Mr J Bernard West spent most of his working life in the most prestigious address in the United States, if not in the whole world. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, popularly known as the White House is the official residence of possibly the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States of America. His book, ” Upstairs At The White House: My Life With The First Ladies ” is an interesting and well-written account of his 28 years in the White House, first as Assistant to the Chief Usher from 1941 and later as the Chief Usher from 1957 to 1969. During this period he served six Presidents of the United States from Franklin D Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon. He was Asst to the Chief Usher during the presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower ( the years of the Second World War and the initial post-War years) and became Chief Usher in 1957 to serve Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
The title of the Chief Usher is misleading for those not in the know. It suggests a glorified butler who announces guests to the Presidential Mansion. Nothing can be further from the truth. The job description of the Chief Usher is to manage the affairs of the White House ( and I am not referring to the “affairs “some of the more racy presidents may have had) by way of its operations and maintenance. He was responsible for organizing all the parties, the formal receptions, the State banquets, and the like. This apart he was responsible for the comfort of the First Family , their relatives, guests and many other celebrities who sought to share the limelight with the President and the First Lady. He had over 70 people on his staff and a budget of over $750, 000.
From FDR’s time till Richard Nixon’s, from the 1940s to almost 1970, the United States and indeed the whole world saw a significant amount of change. This included changes in society and politics brought about by The Second World War (1939-45), the long drawn out and seemingly never ending Vietnam War that followed, and the ongoing Cold War between the USA and the USSR. Mr West’s commentary covers some of the most important events that took place during these decades.
The Chief Usher, as we discover, is really more in touch with the First Lady than the President himself. Indeed as the book reveals successive First Ladies approached their role dependent on their own personalities and interests. All had one thing in common: a desire to support their husbands in thick and thin as they faced some of the most pressing problems they had ever experienced.
Each First Lady ( like each president , for that matter) was very different from the other. In Mr West’s time, as a junior he worked for the overbearing and imposing Eleanor Roosevelt, who had unmatched energy and enthusiasm for things that interested her; for the homely Mrs Bess Truman, who valued their privacy; to the matronly Mrs Mamie Eisenhower ( in whose tenure he became Chief Usher) who ran a tight ship much after her husband’s military discipline.
As the Chief Usher, he worked with the glamorous and artistic Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy; the politically astute Mrs Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson; and finally with the enigmatic Mrs Thelma “Pat” Nixon.
Each First Family brought in their own special style and flavour to the White House. Mr West’s book provides a ring side view of the leading figures of our times. In his career, he followed the credo that his first loyalty was to the institution of the White House and not to its current incumbent. This helped him overcome tumultuous events like the assassination for President John F Kennedy in November 1963. The old saying in England goes, “The King is dead, long live the King”, here too it had to be business as usual as a new President had been sworn in along side the coffin of his predecessor.
All in all, an interesting and entertaining book! I would strongly recommend this to all those who enjoy reading about history and politics.