Rex Scouten, 88, served 10 presidents in White House

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"Where do I live?" the newly elected president, Jimmy Carter, asked when he strolled up the White House driveway in January 1977.

The man who greeted him and showed the Carter family their new residence was a discreet, efficient and politically savvy federal employee with a name evoking a square-jawed hero from a Saturday-afternoon movie serial: Rex Scouten.

Scouten, who died Feb. 20 at 88, served 10 commanders in chief, starting as a Secret Service agent assigned to protect Harry Truman and ending as White House curator of fine arts and decorative objects for Bill Clinton in 1997.

From 1969 to 1986, he was the White House chief usher, essentially the general manager of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His duties included the smooth running of state dinners and presiding over major refurbishing projects in the 132-room mansion.

At times, he held sway over the most sensitive of perks, including who got bumped despite having reservations for the White House tennis court.

As assistant and then chief usher for more than 25 years, Scouten was both a direct and peripheral participant in White House crises and celebrations. He often saw the most powerful families in the world at their most human and vulnerable.

He once approached Gerald Ford in the White House bedroom shortly after the president was rejected by the electorate in 1976. Scouten told Time magazine that he tried to remind Ford that it might be better after a distinguished career to move on and think about the next phase. "I don't believe so," the president said.

To author Kati Marton, Scouten recalled that President Lyndon B. Johnson, who enjoyed cowing nearly everyone, paid a certain price for the mercurial treatment of his staff.

"The clearest sign of how different he was from other presidents was that normally a half a dozen staffers and hangers-on would walk the president from the Oval Office to the residence," Scouten said. "With President Johnson, only the Secret Service agents walked home with him." The usher, who oversees the physical White House and its staff, helps spruce up and redecorate the presidential mansion for every new occupant.

Scouten oversaw the logistical headaches of elaborate state dinners and other functions.

He coordinated one of the biggest dinners ever hosted at the White House, President Richard Nixon's May 1973 banquet on the South Lawn for hundreds of prisoners of war returning from Vietnam.

By that time, Scouten was a cool-handed veteran of such affairs. Among the most difficult, he said, was a 1961 state dinner thrown for Pakistani President Ayub Khan.

President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy hosted the event at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, 16 miles down the Potomac River from the White House.

It was the first-ever state dinner held at the historic property. "Thank goodness the weather was good," he told Time years later.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Scouten was overseeing redecoration of the Oval Office when word reached him that Kennedy had been fatally shot in Dallas. He put the office back in order and made arrangements for visiting world dignitaries. He did not make it home for five days.

Scouten grew particularly close to first lady Nancy Reagan, who once described him as "the second most important man in my life." They were together in the White House's third-floor solarium on March 30, 1981, when she learned her husband had been shot by a gunman outside a Washington hotel.

In a statement Friday, Reagan said Scouten "provided leadership for the household staff and served as the trusted keeper of White House history for almost fifty years."

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