News & Politics

Seat of Power: A Brief History of Toilets in the White House

The presidential can has played a bigger role than you might think.


Heeding the Call

Lyndon Johnson was frustrated that he couldn’t reach his aides when they visited the john, so he had telephones installed in the staff bathrooms. He also had phones in his own facilities, so no matter what urgent personal business was being attended to, urgent presidential business could also be addressed.

Lavatory Grab

While working in Richard Nixon’s White House, national-security adviser Henry Kissinger appropriated colleague Bryce Harlow’s private bathroom as part of an office expansion. Harlow had a good attitude about it, though. “In a way, I’m glad to know the place I used to shit will be Henry’s office,” he told White House counsel John Dean. “That tells me who’s who around here.”

Sharing the Throne

Gerald Ford allowed personal friend and staff troublemaker Robert Hartmann to have an office off the Oval and share his private bathroom. The unusually free access caused challenges to the staff, as Hartmann was able to peruse presidential memos and leak the ones he didn’t like. Deputy chief of staff Dick Cheney eventually evicted Hartmann from the office (and the lavatory).

Overactive Bladder

After Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, White House communications aide David Gergen kept excusing himself from tense discussions in the Situation Room, ostensibly to answer nature’s call. But national-security adviser Richard Allen suspected that Gergen was actually sneaking off to give updates to the press. Either way, Gergen was earning his “Professor Leaky” nickname.

Period Drama

In the Obama White House, deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco worked to get a tampon dispenser in the women’s room in the West Wing. When she announced the success of this effort at the White House senior-staff meeting, there was little reaction from the men in the room. Still, Mastromonaco was pleased, later writing in her memoir, “No one said a word, but it felt really good.”