Rats in the White House: Pestering Tales of Barbara Bush in the Pool & Others

Rats can't help getting into the White House.

Rats can’t help getting into the White House.

As First Lady, Caroline Harrison was perhaps the first genuine Domestic Goddess of the White House.

Caroline Harrison.

Caroline Harrison.

Her grey hair and round figure belied her sharp wit, interest in history, progressive ideas on health and women’s equality, and activist personality.

The large Harrison clan watched the Easter Egg Roll festivities from the South Portico.

The large Harrison clan watched the Easter Egg Roll festivities from the South Portico.

It wasn’t merely the lack of living space provided for the presidential family (in the case of the Benjamin Harrison family this included the President and his wife, her elderly father, her widowed niece, their son, daughter-in-law, daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren) which troubled her when she assumed command of the old mansion in March of 1889, but also the filthy condition of the entire place.

Her lobbying effort to have a grander, bigger executive mansion failed in Congress, but it did award her funds to upgrade the hardware and give the White House, from attic to cellar, a thorough scrubbing.

And to get rid of the rats, which had completely taken possession of the very building which the media had already begun holding up as a role model for all American homes.

Bold rats were everywhere when Benjamin and Caroline Harrison lived in the White House with their adult children Russell and Mamie

Bold rats were everywhere when Benjamin and Caroline Harrison lived in the White House with their adult children Russell and Mamie

In one entry of her White House diary, now preserved in the archives collection of the Benjamin Harrison Home in Indianapolis, Caroline Harrison left a startling account of just how badly infested the grandest residence in the United States had become with rats:

“The rats have nearly taken the building so it has become necessary to get a man with ferrets. They [rats] have become so numerous and bold they get up on the table in the Upper Hall and one got up on Mr. Halford’s bed.”

Then recuperating from surgery, the President’s Private Secretary E.W. Halford had been given a guest room to sleep over at the White House at the time,  where he could receive care. His unwelcome bunkmate may well have prompted a fast recovery.

Caroline Harrison got the funding to conduct a full cleaning and de-ratting of the old mansion but there were reports of the critters returning not long after Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 renovation of the White House.

Bess Truman's mother Madge Wallace sat watching rats approach her on the White House South Portico.

Bess Truman’s mother Madge Wallace sat watching rats approach her on the White House South Portico.

Forty-plus years later, they had apparently overrun the place again.

Chief Usher J. B. West recalled how President Truman‘s invalid mother-in-law Madge Wallace would sit in her wheelchair on the South Portico to take in some sun as rats boldly came up to her, looking for food.

The rats did not intimidate this irascible old lady who thought nothing of harshly criticizing her son-in-law for firing General MacArthur. She stared them down. The rats, however, were not intimidated by her either.

Among one of the few complaints made by Harry Truman during his White House residency was one driving him to the wall, literally..

Truman found the scent outside better than the one inside. (PBS)

Truman found the scent outside better than the one inside. (PBS)

There was a putrid odor wafting through two adjoining rooms of the private family quarters. Maintenance staff checked the roof, the gardens, even the awnings (this being before his famous Truman Balcony was installed). No, Truman insisted, it was coming from inside the house.

Finally, the muttering maintenance crew went through the trouble of smashing open the wall between the two smelly rooms. And there was finally found a decaying rat with a half-eaten ham bone it had managed to snag for itself.

It wasn’t the end of Presidential family members making a stink – over a stink.

President Carter had smaller critters running under foot than did Mrs. Harrison and the Trumans - but there were more of them.

President Carter had smaller critters running under foot than did Mrs. Harrison and the Trumans – but there were more of them.

Some thirty years after the Truman incident, a mortified President Jimmy Carter tried to focus on business as he met with the Italian Prime Minister in the Oval Office, but the smell of a dead mouse could not be ignored. And it wasn’t the first such wall stink the President had scented.

Carter didn’t need anyone telling him what it was. He knew well enough from watching a multiplying clan of mice boldly scampering across the Oval Office as he sat there working. He demanded action fast.

The General Services Administration, however, informed him of their humane policy of not using mouse-traps, after being vilified by animal protection groups for snapping the necks and letting the tiny pests suffer to death.

Frustrated, President Carter finally called in the heads of the Park Service, Interior Department and General Services Administration. As he recorded in his September 9, 1977 diary entry:

“For two or three months now I’ve been telling them to get rid of the mice. They still seem to be growing in numbers, and I am determined either to fire somebody or get the mice cleared out – or both.”

The government finally declared war on the West Wing mice, even providing an analysis of tactics and daily body count to the President and senior Executive Staff. Within three days of their being called on the carpet by Carter, there were traps placed in and below the Oval Office and the President’s private study.

What proved to be the most successful weapon, deployed in nearly three-hundred spring traps (yes, they did) and almost one hundred and fifty bait boxes, which led the General Services Administration to declare “problem under control” in a November 4, 1977 memo to Jimmy Carter the Georgia peanut farmer?

Peanut butter.

Barbara Bush's close encounter with a rat was thwarted by Millie her springer spaniel dog.

Barbara Bush’s close encounter with a rat was thwarted by Millie her springer spaniel dog.

When the mice are away, however, the rats will play.

Within a dozen years of the Carter mouse mauling, there slipped in one day a stealthy creature of such gargantuan proportions that it left the formidable matron of a political dynasty almost shrieking like a little lady on a chair.

Rigorous about her exercise, be it tennis, walking or swimming, Barbara Bush was luxuriating in the warm waters of the outdoor White House pool for her one-mile a day routine when suddenly she glimpsed from beneath the surface a black blob rapidly making its way towards her.

There was no mistaking what it was and, she recalled, and it “did not look like a Walt Disney friend, I’ll tell you that.”

“I swim with a mask, so as it went right by in front of me – I mean, it was enormous,” she elaborated further. And then it was that the first of two heroes came to her rescue. Millie, her English springer spaniel dove in and went after the rat in the water.

George H. Bush. He saved he day.

George H. Bush. He saved he day.

And then the President himself did the dirty deed. With his bare hands, George H. Bush, as she put it, “drowned the beast.” Still, ever a lover of animals, she said of the death battle, “It was horrible.”

Having gained her composure by the time she was telling the tail tale to reporters in Houston, Barbara Bush explained, “We’re surrounded by parks and people drop food. They [White House groundskeepers] put some stuff [poison] out that only bothered rats, and what it does is make them very thirsty. And this rat went for the biggest water it saw,” she explained.

For long months afterwards, however, the First Lady was wary of dipping her toe in the water, always first asking one of the maintenance crew on duty to first check there weren’t any “rats in hiding” before she dove back into the pool.

A rat runs in front of President Barack Obama as he delivers remarks on Wall Street and Financial reform, Thursday, May 20, 2010, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A rat runs in front of President Barack Obama as he delivers remarks on Wall Street and Financial reform, Thursday, May 20, 2010, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Of course that was a quarter of a century ago, before there was an Internet or anything digital, a truly medieval existence across the globe. Surely there must be an app to detect rats in the pool developed by the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency or some other secret, super-advanced high-tech sonar system-creating government department available only to First Families.

Hmm, no, not really.

Rat patrol White House style hasn’t changed much since the days of Mrs. Harrison.

On May 20, 2010, as the White House press corps waited in the spring sun for President Obama to deliver a formal statement from a podium in the Rose Garden, there were squeals of delightful fear from the reporters.

A big old rat dashed out of the bushes, onto the stone step just beneath the one where the President would be standing seconds later. Someone did catch it on video.

And then, without any respect for just whose remarks he was diverting attention away from, the rat made a return appearance just below President Obama, as he was speaking.

Here’s a clip of that historic rat moment:

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/video/rat-white-house-rose-garden-10704630

Barbara Bush and an actor from a Chorus Line production, at poolside.

Barbara Bush and an actor from a Chorus Line production, at poolside. (TMZ)

Perhaps the rodent felt especially at home as he heard what the President had to say that day: Obama was speaking about the need for some regulation of the even bigger rats on Wall Street.

As for the Barbara Bush who turns 89 years old next week, she recovered fully from the trauma of her White House rat encounter.

The former First Lady still exercises regularly, though perhaps not as vigorous a swimmer.

As a photograph of her at a resort where she posed with a cast member from the musical stage play Chorus Line perhaps suggests, one finds that she also enjoys keeping out of the pool.

Constructed on naturally marshy land, with countless open doors and windows, and mass quantities of food, the White House has been a natural draw for rats since it was first built.

Constructed on naturally marshy land, with countless open doors and windows, and mass quantities of food, the White House has been a natural draw for rats since it was first built.


Categories: History, Presidents and Animals, The Bushes, The Harrisons

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10 replies »

  1. Brilliant Rodent report and love the mice mosaic touch with President Jimmy Carter….you really do make American History fun. You should do some school lecture series that would make the kids laugh and learn at the same time like we do with our Museum out reach tours. Your knowledge and sense of humor would certainly aid the cause to get kids into the history mode! Bles you for this great cheesey tour…(I could’nt resist!).

  2. Oh my that was fun to read. I can especially empathize with President Truman. The atrocious odor that accompanied a decaying rat in our own garage wall ten years ago is still something I cannot forget. And it did not even have a rotting ham bone.

  3. So I guess Chuck E Cheese will never be invited to a State Dinner. 😉

  4. Hi Carl-Spectacular story as usual (although I must admit the subject of rats and mice grosses me out)…it was still chock full of little interesting tidbits. Funny that Mrs wallace wan’t intimidated by the rats…she was not someone I would have liked to mess with!

    Best-Richard Klein
    New York. NY

  5. Great post, Carl –
    As you know – President Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge had many pets at the White House. When Vice President, the Coolidges stayed at the New Willard Hotel.
    In her Autobiography (published in 1992) Grace Coolidge writes of a family of mice “who had a private entrance behind a davenport”. She names them and describes their antics and appetite for “all sorts of delicacies from the hotel table” – Concluding, “I think they missed me when I was gone, and I often wonder how they fared.”
    Later, at the White House the Coolidges had dogs, cats and even a raccoon and probably: No rats or mice.

    • I thought about the Coolidges and rats in the White House – but if anyone would have recorded their presence I think Mrs. Coolidge would have. Thanks for the addendum.

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