White House

Bugged: Obama’s Roach Problem

As in cockroaches. But vermin is nothing new in a building that is 213 years old—and roaches aren’t the worst of it.

Asthma-Cockroaches
National Journal
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George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 13, 2013, 1:27 p.m.

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.

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