As First Lady, Caroline Harrison was perhaps the first genuine Domestic Goddess of the White House.
Her grey hair and round figure belied her sharp wit, interest in history, progressive ideas on health and women’s equality, and activist personality.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
- Bugged: Obama’s Roach Problem (nationaljournal.com)
- First Family Photos on The Truman Balcony & the Myth Behind It (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Easter Traditions at the White House (personalcreations.com)