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Transition day at the White House

Inauguration day is not only the day Barack Obama becomes president of the United States, it is also the day he and his family move into their new home.

Until his retirement last year, Gary J Walters was Chief Usher at the White House - involved in six presidential moves and in overall charge of four of them. Here he describes the process.

White House
Staff have a six hour turn-around time between presidents and their families

The White House remains the home of the sitting president until around 10.45-11.00 on inaugural morning, when the president departs on his final journey with the president-elect, to go from the White House down to the Capitol.

It is not until that time that the house will begin the transition from the Bush White House home to the Obama White House home.

The White House resident staff, a team of around 93 people, which includes maintenance staff, maids, butlers, and food and beverage staff, then have around six hours to transform the White House, before the new president returns.

The intent is that when the Obamas walk in the front door, at around 1700, it will have been changed into the home that they have decided on - where they want furniture placed, the kind of beds that they want in various rooms, which rooms the girls are going to choose.

It is stressful, I have done my share of them and it's very complicated. I call it "organised chaos".

Personal items

The incoming family determines whether they want to use the White House furnishings or whether they want to bring some of their own.

Gary J Walters
On inauguration day I will miss the activity - but I have to be honest, I will not miss the aggravation that goes along with it
Retired Chief Usher Gary J Walters

President Bush, like the Clinton administration that preceded him, really didn't bring many things in the way of furniture or personal items to the White House other than clothing and books and photographs and so forth, because he had just built a new home on his ranch in Texas.

Most of the families realise that the White House has enough furnishings - very high quality antique furnishings, as well as some casual furniture that is available for the families to completely decorate the house with and to change, because there is a warehouse where the excess furniture is kept and the families have an opportunity to choose that furniture.

The most complex moves are always those associated with the West Wing and the president's Oval Office.

That is the office that the president is going to show off very quickly after the inaugural, sometimes even on inaugural day.

Carpets are sometimes changed, desks are changed, all the paintings on the wall, presidential portraits and the busts of presidents. That is the most important thing to get done and it takes a considerable amount of time.

Very emotional

Any gossip from my time at the White House? Not really. I would say that President Bush is somewhat guarded in public. He is actually a very emotional man, much like his father.

President George W Bush (left) with President-elect Barack Obama in the Oval Office in November 2008
Changing the Oval Office is one of the most complex tasks for staff

They have a wonderful bond in the family and he is a great gentleman to be around, very jovial. That's why I believe he and Prime Minister Tony Blair got along so well.

They both had a very good sense of humour and were very caring men, and I believe that this president will go down in history at some point in a much better light than he is being shown right now.

On inauguration day I will miss the activity and everything that is going on. I always enjoyed my interactions directly with the First Family.

But I have to be honest, I will not miss the aggravation that goes along with it.


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