Truman was the first president to understand the burgeoning power of television and the impact that this technology would have on the presidency. He insisted that the historic White House be his backdrop during televised addresses to the nation. He added a broadcast room to the residence for this purpose. Television did have a dramatic impact on the presidency, and in rescuing the physical White House, Truman preserved an American icon that, with the help of the broadcast media, became known throughout the world.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, president from 1953 to 1961, was heir to the Truman renovations. The only change that he and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower made was in the Diplomatic Reception Room, which was furnished with American antiques under the direction of the American Society of Interior Designers. Alterations to the White House were, however, a main issue in the administration of Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy.
During the brief Kennedy administration, the White House was rethought in a major way for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt's renovation. With the advice of Letitia Baldridge, Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary, White House ceremony was reconsidered. For example, visiting heads of state had previously been met at the airport and driven down Constitution Avenue through crowds of government workers waving small flags distributed for the purpose. Now visiting dignitaries were transported from the airport via helicopter; at the White House, some 600 spectators were admitted to mark the occasion. The Marine Band played, and the President and guest each made brief addresses and retired to the house, the entire ceremony taking about twenty minutes.
Kennedy sought a background for his presidency that would reflect the United States' postwar international prestige. Mrs. Kennedy envisioned a solution in refurbishing the rooms of the White House; she began making plans for redecoration even before they moved to the residence in 1961. But the idea gained new meaning when, on an official trip to France, President and Mrs. Kennedy were struck by President Charles de Gaulle's "historically accurate" interior restorations at the palace of Versailles and its outdoor pavilion, the Grand Trainon, as well as the restoration of Empress Josephine's chateau, Malmaison. The decorator responsible for these, Stephane Boudin, was brought to the United States to oversee interior design of the White House. Boudin's role was a well-kept secret for fear that the public and press would criticize the president's going to Europe to find talent sufficient for the American White House. Henry Francis du Pont, founder of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, was the name publicly associated with the renovations at the Kennedy White House, but the decisions were Boudin's, subject to Mrs. Kennedy's approval.
The refurbished state rooms were dramatic in their period attire, and gained the approbation of the American public. A particular sort of personal attention was drawn to the White House and its occupants as it had not been in many years. The First Lady showcased the reenvisioned interior of the White House in a nationally televised tour, as Truman had done in 1952; President Kennedy made a cameo appearance, praising the work. Not only was the house redecorated along historical lines, but longtime government plans to bulldoze the houses around Lafayette Park so that high-rise offices could be built were scrapped in favor of restoring and reconstructing the old houses and building executive and judicial office buildings behind them. Designed and carried out by the architect John Carl Warnecke, an intimate of the Kennedys, this work was completed after Kennedy's death in 1963.
President Kennedy, who took an interest in gardening, named the White House Reservation One of the National Park Service, and put the Park Service in charge of the grounds. Kennedy had the Rose Garden redesigned by Rachel Lambert Mellon and the horticulturist Perry Wheeler; he wanted the garden to be tranquil and private and yet able to accommodate five hundred spectators at a bill signing. Every Kennedy endeavor to update the White House was governed by the concept of historical accuracy. To further interest the public in the White House and its history, Mrs. Kennedy founded the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit organization that today funds acquisitions of antiques and many publications about the White House, including guide books and the journal White House History.
Mrs. Kennedy's renovations were completed under the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969). The Committee for the Preservation of the White House was established by Executive Order in 1964 and given jurisdiction over the state rooms. Lady Bird Johnson's program of beautification extended to the White House grounds in the planting of many trees and creation of the Children's Garden, a space tucked away in the south grounds and featuring a fish pool.
During the administration of Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974), the West Wing, notably the basement, was remodeled, and a columned porch was added to the north side. The President and Mrs. Nixon were also interested in history and antiques and greatly expanded the Kennedy program. Most of the antique furnishings in the White House today were acquired by gift or purchase during the Nixon administration. All of the state rooms were redecorated, their contents enhanced with valuable furnishings of antique or historical value.
Interest in the White House under Presidents Gerald Ford (1974–1977) and Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) centered in art, and fine American pictures were acquired, including notable portraits, busts, and genre scenes. President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) had the family quarters, some thirty-two rooms on the second and third floors entirely remodeled under the direction of interior designer Ted Graber of Los Angeles. His successor, President George Bush (1988–1993), showed little particular interest in redecorating an already many times redecorated White House, although he did refurbish the Oval Office, keeping with a relatively recent trend of updating this room by administration, to reflect a president's personal tastes.
The presidency of Bill Clinton (1993–2001) saw many stylish changes in the decoration of the family quarters, but little with respect to the state areas of the house, except for the Blue Room, which was refreshed and redecorated along the lines Nixon had introduced. Hillary Rodham Clinton sought historical authenticity in following the preferences of James Monroe even with respect to the paint specifications. She removed everything that was not reflective of Monroe's original purchases and personally refitted some reproduced period wallpaper to better suit the room. Her "restoration" perhaps begins a trend. In the administration of President George W. Bush, which began in 2001, the family quarters have been more rearranged than redecorated, although some colors have been changed.
Access to the People's House was restricted in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries due to security threats at home and abroad. The block of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicular traffic in May 1995, during the Clinton administration, after several security breaches on White House grounds and the car bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in April 1995. Secret Service officials had been urging closure of the avenue since the mid-1980s.
The National Park Service has planned a large-scale underground expansion to the south under the Ellipse, a large open field behind the White House, and on the north, under Pennsylvania Avenue, for parking, offices, meeting rooms, and storage. Plans were being made for an ever greater pedestrian area north of the White House, and perhaps eventually on the surrounding streets. Plans had also been put forward regarding construction of a traffic tunnel beneath Pennsylvania Avenue; an alternate plan is for such a tunnel to be built beneath K Street, to the south. All of this, of course, is pending the security adjustments that will be necessary in the aftermath of 11 September 2001.
In retrospect, it seems unfortunate that the original eighty-two acre President's Park was not preserved in Washington's day, for if it was still intact, the problems of the White House with respect to security would be fewer. History has brought change to the White House over two centuries, as have the aims, conceptions, and preferences of the individuals residing under its roof. But the image itself is one of continuity. One thing seems certain: The White House and even its grounds within the iron fence will always look about as they do, whatever may be done to alter the broader surroundings. In a nation with little ceremony beyond the courtroom, symbols are especially important. The White House is the foremost symbol of the American presidency, and one of the most familiar symbols in the world of American democracy.
Editor's Note: For further reading on the institution of the presidency, consult the classified bibliography in Appendix A. In addition, the annotated bibliographies at the end of each presidential essay identify works that may illuminate the impact of individual presidents on the office.