“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. He must often accommodate the most specific and adamant of tastes, within limits.
Once asked whether a leather sectional could ever find its way into the Red Room based on a presidential whim, Scouten replied it had once been tried but that “periods of the rooms are pretty well set and a person would be in hot water if he tried to change it.”
Scouten oversaw the logistical headaches of elaborate state dinners and other functions — the catering equivalent of a maneuver described in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”
During the Bicentennial period, he helped orchestrate two or three state dinners a month. 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.
Not long afterward, Scouten and White House curator Clement Conger guided Nancy Reagan in the first major interior renovation in a decade.
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. Everyone teases me about it to this day, but I admired Rex Scouten so much that when I received a wonderful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel for Christmas in 1985, I named him ‘Rex’ as a tribute to him.”
Scouten stepped down as chief usher in 1986 and succeeded Conger as White House curator until his final retirement in 1997.
As curator, he worked to obtain and preserve tens of thousands of pieces of artwork, furniture and tableware in the White House collection. His successor as chief usher, Gary Walters, said Scouten worked with first lady Rosalynn Carter to revitalize what is now the White House Endowment Trust. By the late 1990s, it had raised $25 million for upkeep of the White House’s public rooms.
Rex Wayne Scouten was born Sept. 16, 1924, on his family’s farm in Snover, Mich. During World War II, he served in the Army and participated in the invasion of Anzio, Italy. His decorations included the Purple Heart.
He was recruited to the Secret Service after graduating in 1948 from Michigan State University’s criminal justice school. He soon joined the White House detail and later accompanied then-Vice President Nixon on his tours overseas.
With a growing family, Scouten sought a job requiring less travel and in 1957 joined the White House staff as assistant to the chief usher. During the Johnson administration, he left to work as the National Park Service’s liaison to the White House. Nixon appointed him chief usher in 1969.
Scouten, a Fairfax City resident, died at Inova Fairfax Hospital of complications from hip surgery, his family said. Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Dorothy Walker Scouten of Fairfax, Va., and two daughters, Carol Scouten of Apopka, Fla., and Carla Scouten of Charlottesville, Va..
Despite his record, Scouten was not the longest-serving usher. That distinction fell to Irwin “Ike” Hoover, who served 42 years until his death in 1933. Hoover set a high standard for discretion when he reportedly declined $50,000 to write a tell-all memoir. His dictum was, “When I pass out, everything I know goes with me.”
Scouten followed in that tradition, even sometimes to his own social disadvantage. “You don’t want to travel in circles where people ask you inside stuff about the first family, so you get down to the people you know won’t ask,” he once told the New York Times. “I didn’t even tell my wife things.”