The president will be the president until 12 noon Tuesday, but most of his employees will be gone by the close of business Friday.
They’ll turn in their BlackBerrys, laptops, building passes and gym keys.
And by the time the weekend is out — before the new administration can reverse course on waterboarding or SCHIP or anything else — teams of painters and carpet cleaners will have wiped away any hint that they ever set foot in the White House.
“Every day, I see the inaugural stands going up and bleacher seats going in,” said Anita McBride, chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, whose office overlooks the north grounds. “So as you’re busy packing up boxes and packing to leave, you’re seeing the physical structures there to celebrate incoming administration.”
And yet, McBride noted, it is only in the last few days that she and her staff have been afforded the chance to process the end. While the final weeks of a presidential administration are often a time for wistfulness and nostalgia, these have instead been indefatigably spent — the economic crisis and fighting in the Middle East having made it so.
“It’s ending almost like it began, in the sense that Election Day in 2000 almost never ended,” said former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, observing from afar.
“In many respects it’s pretty identical to the early days,” seconded Dan Bartlett, the former counselor to the president, “but there’s no exhilaration, just exhaustion.”
The tears have just now begun flowing among the East Wing staff.
On Tuesday, Laura Bush convened a final farewell with tea and cookies. Some staffers announced that they had found work; some are waiting to hear back from graduate schools; one staffer is headed to a three-week vacation in Hawaii.
Laura Bush’s press secretary, Sally McDonough, took her camera to work on Wednesday and snapped as many photos as she could. McBride said she was trying “to burn mental pictures” in her mind.
She recalls that back in 1988, when she was a staffer in Ronald Reagan’s White House, there was much less to do in the final days. Noting that the first lady visited two local schools Wednesday, McBride said: “It’s just very late in the game to be doing these types of events, but it’s really just following the president’s mantra, ‘Sprinting to the Finish.’”
But as part of that, she laments, “there hasn’t been as time to be as nostalgic as before.”
White House Communications Director Kevin Sullivan said that, over the last 10 days, he’s tried to jam as many tours for friends and family in as he possibly could.
“People are excited about their futures and looking ahead, but it is very bittersweet,” he said. “I’m not” — he pauses for a moment. “I don’t really want to leave.”
On Friday, the president will gather his senior staff for a farewell lunch.
On Sunday, current chief of staff Josh Bolton and the former one, Andy Card, will host a party in Maryland.
Only about 20 to 25 political staffers are expected to show up for work at the White House on Monday. Less than a dozen will be on the premises on Inauguration Day.
After Barack Obama is sworn in, Bush will take the long scenic helicopter flight around Washington en route to Andrews Air Force base, where dozens of staffers will send him on his way back to Texas.
They’ll head back to the cars as private citizens, the word “former” forever fixed to the front of their names.
“Coming into this economy and coming out of this administration, these could be scary days,” said David Gergen, who has lived through the end multiple times in his role as an advisor to four presidents.
At nine o’clock in the morning of Jan. 20, 1989, White House Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein escorted President Reagan into the Oval Office for a final staff briefing before the inauguration of George H.W. Bush.
When they walked into the room, it was completely barren.
“We had no place to sit,” Duberstein recalled. So instead, they stood — Reagan; Duberstein; then-National Security Adviser Colin Powell; the president’s special assistant, James Kuhn; and his personal secretary, Cathy Osborne.
“You always knew that you had temporary custody of the office,” said Duberstein, “It wasn’t your office. You were using it and working out there on behalf of American people.”
“You feel such a deep familiarity with the place and attachment to the place that it is very hard to imagine at a certain point the gates will close behind you and you simply will not be allowed back in,” says Jeff Shesol, the deputy speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “Suddenly, the next day, you won’t be allowed back in and you’ll hardly know a soul in the building.”
In the the waning days of the Clinton presidency, Shesol was one of the last staffers to leave. He recalls working on Clinton’s final speech as dollies full of archival boxes crawled by his office door.
Eight years ago, Capricia Marshall, former Clinton White House social secretary, was the point person to receive Bush and escort the incoming first family into the White House for the traditional coffee with the incoming president.
She had left a note and bottle of champagne for her successor the night before in her East Wing office.
The scene from those final 24 hours still sticks in her mind today. She remembers the president and Mrs. Clinton walking down the stairs to greet the staff for one last time.
“Both of them were in this really jubilant mood,” Marshall said. “They had really big smiles, big laughs, and they went around hugging everyone and saying their goodbyes.”
The head pianist from the presidential marine band played “It Had to Be You,” and the first couple walked from room to room, recalling memories of each.
At about midnight on the night before President Bush’s inauguration, Shesol turned in his White House pass and pager. It was raining as he headed out to his car with his boxes. He stood at the gate at the bottom of Executive Drive, as a Secret Service agent conducted one last check to make sure he hadn’t taken anything he wasn’t supposed to.
“The whole thing was getting melancholy: going through the gate and hearing the very solid click of the turnstile, and knowing that was it,” said Shesol. “It was a very solid, pronounced click.”