Real-life “The Butler”: The White House employee who served from Eisenhower through Obama

Rick Klein, Richard Coolidge, and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Top Line 

The president and administration changes every four to eight years, but behind the scenes at the White House, there is a staff of employees who serve the presidents and their families through the years, regardless of who wins the election. 

Lee Daniels’ new movie, “The Butler,” shines a spotlight on the less-told story of these employees. And in this episode of “Top Line,” we sit down with one White House employee who has worked for every president since Dwight Eisenhower. 

William Hamilton, who recently retired from his job procuring groceries and other personal items for the first family after 55 years—making him the longest serving White House staff member ever—says he’ll never forget his first day on the job. 

“I went into the White House and my boss said, ‘Well, look, I want you to wait here.’ And this was in the Diplomatic Reception Room,” Hamilton says, not knowing at that time that the first family enters and exits through that room. But he soon learned when the White House’s chief usher came in and introduced himself to Hamilton. 

“He said, ‘Well, you can't wait here. Mrs. Eisenhower's coming through.’" Hamilton says with a laugh. “So, I had to move into the China Room because I didn't know the first lady was coming through at the time.” 

By virtue of proximity, Hamilton’s job allowed him an up-close perspective to watch presidential history unfold in unexpected ways. 

“I was there when Nixon resigned from the presidency," Hamilton says. "That was a hard time. And I didn't think I would be there when the president would be assassinated. I didn't think it would happen. And to get the first black president, I didn't think that would have ever happened in my lifetime.” 

Though Hamilton remembers his years at the White House as a privilege, he also points out that it isn’t always as glamorous as it might sound. 

“Well, most people would always say … ‘I'd really love to have that job. Say, I mean, you see the president every day and all that,’" he says. "I'd say, ‘Well, you don't see him every day. … You just have a job to do and you just got to do your job. That's it.’" 

In addition to his full-time White House job, Hamilton drove a taxi cab part-time for 35 years.

“I had seven kids that I had to get through college,” Hamilton says. “So, I had to work that between doing the White House, because I wanted my wife to be home with the kids.”

For more of the interview with Hamilton, and to hear how he says how things are different when kids are living in the White House, check out this episode of “Top Line.”

ABC's Alexandra Dukakis, Freda Kahen Kashi, Patrick O'Gara, and Tom Thornton contributed to this episode.