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“I Feel for Them”: Son of Former White House Butler Says Trump Endangered Health of Residence Staff

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Image Credit: Roland L. Freeman

Charles Allen, whose father Eugene Allen worked as a butler at the White House for 34 years, says President Trump’s reckless actions following his COVID-19 hospitalization are threatening the health of the domestic staff at the White House. “As my dad used to say, they were the little people that made it possible for the big people to do what they did,” he says. Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, died in 2010, but his life story became the basis of the 2013 film “The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to look at how President Trump’s reckless actions have threatened the health of the domestic staff at the White House, we’re joined by Charles Allen. His father Eugene Allen worked as a butler at the White House serving eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Eugene Allen died in 2010, but his life story became the basis of Lee Daniels’ film The Butler.

FREDDIE FALLOWS: [played by Colman Domingo] Are you political, Mr Gaines?

CECIL GAINES: [played by Forest Whitaker] No, sir.

FREDDIE FALLOWS: Good. We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.

CECIL GAINES: I’m Cecil Gaines. I’m the new butler.

FREDDIE FALLOWS: You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.

GLORIA GAINES: [played by Oprah Winfrey] You know he got that job his self. The White House called him; he didn’t call the White House.

GINA: [played by Adriane Lenox] I want to hear all the stories.

GLORIA GAINES: I don’t know how many stories you’re going to hear, because they done swore him to some kind of secret code. I’m so proud of you.

EARL GAINES: [played by David Banner] Dr. King.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: [played by Nelsan Ellis] What do your daddy do?

EARL GAINES: He’s a butler.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Young brother, the Black domestic play an important role in our history.

GLORIA GAINES: Everything you are and everything you have is because of that butler.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of the trailer to The Butler, based on the life story of Eugene Allen. That was Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker, playing Eugene Allen and his wife. Their son, Charles Allen, joins us now.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Charles.

CHARLES ALLEN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as you watched President Trump on the balcony, I mean, so much was going on, on social media, as people started to talk about him as “Benito Trumpolini.” I think Politico said things don’t end well when you start with a balcony speech. But Trump, standing there, does a military salute, gives a thumbs up, then dramatically takes off his mask, turns around and walks into the White House. Talk about who works in the White House, Charles Allen.

CHARLES ALLEN: Well, I was listening to the lady you had on earlier, and she was talking about the status of the White House workers. The White House workers are government employees, but they’re not civil servants, for the most part. The residence staff are not civil, so they come under excepted service. And what that means is, like, anytime they want to tell you that they don’t need your services anymore, then you might come to work, and your stuff will be at the gate in a cardboard box.

But it’s made up primarily — the butler staff, you know, like during dad’s time, it was primarily made up of African American workers. And I think this had been true since the Roosevelt administration. So, the butlers, which I’m more familiar with than the maids, but was primarily African American, and the maids also, and then housemen, primarily African American. And as my dad used to say, they were, you know, the little people that made it possible for the big people to do what they did.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, again, if you were — if your father was working there today — and can you talk about how you think President Trump compares as an employer, though he doesn’t employ them, is that right? They are federal employees.

CHARLES ALLEN: They are federal employees, and they go from administration to administration. A lot of the staff have been there — like, my father had been there over 30 years. And the Ficklin family, I think it had been a member of the Ficklin family at the White House for over 50 years. So, a lot of these jobs are — you know, I think it’s like, let’s say, like being a gondola in Venice, you know, that’s passed down from father to son and to daughters and whatnot. It goes on down the line, a tremendous family lineage, you know, on that job.

AMY GOODMAN: Many of the staff, the majority of the staff, are African American, are Latinx workers. They are older. Of course, this is the very population that during this pandemic is the hardest hit, two-and-a-half to three times harder, end up hospitalized, end up dying. If you can talk about this and why the first family, their actions in the White House so matter? And maybe use some examples from history, with your dad there from, amazingly, right after World War II, President Truman, right through to President Reagan.

CHARLES ALLEN: A lot of the relationships, during my father’s time, anyway — I can’t really speak after 1986 so much, but the relationships between the butlers and the presidents, the first families, a lot of times there were some very close bonds that developed, I mean, the very close familial bonds, if you will. And, I mean, these people, the butlers, there are six, seven full-time butlers, and they come in contact with the family every day, I mean, face to face, meeting with them every day.

And they’re very dedicated people. I mean, my father never — and, you know, I don’t guess he was the exception, but my father never missed a day at work. I mean, he prided himself on that. So, for 35 years, he got up, and he went in there, he went on that job. And he was dedicated. And my father and the other employees, as well, were very dedicated to those first families. Very dedicated.

My father, they used to ask him, you know, which was his favorite president. And he said that he liked them all. And he was telling the truth. I can vouch for him. He found something in each one of those presidents and their families that he liked. You know, he felt like all of them brought something to the table.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if it was true, based on truth, the first time he walks into the Oval Office bringing coffee and tea, it is President Eisenhower — and, I mean, he did first serve President Truman.

CHARLES ALLEN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But he is calling in the National Guard, the state troopers to integrate Little Rock, Arkansas, the high school.

CHARLES ALLEN: Right. My dad — and it’s interesting that you bring that up, because that’s one of the things that he said about — I can relate to you that he said about President Eisenhower. And he said, whatever President Eisenhower’s feelings might have been, deep down inside, he said, in regard to that situation in Little Rock, he said — he said he did his job. He did his job. And sometimes that’s all that you want people to do. Just do your job. What does it say that — as a president, what does it say down there that you’re supposed to do? You know, then do that. Protect all of the people. All of the people. And I think he admired that very much about Mr. Eisenhower.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, General Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, got sick in the White House, right? He had a heart attack. In fact, it’s the beginning of the 25th Amendment. He had written a letter to his vice president, who he had excluded from decision-making when he was sick. He had a kind of team of a few advisers around him, definitely not the vice president, Richard Nixon. But, ultimately, when he got really sick, he wrote a letter to him to say, “You will take over.” But this led to the 25th Amendment. Did your father talk about President Eisenhower getting sick and what that meant in the White House?

CHARLES ALLEN: Not really, because when President Eisenhower got sick, he wasn’t in — he wasn’t in the White House. He was somewhere — I forgot exactly where he was, but he was somewhere enjoying a holiday, you know, playing golf. And he was stricken. And I think by the time that he got back to the White House, he had more or less convalesced and he was in pretty good shape. So, I don’t think he was around Mr. Eisenhower that much when he was bedridden, let me put it that way.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what rights did your father have, and others? And do you speak with people today who have worked in the White House? For example, if the first family isn’t careful, if you have President Trump, for example, outright lying about he is immune — you know, they won’t reveal that he has taken a test that makes him negative — and as he dramatically takes off his mask. What rights do the workers who so intimately serve a president have?

CHARLES ALLEN: They’ve got all of the rights in the world. But you have to understand, they have to be very careful. And one of the reasons they have to be especially careful is because they’re excepted workers, you know, which means that they can just say, “We don’t need your services here any longer.” And so, they have to be very careful. They have to keep stuff to themselves. I don’t know. They’re the little people. They have to be very careful.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think can be done —

CHARLES ALLEN: Very dedicated people.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think can be done to support and protect them more, as, for example, you have the reports in The New York Times that workers who get sick — and we’re only learning about these one by one, that may be larger, for example, than four people right now in what’s called the residence, the residence staff —

CHARLES ALLEN: The residence, right.

AMY GOODMAN: — when it said, “We we won’t be revealing who’s there and how many are sick”?

CHARLES ALLEN: Right. You know, to tell you the truth, I really don’t know. I really don’t say — like, right now, as we’re speaking now, and the administration that we live under now, I don’t know what could be done to protect them. I really don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it make you angry, what you’re seeing now in the White House?

CHARLES ALLEN: I feel for them, yes. I feel for them very much, because it’s a very closed-mouth — as everyone on this, it’s a very closed-mouth group of people. And they don’t come out. They don’t talk about things. It’s kind of like it was in the movie, The Butler, you know, where they’re sitting around playing cards. And I think it was Lenny Kravitz that said, “Somebody’s been running his mouth and stuff.” Very closed-mouth. They didn’t talk a lot about stuff that went on in that job. They really didn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Charles Allen —

CHARLES ALLEN: I — yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, son of the former White House butler Eugene Allen, whose story was the inspiration for the feature film of Lee Daniels called The Butler.

Next up, as we mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we look at the ongoing Indigenous-led protests against President Trump’s border wall in southern Arizona. Stay with us.

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