Today's Civics 101 question: What's moving day like at the White House?
When a new first family sets foot inside of the White House on inauguration day they are walking into their new home for the next, usually, four to eight years. That means their furniture in the living, their pictures on the wall, their clothes in the closets.
The only hitch is that the outgoing first family is supposed to feel at home up until the moment they leave the White House — also on inauguration day.
What does that mean? Approximately six hours while the cat’s away to totally transform a 132-room mansion. Note that this article shares how this transfer has historically happened, and that the 2021 family transfer is likely to look different.
Read on or listen to this short episode to go behind-the-scenes on what's known as the family transfer.
We spoke with the Washington Post’s Bonnie Berkowitz, who investigated this question a few years ago. She tells us its the White House Chief Usher, six lower level ushers and the permanent staff of 90 to 100 people who facilitate the move. Moving van crews can only get as far as the gates before the security-cleared staff takes over. In the weeks leading up to the big moment, this staff coordinates with the incoming first family.
"The first lady is very, very involved because they send a personal detailed questionnaire," Bonnie explains.
This questionnaire covers a lot. "What kind of shampoo you like, what kind of dental floss, what's your shoe size? Because the White House has a bowling alley, so you need bowling shoes. What kind of movies do you like? Do you have midnight snacks? What do you like to snack on? What are you allergic to? What are your family's newspaper preferences? What kind of movies should we put in the theater? The linens. The temperature in the White House. Do you like it warm? Do you like it cool? All of these things that they will eventually use to make the White House home for the new family for four or eight years."
The first family, historically the first lady, also gets to select whatever furniture and art they want from a White House warehouse located in an undisclosed location in Maryland. The warehouse is said to contain every piece of furniture ever used in the White House that wasn't a personal belonging of the first family.
On the morning of the inauguation, you can find many of the permanent staff sleeping on cots at their stations. Around 4:00 AM, they'll wake and begin quiet preparations out of sight of the sitting president and the first family.
"They may start packing everything," says Bonnie, "though, until the outgoing family leaves [everything] is going to be very much behind the scenes because they don't want the family brushing their teeth and seeing somebody packing the shower caddy or something like that."
Around 8:30 AM, the first family typically gathers to give a goodbye to the staff. They have gotten to know these hundred some-odd individuals well over the past four to eight years, so sometimes this goodbye is a tearful one.
The family then retreats upstairs to dress for the inauguration, which is traditionally attended by the outgoing president. The president elect and first spouse (again, historically) arrive at the White House for a traditional meeting and coffee, then all leave around 10:30 AM. This is when the real work begins.
"Literally the second that car pulls away," Bonnie explains, "like the staff waves goodbye and then all hell breaks loose in the White House. The moving trucks come in, everyone splits up into their duties, which they have been prepared exactly what they're going to do every five minutes. And then everything begins and they've got from 10:30-ish to somewhere between 3:30 and 5:00 when the president and first lady come back after the parade. "
Staff packs up whatever is left, and the outgoing first family’s boxes and furniture are loaded into one moving truck, the incoming first family’s stuff is loaded out of another moving truck and a third moving truck shows up with the treasure trove from the White House warehouse.
"They're so thorough. You know, when you move, you have, I don't know, four boxes in a closet and cardboard that stay there until you move out again," Bonnie points out. "The Trumps do not have that. The Obamas did not have that. The Bushes did not have that. All the boxes are unpacked. And, you know, the president is supposed to take office on day one and be hit the ground running so he doesn't have time to organize his sock drawer. So people do that for them. And it's astonishing the things that they do."
"They change light fixtures. The Obamas had to have wifi installed during that six hours. They change out all kinds of things. They may have to make repairs. They may have to repaint, touch up a little bit. They can't repaint a whole room, but they might have to they might do some touch up. They might fix some wallpaper, things like that. Hang clothes in closets, carry out all trash, flowers, fresh flowers. You have to flowers everywhere, all kinds of things like that in the Oval Office, of course, gets a major overhaul."
Bonnie says the Chief Usher and staff are a well-oiled machine. This process, to the degree it can be accomplished (they cannot, for example, undergo any major renovations), is accomplished fully. This includes the West Wing and various offices in the East Wing. Those, however, are handled by the General Services Administration. For those wondering if Bill Clinton's aides really did remove the "W"s from the keyboards before George W. Bush arrived, the answer is yes. Pranks happen.
"You know those those drop ceilings? Somebody put a tuna fish sandwich up in one and left it there," Bonnie says, "So there was a big mystery trying to figure out where the smell was coming from."
Pranks or no, by the time the new president walks through the door the house will be ready for the administration to hit the ground running.