, and they were enjoying the morning sun when who should come over to join them for a cup of tea but the President himself.

“He came romping down the hall. Fortunately, I was wearing my prettiest peignoir,” says an amused Pettis, who remembers that same spontaneous nature from when she and Jerry Pettis, the late California representative, lived next door to another freshman congressman, then-Texas Rep. George Bush, on Palisade Lane.

There are tales of other unexpected encounters. One house guest, awakened by gentle but persistent tapping on the door, heard Bush outside inquiring, “Is anybody up in there?” Another said it wasn’t unusual for the President to casually warn that he was taking someone through the room “so make sure you don’t have anything sitting around.”

Even if for only a night or two, living amid history takes some getting used to. Jack Steele of Houston, a longtime Bush friend and a confessed Walter Mitty type at heart, says he had trouble sleeping his first night in the Lincoln Bedroom, so he stayed up looking at the Washington Monument and writing notes at the desk where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

He isn’t the only one who’s had trouble sleeping. Houston friends David and Ann Peake were put up in the Queen’s Bedroom, where the original copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” hangs on one wall. In the morning, Peake–a friend of Mrs. Bush’s from her childhood in Rye, New York–asked his wife–a history buff–if she’d slept well. “Not particularly,” she replied. “What a waste of time!”

Some guests–like the Peakes and Baine and Mildred Kerr–have been invited to spend the night after a state dinner. The Aga Khan, a tennis friend to whom Bush turned recently in the Mideast hostage crisis, stayed the night that Pakistani Prime Minister Benzir Bhutto was an official visitor in June. Invited to stay after other state dinners were the country singer Crystal Gayle; Steve Fisher, the coach of the national college basketball champion University of Michigan Wolverines; and Bush’s cousins John and Shelley Jansing of New York.

Another recent guest was the New York socialite Mildred Hilson, the Bushes’ Waldorf Towers neighbor when George Bush was ambassador to the United Nations in the early ’70s. Barbara Bush’s favorite interior designer, Mark Hampton of New York, has stayed too. So have all the Bushes’ children and grandchildren, most of the Bushes’ siblings, and many of their nieces and nephews.

The Bushes are similarly generous with their invitations to Camp David. Their firstborn, George Walker Bush, and his wife, Laura, up from Texas for the Texas Rangers’ three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles, and the Bush cousins Craig, Debbie, and Walker Stapleton, down from connecticut, spent a recent weekend with the Bushes there. Cabinet members and their spouses, and some key presidential aides, have been weekend guests. Some nonfamily guests, such as Jack Steele, are also twofers–welcome at both the White House and Camp David. Steele describes that setting as “glorious–we walked in the woods and that night sat with our feet up and watched a movie.”

For the unathletic, the pace is relaxed; for others it’s highly competitive, as when Bush invited Pam Shriver and a group for a recent weekend of tennis. Bush also likes “wally ball,” a version of volleyball played on a squash court. Even before Marine One, the presidential helicopter, touches ground, Bush, sometimes with his granchildren in tow, starts marshaling the troops to suit up and report for jogging.

The White House, by contrast, is a bit more formal. Everyone is on his best behavior, and those who aren’t can expect a refresher course. At dinner time recently when the First Lady realized that her twin granddaughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush (George W. and Laura Bush’s children), were not at the table, she asked the butler if he knew where they were. In the bowling alley, he informed her, waiting to be served. They didn’t wait much longer. Mrs. Bush ordered them back to the family quarters by sending word that Bush grandchildren do not eat in the bowling alley–they eat with the family in the dining room. She also warned the White House staff to beware of young charm artists.

There are also rules at the family’s Walker’s Point compound in Kenne-bunkport, but, according to Barbara Bush, no one keeps them. She has posted such notes as: “Picnics should be planned early for the beach”; “Please pick up wet towels and use them twice”; and “Please be down for breakfast between 7 and 9 or no breakfast.”

“You’re so absorbed into their activities that you don’t think of yourself as a visitor because you become an instant member of the family,” says a former Bush spokesman, Pete Roussel, who has tayed at Walker’s Point several times.

The Bushes have been putting up houseguests in their 15-room, sevenbath stone-and-shingle “cottage” there for almost a decade. Before that, they put them up at the house they owned across the road. Bush’s family has been spending summers at Kennebunkport since the 1880s and at Walker’s Point since 1902, when it was bought by the president’s grandfather. Dorothy Walker Bush, the president’s mother, still has a cottage within the compound.

It is George Bush’s favorite place on earth–“politics be damned,” he says fearlessly–and perhaps the most coveted overnight of all. French President Francois Mitterrand has already spent the night–in a rented king-size bed for which Mrs. Bush herself brought in the sheets, according to the furniture-store owner who supplied it.

Mitterrand and his wife came to visit the Bushes in May on their way to Boston, where honorary degrees awaited both Mitterrand and Bush at Boston University.

Walker’s Point guests can expect a rigorous workout. Mitterrand, not usually identified with informality or sports, nonetheless brought along his corduroys, plaid shirt, and hiking boots for a walk with his host in the mosquito- and black-fly-infested woods nearby.

However, when Bush invited him to take a spin in his high-speed Cigarette boat, Mitterrand, who gets seasick, declined the ride and headed indoors for a rest.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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