WASHINGTON -- They are the ones who are in a position to know: Did first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton really throw a lamp at her husband as legend has it? Is President Clinton a midnight snacker? What's the first family really like behind closed doors?
With access to the president second only to immediate family, the permanent staff of ushers, butlers, cooks, stewards and other White House domestic employees knows the secrets that lurk in the West Wing and executive mansion in any administration.
So it is not surprising that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has twice called White House steward Bayani Nelvis as a witness in his investigation of the alleged sex and cover-up scandal at the White House.
In the past week, Starr has sought to learn more about how the White House operates. Yesterday, in addition to Nelvis, his prosecutorial team questioned Kris Engskov, a personal assistant who is the first staff member to see Clinton in the morning and the last to see him at night.
On Tuesday, Starr's lawyers questioned former senior adviser George Stephanopoulos about the floor plan of the first floor of the West Wing, which includes the Oval Office.
The roughly half-dozen White House stewards are Navy personnel affiliated with the West Wing mess, a formal, clubby dining room in the basement of the West Wing that, like Camp David, is run by the Pentagon.
The stewards, who dress in a civilian uniform of navy blue blazer, white shirt and dark tie, are responsible for cooking, cleaning and serving meals, and often deliver coffee and tea to the president and his guests in the Oval Office.
They are in a position to learn much about the president they work for. It was Nelvis who reportedly told two chefs cooking for Clinton at a 1993 banquet in California that Clinton had a chocolate allergy and that no cream should be used in his food.
They have "unique access," says Chris Emery, a former White House usher -- essentially a supervisor of the domestic staff -- who served Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Clinton.
Emery, who was fired from his White House post by the Clintons after he returned phone calls to Barbara Bush in 1994 and is now administrator of the Howard County Council, said the permanent staff is "witness to a lot of things that go on in the White House that are not discussed."
Nelvis is one of a long tradition of Filipino-American employees at the White House. While the Navy began using Filipinos as stewards after the Spanish-American War, the tradition moved to the White House during the Taft administration, says White House historian William Seale.
After serving as governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft brought back several servants and took them with him when he was elected president. "They were very much favored as White House staff, and remain a presence there," says Seale, author of "The President's House," a 1987 two-volume history of the personal staff at the White House.
The stewards, whose responsibilities are primarily in the West Wing, are distinct from the full-time residential staff of 89 that includes butlers, chefs, electricians, engineers, carpenters, housekeepers, flower shop staff, grounds staff and four ushers. Salaries range from $20,000 for new employees to about $60,000 for ushers. The work is grueling, with days sometimes extending into the middle of the night. But turnover is almost nonexistent.
"They're great jobs," said Emery. "These are career opportunities people don't get every day. Where do you go after you go to the White House?"
John F. Kennedy made his staff promise they wouldn't write kiss-and-tell books about their experiences during his administration, Seale says.
But Emery says he was never asked to sign any confidentiality agreement. It was "understood," he says, "that you don't talk out of school, and you never talk to the press."
Entrusted with such confidences, the personal staff can come to be treated as extended members of the first family.
"Sure, they knew me by my first name," says Joseph Carr, an assistant usher for two years in the Carter and Reagan administrations. "When you see the first lady in her curlers and the president in his underwear, you know it's familiar."
Pub Date: 2/05/98