For George and Barbara Bush, White House staff became family

George Herbert Walker Bush was straight out of central casting for the role of president of the United States: Tall, handsome, wealthy, well educated, with a loving wife and children. Born to an upper-class New England family, he became a war hero, a successful entrepreneur and a public official with wide-ranging experience. For some with such a background, entering the Oval Office after eight years as vice president would be cause to bring along a rather large ego.

But Bush was not pretentious; he was, in fact, the complete opposite. And when he got there, he treated the staff of the executive residence like family, with kindness and genuine respect. Family was the most important thing to him. This accomplished, experienced statesman prided himself on being first a husband, father, grandparent and friend.

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He was strong; we just saw him voting in the 2018 midterm elections with the help of his longtime friend and adviser, former secretary of State and White House chief of staff James Baker and Bush’s service dog Scully. We saw his love and courage at the April funeral for his beloved wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, and learned that he had held her hand the entire day before she died. Relationships mattered to our 41st president.

It’s an open secret in the White House that the Bushes were, without question, the favorite modern first family with the residence staff. Even Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game Schwarzenegger tells Trump to 'listen to the first lady' before attacking McCain The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump steps up attacks on McCain MORE knew of this deep affection and quietly asked George Hainey, former head maître d’ at the White House, and Buddy CarterEarl (Buddy) Leroy CarterDon't enact a law that diminishes the incentive for generic companies to challenge patents Key Republican says Dems left him out of process on drug pricing bills Overnight Energy: Senate Dems introduce Green New Deal alternative | Six Republicans named to House climate panel | Wheeler confirmed to lead EPA MORE, a current White House butler, to attend Mrs. Bush’s Houston funeral service as her guests. They were even asked to ride on the first lady’s plane — an unprecedented act for a sitting first lady to do.

I had the privilege of visiting the White House several years ago with someone who had worked in the Bush 41 White House and it was astonishing to see the butlers, ushers and others race over to hear how the former president and first lady were doing. They wanted to know all about them, and asked that their well wishes be shared in return.

The executive residence staff lives with first families and shares all elements of life with them, getting to know them intimately. They watch their children and grandchildren grow. But with President Bush, there was a special connection. The residence staff affectionately knew the Bushes as their “grandparents.” The Bushes would go to the White House basement, where many first families wouldn’t go, to talk with them; they knew each of them by name, and their family members’ names.

Bush wanted the residence staff to feel at home while working at the “People’s House.” An active, athletic man, he started a horseshoe tournament with the executive residence staff, who would practice for the next match in their free time. It was great for everyone’s morale — for the president and the staff, he would say. Ron Jones, in housekeeping, was the staff’s best player, one who almost never could be beat. The one time that the president was lucky enough to win, he told Jones not to worry, that he wouldn’t tell — and then he secretly phoned the house to tell everyone to ask Jones about the game. The staff loved that he liked to joke around and spend quality time with them, like family.

It’s a White House tradition for executive residence staff to gather in the State Dining Room for the final farewell to the outgoing president and first lady before they head to the Capitol for the transition of power. Bush later recalled, “This was very emotional because they were all like family — they did a superb job. It was like saying goodbye to a son or a daughter. … I found it very difficult to keep my composure.”

On their last day in office, George and Barbara Bush took one last walk around the South Grounds with their dogs. “It was a glorious, sunny day,” Mrs. Bush related later. “The dogs ran and chased squirrels and dashed around looking for who knows what. The pleasure George got from his dog Ranger taking flying leaps over imaginary logs cannot be described. …We have always lived in happy houses, but nothing matched this special place.”

And nothing has matched the special relationship this president had with those who worked there.  

Jennifer Boswell Pickens is a White House East Wing historian with expertise in White House traditions, social events and first ladies. She is a public speaker and author of two books, “Christmas at the White House” and “Pets at the White House.” Follow her on Twitter at @JenniferPickens.