April 8, 1976 and it was my first day at the White House as a temporary press photographer and I had a morning appointment with the Chief Usher at the time, Rex Scouten, for a tour. A few minutes before the appointed time, I followed the directions they had given me and I exited the grounds through the Northwest Gate (the gate I would enter and exit every day I worked), walk along Pennsylvania Avenue to East Executive Drive, across from the Treasury Building, and re-enter the compound through the entrance used by the tourists entering the East Wing to start tours. I told the guard (uniformed Secret Service agents) at the door that I had an appointment with Mr. Scouten. He checked a clipboard he had, found my name, and told me to walk down to the security desk in the line not occupied by tourists.
When I arrived at the security point I told the guard standing there about my appointment, he checked his clipboard, found my name, took down the rope blocking the entrance and ushered me through a door to my right into a beautifully appointed room. He followed me in, and told me he had to search me, even though I had just left the White House a few minutes before. He patted me down, then used one of those electronic paddles or wands and went over me again, checking my wallet and keys and asked for a picture ID. Saying he needed a photocopy, he took my driver’s license and told me to wait. Just as he prepared to leave the room I asked if there was a rest room nearby and he said the door on the right facing the wall opposite the door we had come in was a unisex facility and feel free to use it. By the time I returned to the room he was back with my license and welcomed me as a new member of the Press Corps, to wait for someone to come and get me, and enjoy my tour with Mr. Scouten. He smiled and left the room.
Not knowing how long it would take, I sat lightly on what appeared to be a rather beautiful, delicate antique chair, but as soon as I got comfortable, the door opened and a man came in and introduced himself as the Assistant Chief Usher (I don’t remember his name now) and asked me to follow him. We went out the door, turned right and walked along the hallway of the East Wing, passed the hundreds of tourists awaiting their chance to see the President’s House. I could hear people making comments and guesses about who we were as we passed into the house itself, halfway down the Ground Floor Hall, and up a set of stairs. We crossed the lobby, went through a door at the far end, and into a passageway at the back of the room to a set of stairs that took us up to the mezzanine level where the Chief Usher’s office is located. The assistant entered the office ahead of me. As we entered Mr. Scouten stood and the assistant introduced us, the first time he had spoken to me since coming to get me.
Mr. Scouten offered me a chair, and we had a very delightful, informative and interesting conversation. After a while he looked at his watch and said we had better begin the tour as he had other appointments. That initial conversation was the basis for a wonderful friendship that lasted for years.
As we left Mr. Scouten’s office he paused and said he would be taking me everywhere except the second and third floors of the residence itself, as that was home to the president and his family and only invited guests were permitted, and would not be able to take me to any secure areas like the Situation Room and other locations in the West Wing.
We walked down another flight back to the Ground Floor and re-emerged into the Cross Hall walking back toward the East Wing. That was the start of one of the most fascinating tours I would ever take. We visited offices in the East Wing, rooms on the Ground Floor of the residence, including the Library, Vermeil and China rooms, the Diplomatic Reception Room, the Map Room, then across the Cross Hall to the kitchens, bakery, bowling alley, florist shop and some of the mechanical areas. Back on the First Floor we visited all the public rooms, with Mr. Scouten giving me extensive information as we went. He was also gracious and kind enough to take the time to answer my myriad of questions.
Then it was off to the West Wing. We strode along that famous colonnade between the White House and the West Wing you see so often on television. Being Spring, the Rose Garden was beautiful with fresh blooms. As we entered the West Wing Mr. Scouten took me to the Press and Public Affairs offices and introduced me all around. Then we began to tour the rest of the building including several sets of offices, the Navy Mess on the basement level for White House Staff and sometimes members of the Press, and Cabinet Room. As we entered the Roosevelt Room, a conference-type room, and one of what I thought was the nicest rooms in the West Wing, Mr. Scouten looked at his watch, excused himself and went to a telephone and called what I assumed was his office, telling whomever answered to reschedule some appointments.
As we exited the Roosevelt Room he walked up to a closed door and as he opened it without knocking said we were allowed in there that day alone because the President was out of town (as a matter of fact, he was in Las Vegas). As he swung the door open I stood facing the Oval Office, the first of many visits to the room over the next six months. The lights were off, and in spite of the fact it was cloudy outside, you could still see everything clearly from the light coming through the windows behind the President’s desk. These bullet-proof windows are so thick the glass gives the room a slightly green cast to the creamy walls.
The room seemed much smaller than I imagined it would be, and when Mr. Scouten invited me to sit in the President’s chair, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed like I would be invading a space I didn’t belong in. But you could feel a sense of power to the room, as if it gave the man who occupied the presidency the real power, and that it doesn’t come from the man himself. As I stood there I realized how few people, especially Americans, ever get the chance to visit that place. It was very overwhelming.
As we turned to leave I took a penny from my pocket and dropped it in a vase by the door. Mr. Scouten asked why I had done that and I said there is a saying about when you leave something behind somewhere you are destined to return. He said he liked that and tossed a penny in himself.
Feeling overwhelmed I walked slowly back to Mr. Scouten’s office with him. He invited me in and offered me a seat and a cup of coffee, but I told him some water would be fine.
We talked for a few more minutes, mostly about a mutual friend, J.B. West, former Chief Usher, whom Mr. Scouten had served under as an assistant.
After finishing some of the water, I stood, apologized for taking so much of his time and thanked Mr. Scouten repeatedly for the tour and all the information. We shook hands, and when I returned to the Usher’s Office the man who had come to get me told me that Mr. Scouten must have really liked me as we had been together over three hours, and those kinds of tours usually took an hour or less.
As he showed me to the front door (actually the South Portico is considered the front of the White House, and the part facing Pennsylvania Avenue, the rear) he told me I could just walk down the driveway to the walkway leading to the Press Room (once an indoor swimming pool built by donations to FDR, and also the laundry room at the turn of the 20th century).
As I stood on the North Portico for a couple of minutes, taking in all that had just happened I felt a breeze below the belt line. OH MY GOD…I had just been flashing the White House for the last three hours. My zipper was down from my trip to the rest room earlier in the East Wing.
What was interesting is that Mr. Scouten, nor any of the people I met, nor the Secret Service agents we had passed, noticed nor said anything.
Only you, Ric.