White House Chief Usher
|White House Chief Usher|
|Appointer||President of the United States|
|First holder||Edson S. Densmore|
The White House chief usher is the head of household staff and operations at the White House, the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States of America. The position is currently held by Robert B. Downing, who was hired on December 1, 2021. He succeeded Timothy Harleth, who had been appointed chief usher by President Donald Trump on June 23, 2017 and was fired when President Joe Biden took office.  The position was vacant from January 20, 2021 through December 1, 2021.
About the chief usher
Although the White House has had staff since it opened, the head of household operations for most of the 1800s was the first lady of the United States. The informally recognized chief servant was often called the steward or stewardess, sometimes the doorkeeper, and beginning with President James Buchanan, the usher. The position of chief usher was not established until 1891, in the administration of President Benjamin Harrison. The term "chief usher" had been used by the press as early as August 1887. It was not created as an official title until 1897. William Dubois was the first to use the official title, but it applied only for the last four of his five years in the role. Thomas E. Stone was the first individual to have the official title of chief usher bestowed on him throughout his tenure.
The average length of service for a chief usher is 10 years. The longest serving White House chief usher is Irwin H. "Ike" Hoover, who served as chief usher for 24 of his 42 years in the White House. The second-longest serving chief usher is Gary J. Walters, who spent 21 years in the position.
Administratively, the Office of the Chief Usher resides within an agency known as the Executive Residence, which in turn was made part of the Executive Office of the President (EOP) in 2002. Within the Executive Residence are three offices: The Office of the Chief Usher, the Office of the White House Curator, and the Office of Calligraphy.
The Office of the Chief Usher is one of 60 offices within EOP, an executive branch agency which provides operational (rather than policy) support to the president and first family. The actual room used as an office by the Chief Usher is on the State Floor of the White House, opening off the Entrance Hall near the entrance from the North Portico.
The chief usher serves at the pleasure of the president, and has no job tenure or civil service protections. The chief usher has a personal staff of seven, but oversees a total Executive Residence staff of about 90.
The chief usher is charged with "the effective operation of the White House Complex and Executive Residence... [The chief usher] develops and administers the budget for the operation, maintenance, and utilities and supervises the Executive Residence staff." The chief usher is responsible for creating the budget for the office of the Executive Residence, overseeing disbursements from the budget, the purchase of supplies, ensuring the physical safety and integrity of the White House's decorative arts and furnishings collections (including theft prevention), and the generation of hand-written (but not printed) White House items such as menus, placards, or invitations. The chief usher oversees the first family's private as well as public life, meeting the private needs of the family and working to ensure that public and private events do not conflict. Generally, the chief usher hosts a meeting with all White House offices early on every Monday morning to review the week's events and ensure that there are no problems.
The chief usher's budgetary duties are extensive. The chief usher oversaw an Executive Residence budget of $16.4 million in 2001. Overtime is extensive: In 2001, 19 work-years of overtime were budgeted. The chief usher also works closely with the Office of the Social Secretary to ensure that expenditures are charged to the correct government agency. For example, costs for a state dinner must be charged to the United States Department of State, rather than the Executive Residence. The first family may host an event at the White House, but the event might actually be paid for by an external sponsor. Political events at the White House must be paid for by the sponsoring political party. The rules governing charges are extensive and onerous. After it learned that many government agencies and external sponsors had unpaid bills at the White House (some going back more than a decade), Congress enacted legislation in 1988 that requires sponsoring agencies or organizations to pay for charges in advance. Severe financial penalties are imposed if the sponsor fails to pay overages in a timely fashion.
The chief usher coordinates very closely with the Executive Office of the President, the General Services Administration, the National Park Service, the Secret Service, the White House Military Office and other government agencies as needed. Much of the chief usher's daily coordination is with the White House Office of Scheduling and Advance, which supervises and manages the president and first family's schedules. The chief usher meets every morning with the Scheduling and Advance Office to review plans for the day's events. The chief usher's office is linked to the Scheduling and Advance Office via an inside-the-house-only computer system which provides a minute-by-minute schedule for the president and first family. The system is updated on the fly, and generates an alert as delays or advances occur. A device in the physical Office of the Chief Usher reports the location of each member of the first family at all times, so that the chief usher and office staff can stay aware of when the president or family members will be arriving at the White House or what they are doing within the executive mansion. The White House Calligraphy Office—which provides hand-drawn menus, notes, invitations, cards, and similar items—is part of the chief usher's office. However, the Calligraphy Office works most closely not with others in the chief usher's office but with the Office of the Social Secretary (which oversees all entertaining sponsored by the first family).
For operations involving official ceremonies, such as the state arrival ceremony or state dinner at the White House, the chief usher coordinates activities with the White House social secretary in the East Wing, and the chief of protocol of the United States, an official within the United States Department of State. Early in the Bill Clinton administration, the Office of the Social Secretary was given an ad hoc oversight role over the chief usher. Whereas in the past the Office of the Social Secretary oversaw only entertainment events at the White House, now it was responsible for all events held on White House grounds. The goal of the oversight was to enhance accountability, so that a single "desk" (individual) within the Office of the Social Secretary was responsible for ensuring an event happened flawlessly. With this reorganization, the Office of the Social Secretary now forms an ad hoc committee for each event, with a representative from the Office of the Chief Usher participating in this group.
The chief usher is an ex officio member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which coordinates the decoration, maintenance, refurbishment, and historic preservation of the White House. Other members of the committee include the White House Office of the Curator, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, chairman of the United States Commission of Fine Arts, and director of the National Gallery of Art, with whom the chief usher works closely. Once a month, the chief usher hosts a meeting with the National Park Service (which owns the main White House building and its grounds), the General Services Administration (which owns the East Wing, West Wing, and ancillary buildings scattered in the South Lawn; the Eisenhower Executive Office Building; the New Executive Office Building; the Blair House; and various other government-owned townhouses and structures on Jackson Place NW), the Secret Service, and the White House Military Office to review maintenance, repair, security, and other needs at the White House and plan for upkeep.
The chief usher also works closely with the White House Historical Association, the government-chartered, private nonprofit organization which assists with the furnishing of and the acquisition of art for the White House. As part of their duties, the chief usher also oversees all gifts which become part of the White House collection (e.g., are not personal gifts to the president or first family).
List of chief ushers
- "The Secret Life of the White House". The New Yorker. 2021-02-24. Retrieved 2021-03-05.
- Faulkner, Claire. "Ushers and Stewards Since 1800". White House Historical Association. Retrieved September 1, 2017. Originally published in White House History, Number 26, Fall 2009.
- Brinkley 2013, pp. 6–7, 10.
- "Chief Usher at the White House". The Evening Star. August 1, 1887. p. 3.
- "Who is the chief usher and why is this White House employee important?". White House Historical Association. April 3, 2015. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Patterson 2000, p. 397.
- Bernstein, Adam (February 24, 2013). "The Man Who Ran 1600 Pennsylvania Ave". The Washington Post. p. C1.
- Argetsinger, Amy; Roberts, Roxanne (January 28, 2007). "The Reliable Source". The Washington Post. p. D3.
- Michaels 1997, p. 115.
- Patterson 2006, p. 54.
- Engel, Steven A. (August 21, 2007). Whether the Office of Administration Is An "Agency" For Purposes of the Freedom of Information Act (PDF) (Report). Office of the Counsel to the President. The White House. p. 5, fn. 3. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
- Patterson 2012, p. 196.
- White House Historical Association 2011, p. 8.
- "Harry S. Truman Library and Museum to Open Truman's White House Chief Usher Files". Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. February 1, 2010. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
- Patterson 2010, p. 528.
- French 2010, p. 430.
- Patterson 2000, p. 398.
- Patterson 2000, p. 188.
- Patterson 2000, p. 189.
- Patterson 2000, p. 298.
- Walters, Gary (October 3, 2003). "Ask the White House". whitehouse.gov. Retrieved September 2, 2014 – via National Archives.
- Skinner, Deborah Creighton (November 25, 2008). "Rogers Named White House Social Secretary". Black Enterprise. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
- Patterson 2000, p. 294.
- "Appointments". whitehouse.gov. June 28, 2002. Retrieved September 2, 2014 – via National Archives.
- Carter 1984, p. 168.
- Patterson 2000, p. 406.
- "White House Announces New Chief Usher, Angella Reid". whitehouse.gov. October 4, 2011. Retrieved September 2, 2014 – via National Archives.
- Burros, Marian; Leland, John (February 8, 2001). "Clintons Return Household Gifts of Uncertain Ownership". The New York Times. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
- Bennett, Kate (June 23, 2017). "Trump family hires familiar face as chief usher". CNN.
- Brower, Kate (November 30, 2021). "Bidens hire Robert B. Downing to be the new White House chief usher". CNN.
- Anthony, Carl Sferrazza (1990). First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1789–1961. New York: Quill/William Morrow. ISBN 0688112722.
- Brinkley, Howard (2013). White House Butlers: A History of White House Chief Ushers and Butlers. Hustonville, Ky.: Golgotha Press. ISBN 9781621076315.
- Carter, Rosalynn (1984). First Lady From Plains. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395352940.
- Clinton, Hillary Rodham (2000). An Invitation to the White House: At Home With History. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0684857995.
- French, Mary (2010). United States Protocol: The Guide to Official Diplomatic Etiquette. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781442203198.
- Landau, Barry H. (2007). The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy. New York: Collins. ISBN 9780060899103.
- Michaels, Judith E. (1997). The President's Call: Executive Leadership from FDR to George Bush. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 9780822974932.
- Patterson, Bradley H. Jr. (2000). The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 0815769504.
- Patterson, Bradley H. Jr. (2006). "The Bush White House Staff in the Second Term: New Structures? New Faces? New Processes?". In Maranto, Robert; Brattebo, Doug; Lansford, Tom (eds.). The Second Term of George W. Bush: Prospects and Perils. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403984418.
- Patterson, Bradley H. Jr. (2010). "White House, The". In Genovese, Michael A. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the American Presidency. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 9780816073665.
- Patterson, Bradley H. Jr. (2012). "The Bush White House: Comparisons With Previous White Houses". In Hilliard, Bryan; Lansford, Tom; Watson, Robert P. (eds.). George W. Bush: Evaluating the President at Midterm. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. ISBN 9780791484845.
- White House Historical Association (2011). White House Words: A Style Guide for Writers and Editors (PDF). Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association. ISBN 9781931917124. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 March 2015.
- Hoover, Irwin Hood (1934). Forty-Two Years in the White House. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- West, J.B.; Kotz, Mary Lynn (1973). Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. ISBN 069810546X.
- Records of the White House Usher (1945–1952 ), Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
- Records of the White House Usher (1953–1961), Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
- Records of the White House Usher (1969–1974), Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library
- Records of the White House Usher (1974–1976), Gerald Ford Presidential Library
- C-SPAN Q&A interview with Chief Usher Gary Walters, January 21, 2007