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Take a closer look at the lives inside the White House

By Betty Moore
Rowan Public Library
When I was learning history in school ó many decades ago ó the emphasis seemed to be on dates, leaders and battles. I wondered then, and still do, what goes on behind the scenes?
During the recent campaign and election and transfer of leadership, I wondered what daily life is like for presidents and the families of presidents. And what would it be like to live in the same building where you worked, especially when that building is the White House? Can the White House be a home?
Rowan Public Library has many resources to help satisfy my interest about life “above the store.””Real Life at the White House: Two Hundred Years of Daily Life at America’s Most Famous Residence,” by John and Claire Whitcomb, is a fascinating way to look at American history from the point of view of the president’s house, where the personal and the political meet. The house itself is an important character in American history.
We read about the first families’ personalities, close circles of friends and family, food and drink, animals, foreign visitors, community relations, tastes in furniture and clothing. We share in their joys as well as their defeats and sorrows. We see how each family coped with the curious combination of loss of privacy and isolation. Some presidents and their families were very self-contained, even withdrawn; some were extremely out-going, constantly having visitors.
We see the changing role of the president’s wife, as well as the other women who served as hostesses for the presidents. Dolley Madison set the tone for many in her entertaining and shows up in many chapters.
The book is so interesting to read cover to cover, watching the physical house transform over the years with its occupants and events ó through remodeling, changes in taste, fire, vandalism, deterioration and adoration. One can follow a certain theme ó such as security, bathrooms or extended family who live at the White House. But I found myself also dipping into the book as current events took place and referred to past presidents.
The book is interspersed with brief essays on pets (including a mockingbird, a snake, alligators, goats and more), the White House grounds, the White House during the Civil War. For example, “Souvenir Hunters” tells how presidential fans cut off pieces of curtains, snipped pets’ hair and swiped napkins, spoons, even china. A few of the presidents or their family members also took home items when leaving office.
While all presidents had some connection to the White House, many lived in other places while it was being built, remodeled, restored or under siege. Most early presidents also left the house in the summer, since the White House was notorious for its unhealthy location, with cholera threatening those who remained.
“From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats” by Kenneth T. Walsh is the first book to look at the getaways presidents have used for solitude or entertaining friends or world leaders. He also tells of momentous decisions taking place in private retreats when official business intruded.
“First Ladies” is written by Amy Pastan in association with the Smithsonian Institution. The book is loaded with graphics related to each first lady from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. It also contains “First Ladies Firsts” and other “Fascinating Facts.””White House Kids,” by Susan Edwards, is a light look at adventures of kids growing up in the White House, including some who turned the large East Room into a roller skating rink.
A deeper look at the stresses and challenges of being a child of the president can be found in Doug Wead’s “All the Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families.” According to Wead, “Two things are unforgivable for the child of a president ó success and failure.”
People have long been interested in animals of the nation’s first family. “White House Pets,” by Margaret Truman, once a presidential kid herself, is a nonfiction look at many pets.
In “Millie’s Book,” springer spaniel Millie describes her life with President George H.W. Bush and family, discussing morning briefings, deliberations in the Oval Office and short breaks for squirrel hunting.
Presidential pets have outnumbered president’s kids by about two to one, writes Carole Nelson Douglas in her introduction to the fictional “White House Pet Detectives: Tales of Crime and Mystery at the White House from a Pet’s-Eye View.” She has collected 14 stories by award-winning authors that take advantage of the special privileges and access to confidential settings that these pets must have.
Computer classes: Classes are free. Sessions are 90 minutes long. Class size is limited and on a first-come, first-serve basis. Dates and times are subject to change without notice.
South ó Monday, 7 p.m. Intermediate Excel.
Children’s Storytime: February-April, weekly story time. For more information, call 704-216-8234.Teen program: Headquarters, Monday, 5:30-7 p.m. Come to Rowan Public Library for a chocolate extravaganza. Learn how to melt and make decorated chocolate lollipops, hand dip some of your favorite foods in chocolate and compete in chocolate trivia.
Tuesday Night at the Movies: All movies are at 6:30 p.m. All movies are rated G, PG or PG 13; some movies are inappropriate for younger audiences. Children should be accompanied by an adult. Free popcorn and lemonade.Black History Month ó all movies feature predominantly African-American casts.
Tuesday, “A Piece of the Action.” All movies feature Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby.
Displays: Headquarters ó Rowan Doll Society by Bonnie Hodges and artwork by Fred Young; South ó Southern Piedmont Wood Turners by Barry Russell; East ó scrapbooking by Stacey Shaver.

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