IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Forget the inauguration, it's moving day

By the time the new president and his family return from the inaugural parade, the White House will look as if the Obamas have always lived there.
Image: George Bush packs
President George H.W. Bush packs before departing the White House in January 1993.Associated Press
/ Source: The New York Times

The peaceful transfer of power that will take place at the Capitol on Inauguration Day is, to many, a miracle of American democracy. But down at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, another sort of miracle will occur: Moving Day.

President Bush and his wife, Laura, will wake up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday morning, just as they have the last eight years. But by the time the new president, Barack Obama, returns from the inaugural parade with his family in late afternoon, there will be nary a box of theirs left to unpack. Clothes will be neatly folded in drawers, pictures will rest on dresser tops and walls, stuffed animals will lie on beds, as if the Obamas had always lived there.

The highly orchestrated quick-change operation, conducted by the 93-member White House residence staff, has no parallel in the outside world. The entire affair is over and done with in a matter of hours, without a single moving man setting foot inside the Executive Mansion.

“It’s controlled chaos,” said Ann Stock, who was social secretary in the Clinton White House. “They have about four to five hours to completely unpack, put everything away in the closets, put the family pictures up and to really make the house the Obamas’ home by the time they come in from the parade. It’s really quite an extraordinary switchover.”

And a poignant one for the White House staff, said Gary Walters, who retired in 2007 as the White House chief usher, the official responsible for overseeing the executive residence. Mr. Walters served seven presidents, and moving day, he said, is invariably a wistful time.

“In the morning, the president and first lady are saying their goodbyes to the White House and to the residence staff; there’s a very emotional meeting and a goodbye,” he said. “Then the staff has to turn right around and become the staff of the Obamas by the afternoon. It’s not an easy task.”

True to form, the Bushes, who prided themselves on running an efficient White House, have not left their packing until the last minute. Preparations have been going on for weeks, both on the business side of the mansion, the West Wing, and in the residence.

In the West Wing, boxes of documents are already being shipped to a storage center in Lewisville, Tex., outside Dallas. The National Archives, responsible for maintaining Mr. Bush’s records until they go to his library at Southern Methodist University, has set up the 60,000-square-foot warehouse.

In the residence, Mr. and Mrs. Bush have already packed and moved many of their books, as well as out-of-season clothing and Mrs. Bush’s collection of ball gowns, back to Texas, said Sally McDonough, Mrs. Bush’s press secretary.

Ms. McDonogh said the first lady had been packing boxes herself, adding, “She knows she’s going to unpack them on the other end.”

If the past is any guide, Tuesday’s move will begin about 10:45 a.m., right after the Bushes, who will have hosted the Obamas for the traditional Inauguration Day coffee, leave for the swearing-in at the Capitol. Veterans of previous White House moves say that typically, a moving van arrives to deliver the new first family’s belongings to the waiting residence staff. Each member of the staff will have a task, assigned well in advance. If all goes well, the exercise will unfold with the precision of an orchestral piece.

It helps, of course, that there is little, if any, furniture to move; the White House maintains a warehouse of antiques and furnishings for presidents to choose from. When the Bushes arrived in 2001, they brought with them just one piece, “a special chest of drawers” that had belonged to the president’s grandmother, Ms. McDonough said.

The Obamas are leaving all their furniture at their house in Chicago.

“That is their home base — their Crawford, if you will,” said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, press secretary to Michelle Obama. “They are bringing their clothes, pictures, creature comforts for their 10- and 7-year-olds, stuffed animals and games, those little touches that make a new house feel like home.”

While the move may look seamless from the outside, there have been glitches over the years.

In 1989, when George H. W. Bush was inaugurated, some of his grandchildren, including Barbara and Jenna, the now-grown daughters of the current President Bush, grew cold and tired at the parade and arrived at the White House hours ahead of schedule. A quick-thinking Mr. Walters, the chief usher, sent the girls to the White House floral shop for a fast lesson in flower arranging and then showed them the White House bowling alley.

And when Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s personal assistant decided to hand-carry Mrs. Clinton’s inaugural ball gown from Blair House to the Executive Mansion for safekeeping. Mrs. Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, put it away — unbeknownst to the residence staff. When Mrs. Clinton went to get dressed, the gown was nowhere to be found.

“It was found in a matter of 15 minutes,” Mr. Walters said, “but it was 15 minutes of sheer panic.”