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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Whitehouse: How to move two presidents in six hours

(CNN) -- Comedian Mark Russell was at a recent event in Chicago, Illinois, when he found himself sitting next to Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to President-elect Barack Obama.

Moving the Obamas into the White House will take about six hours.

Moving the Obamas into the White House will take about six hours.

Russell asked her whether President Bush's staff members were going to remove all the Os from their computer keyboards, alluding to the 2001 incident in which President Clinton's departing staff removed Ws from some White House computers.

Jarrett said no, but that didn't stop Russell from speculating what really happened when President Bush's daughters, Barbara and Jenna, gave Obama's two daughters a tour of the White House recently.

"The Bush daughters showed Sasha and Malia Obama around," Russell joked. "Barbara showed them where all the bedrooms were, and Jenna showed them how to make a fake ID."

Russell sees humor in the presidential transition, but the actual operation to move both families in and out of the White House is serious business.

The clearing out of the Bushes' belongings began over the summer, when many items were packed and taken to Crawford, Texas, says Anita McBride, chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. Then, during the Christmas holiday, the Bushes moved their personal things out of Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, according to McBride.

On January 20, the Obamas move in -- a side of Inauguration Day that most people never see: a grueling, precisely timed workday involving scores of staffers that follows six months of careful planning.

The Bushes welcome the Obamas to the White House in November.

The Bushes welcome the Obamas to the White House in November.

Gary Walters worked at the executive mansion from 1986 until 2006 as chief usher in charge of moving presidential families in and out of the White House. From his Virginia home, Walters described how the complicated Obama move in to the White House is completed in only a few hours.

In the morning, after the Bushes and Obamas depart the executive mansion for the Capitol Hill swearing-in ceremony, moving trucks will roll up to the south side of the White House, Walters said.

Vice President Cheney signs his office desk, following a tradition started by Teddy Roosevelt.

Vice President Cheney signs his office desk, following a tradition started by Teddy Roosevelt

The drivers put down their tailgates, allowing most of the White House's 93 staff members to begin unloading Obama family items, he said.

"Staff members all have been given very specific jobs on that day, almost down to the minute as to what their responsibilities are," Walters said.

The move is designed to be seamless, painless and invisible while millions of Washington visitors -- and millions more watching on TV -- follow the inauguration ceremonies and the parade that follows.

By about 5 p.m., before the Obamas move from the parade viewing stand to their new home, the presidential move must be complete.

"Their clothes will be in their closets; everything will be put away," Walters said. "There should be no full or half-empty boxes will in view. Furniture will be set in proper places. Their favorite foods will be in the kitchen or the pantry. The chief usher will welcome them into their home and ask them what they would like to do before going out to enjoy the inaugural balls."

Incoming first lady Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, will also be moving into the White House residence, which has 24 rooms on the second and third floors. The Obamas have hired California decorator Michael Smith to use an allocated $100,000 to redecorate the space. Video Watch what decorator may do with the White House »

"I think they're going to find that this is really conducive to family life," President Bush told CNN's Larry King. "President-elect Obama has got a 45-second commute to see his girls."

In the West Wing of the White House, the political jostling has begun among new staffers to grab workspaces near the center of power: the Oval Office.

White House move

  • The move is performed by most of residence staff, which numbers 93.
  • It takes place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the south side of the White House.
  • At least two or three trucks will take part.
  • Tents, chemicals on hand in case of ice, snow or rain.

Source: Former White House Chief Usher Gary Walters

There, the carpet is changed with each new administration to suit the incoming president, Walters said. Possibly, the office desk will be changed, as will paintings that will be hung on the wall.

Books on the Oval Office shelves will be changed per the new commander in chief, as will accessories to be placed around the room, Walters said. Staffers may tote in a new sofa and chairs -- or busts of past presidents.

Following tradition, Bush is expected to leave a personal letter written to Obama. Past letters have offered the new president private words of advice and reflection.

Several Democratic presidents have chosen to hang a Thomas Sully painting of President Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, said political scientist and historian Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on the White House. "In the residence, many presidents have brought their personal paintings to decorate their living space."

After movers tote out boxes of office materials from Bush staffers, the West Wing will become a dusty workspace, with empty bookshelves and the odd three-ring binder left behind, say veterans of the White House press corps.

As in previous moving periods, contractors may come to slap on a coat of paint or lay carpet as the new crop of staffers finds their workspaces.

"It was incredible," former Clinton staffer David Seldin said, recalling his experience on Inauguration Day 1993. "I think people were overwhelmed with the sense that it was real and the sense that something that you had been working on as a political campaign is actually becoming part of the government."

On Tuesday, once the whirlwind moving operation is finally done, Chief Usher Stephen Rochon will probably greet Obama the same way Walters did Bush in 2001.

Standing near the doorway to the White House North Portico, Walters recalls, he said, "Hello, Mr. President, welcome to your home."

Oh, and about those Os on White House keyboards -- two Bush officials told CNN on Sunday that outgoing aides won't be getting payback on the incoming Democratic administration.

There is an understanding that Bush will be furious if there are any pranks, especially after cordial transition between the two administrations, the officials said.