The offer came out of the blue: Please come for an interview at the White House. I was a student at Alfred State College in the late 1960s, majoring in business/executive admin science, and about to graduate. My employment plans weren’t firm, but I had already been offered two jobs, one with a global airline and the other with a corporate attorney. Living and working in Washington, D.C., wasn’t on my radar. But because of my outstanding grades and business skills, I was tapped as a potential candidate, so off I went to interview for a job I never dreamed of: answering President Lyndon B. Johnson’s mail.
The first few weeks I worked in the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House West Wing. The EOB houses the majority of offices for White House staff members, and that’s where the Correspondence Section was located. A small group of us sat at desks with electronic typewriters and binders with sample response letters. We were given bundles of opened letters from “the American people,” each marked with a code that matched a response in the binder. We typed each letter on White House stationery, personalizing with their name and address and special message. The Correspondence manager proofed every single one before placing it under the automatic pen which reproduced the President’s signature.
The Correspondence Section was only a starting point. From there I was sent “on assignment” to work for various Special Assistants to the President whose offices were in the White House proper. Faces in the news passed me in the halls: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, cardiac surgeon Michael DeBakey, presidential biographer Doris Kearns (Goodwin). Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked me to present a birthday gift to President Johnson from the Cabinet. I was invited to parties on the White House lawn, met the President’s family, watched him play with his dogs. If I worked late, a chauffeured limo drove me back to my apartment.
Although this was an exciting job for a newbie straight out of college, there was also a downside to city life. Living in D.C. was expensive and my pay grade was low. I lived with two other White House-employed girls in an efficiency apartment on N Street. We slept on couches and the floor, trying hard to snooze while the foreign service tenant in the adjacent apartment blasted his Vietnamese audio tutorials. Grocery shopping required taking a cab outside the city since no one owned a car. What started as an adventure eventually turned sour when our expected pay raise didn’t materialize.
For any graduate considering working in the White House environment today, the best foot in the door is a personal connection with a current employee. Otherwise, the best way in is through one of the government offices in D.C., working your way up. Everyone who works at the White House is technically employed by another agency, but “on assignment.” For example, my paycheck came from the Veterans’ Administration, my roommate’s from the FBI.