No Surprise: Vermin in the White House
September 14, 2013 - 8:35 am
No, not that kind of vermin, although the human variety appears to dominate sometimes.
We’re talking about a 214 year old building that is in dire need of The Orkin Man to take up residence. The awful truth about the “People’s House” is that it has become home to some of the biggest cockroaches in Washington — again, not the human genus.
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.”
As with everything else he tried to deal with during his ineffectual term of office, Carter’s war against mice fizzled out and came to nothing.
It is symptomatic of large organizations that small problems become big ones due to rivalries in the bureaucracy, inattention, ore most often, incompetence. Cockroaches infesting the White House can be eliminated and future generations can be prevented from becoming a problem by the intelligent application of pest control techniques by trained technicians. Privately owned old homes don’t suffer near the infestations that the White House apparently does because there aren’t competing bureaucracies making a herculean effort to absolve themselves of responsibility. In the private sector, you simply sign a contract with Orkin, or Terminex and after a few months, the problem becomes manageable.
Perhaps the White House should call Tom DeLay to come in and fix their little pest problem. The old pest control business owner wasn’t known as “The Exterminator” for nothing. Of course, DeLay would have to be instructed to go after bugs only while leaving the human vermin alone — something that, given his personality, might be very difficult for him to do.