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Words

The Butler

Life in the White House

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Your boss is a very powerful person. When things need doing, he makes sure they’re done. He knows people, knows when to act and when to be patient, and how to get the best from his employees. He’s a class act. Everybody wants to work with him.

Yes, your boss may be powerful—but Eugene Allen had you beat. Over the course of 34 years, he worked for eight of the most powerful men in the free world. In The Butler: A Witness to History, by Wil Haygood, you’ll read about Allen’s history-making job.

In the middle of 2008, long before Democratic candidates for office were decided, Haygood says he “knew” Barack Obama would be the next president—which got him thinking. Haygood decided to find someone for whom all the historical events of the past 60 years had meant something. He wanted to find a black man or woman who’d worked in the White House.

His search led him to 89-year-old Eugene Allen.

Born some five decades after the end of slavery, Allen grew up working in a white family’s kitchen. There, he learned the fine arts of table-setting and dishwashing, which served him well: during the Depression, when jobs were scarce, Allen landed a position at a Washington D.C. country club.

In 1952, he heard the White House had openings in pantry work. He “wasn’t… looking for a job,” but applied anyhow. Not long after he was hired, he met his first boss—Harry Truman.

He became good friends with his second boss; Haygood says the two men golfed together after Dwight Eisenhower left office. In the aftermath of his third boss’s assassination, Allen held a “party” for White House children because he understood what they couldn’t.

His last boss, Ronald Reagan, invited him to the White House as a guest.

For 34 years, Allen worked his way from pantry to parlor. He met, and kept secrets for, world leaders and influential people. And in 2008, Eugene Allen did what he never before thought possible: he voted for an African-American president.

In his foreword to The Butler, the story that begat the movie, director Lee Daniels says his movie’s title character is “fictionalized.” 

The real Eugene Allen lived nearly a stone’s throw from his former place of employment.  Haygood got to know the man he frequently calls “the butler” and was obviously fascinated by the backstory to the job Allen did.

“He was both a witness to history and unknown to it,” Haygood says as he puts Allen’s life in perspective for his readers. As that part of this book—and the friendship the men shared—unfolds, it’s hard not to feel a little awestruck at the history Allen witnessed and his humility for doing it.

At just under 100 pages, it’ll take you about as long to read this book as it will to see the movie—and read it, you should. That’s because, for both movie buffs and historians, The Butler is one very powerful book.

SVCR Don McLean
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