It was just a cockroach, one of millions around the world. But this one had a White House address, making it pretty special. Well, special at least to the reporters with workspace in the often-troubled basement of the press offices. Already this year, they have been treated to flooding, soaked carpet, mousetraps and the wondrous odors of mold.
“It was the size of a small drone,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, professor of political science at Towson University, who led the effort Wednesday to capture the bug. Kumar, who has worked out of the press offices studying the president-press relationship for almost four decades, wanted to turn it into the General Services Administration, the agency responsible for the building. “I wanted to bag it so that the GSA would know what kind of issue we had,” she said. “I chased it. But it got away behind some wiring.”
It is, of course, not the first time bugs or vermin have done battle with the humans who work in the 213-year-old building. Humans have not always prevailed easily — much to the deep frustration sometimes of the president of the United States. None was more frustrated than Jimmy Carter, who battled mice from the start of his administration. To his dismay, he found the bureaucracy unresponsive. GSA, responsible for inside the White House, insisted it had eliminated all “inside” mice and contended any new mice must have come from the outside, meaning, the New York Times reported at the time, they were “the responsibility of the Interior Department.” But Interior, wrote the Times, “demurred” because the mice were now inside the White House.
To make matters worse, GSA and Interior refused to use traps, claiming humane groups had protested that in the past. But when mice started scampering across his office in daylight and when his meeting with the Italian prime minister was conducted amid the distinct smell of a dead mouse, Carter erupted.
His fury was captured in his diary entry for Sept. 9, 1977. Carter that day summoned top officials from the White House, the Department of Interior and the GSA to the Oval Office to unload on them about the mice overrunning the executive offices — including the dead ones rotting away inside the walls of the Oval Office and giving his office a very unpleasant odor. “For two or three months now I’ve been telling them to get rid of the mice,” Carter wrote. “They still seem to be growing in numbers, and I am determined either to fire somebody or get the mice cleared out — or both.”
Now more scared for their jobs than at any possible reaction from humane groups, the bureaucracy responded. According to the Associated Press, daily battle updates were sent to the highest levels of the White House, complete with body counts and descriptions of the weapons being deployed. On Sept. 12 — three days after the meeting with Carter — GSA reported 48 spring traps in the White House, including five in the Oval Office and four in Carter’s study. Six more “Ketch All” traps were placed in the crawl space under the Oval Office. Peanut butter, bacon and cheese were the favored baits. By Sept. 13, the number of traps deployed in the West Wing was up to 114. On Sept. 15, the body count was up to 24. By Sept. 19, it was 30; then 38 by the end of the month.
Finally, on Nov. 4th, the GSA declared victory, reporting officially “the problem (is) under control.” The final “confirmed catch” was 61; the final count of traps was 296 spring traps and 141 GSA “bait stations.”
Other presidents have had their own battles with White House vermin. First Lady Barbara Bush once was taking her daily swim in the pool on the South Lawn when she was joined by a rat that “did not look like a Walt Disney friend, I’ll tell you that.” She told reporters “it was enormous.” She credited her springer spaniel, Millie, and her husband, the president, with rescuing her and drowning the rat.
With that history, this week’s cockroach is but a footnote. But several days later it is still unclear if GSA will declare it an “indoor” bug or find a way to blame Interior for letting an “outdoor” bug in.