WASHINGTON — The White House can be one of the most harried places in America. World-altering decisions are made in the Situation Room. Journalists are scrambling into the Briefing Room, and protesters are standing just outside the gate.
Layers of people make it work each day.
But here’s a group you don’t often think about: calligraphers.
Inside an office in the East Wing, at the most powerful address in the world, three calligraphers sit each day, practicing an ancient art. Perched behind desks tilted at just the right angle, they dab a long pen into a well of ink and put it to paper, not so different from the day that John Hancock put his, well, John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence.
They write out invitations to heads of state, and they put place cards at dining room tables. They design the programs that grace important events, and they sketch out the menus for state dinners. Most of the work is done by hand, as it has been for decades.
“It was always my belief that this is our chance to shine,” said Rick Paulus, who was the chief calligrapher for eight years under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “It’s our chance to contribute something.”
In fact, on busy nights like a state dinner, there are calligraphers on hand in case of emergency (such as a guest showing up unexpectedly and needing a place card put at the table, pronto).
November, with the flurry of upcoming holiday receptions, is by far the busiest month for the calligraphers. In 2006, Paulus said, White House calligraphers made 19,000 invitations for holiday dinners and receptions — each one of them hand-lettered.
Skills required? You need to know the language (don’t invite someone to a “celebration” of Memorial Day, it’s an “observation”). Get your titles right, with the difference between the honorable and the secretary and the ambassador. And keep tabs on different country names (Is it the Republic of Mexico, the Mexican Republic, or just Mexico?).
The office is not without controversy. When White House tours were temporarily curtailed last year because of budget cutbacks, several conservative commentators criticized the amount that the White House spends for calligraphers. There are at least three on the payroll, making $86,000 to $96,000 a year, according to White House records.
“People might say, ‘Three calligraphers, what extravagance!’ ” said Paulus, who now lives on Cape Cod and has his own studio. “It’s a required part of entertaining. Anyone who entertains in the business world or academia, you pull out the stops to entertain. You make it beautiful. This is all part of that.”
But there are still some sensitivities. The White House would not make any of the current calligraphers available for this story.
One of the calligraphers, Rick Muffler, is left-handed, the only southpaw in the office, according to a C-SPAN feature done in 2008.
Muffler is also a third-generation White House worker; his grandfather was a chauffeur for President Warren G. Harding, and his father was chief electrician and wound the clocks at the White House.
“This is timeless,” he said of his craft. “What’s changed is the deadlines.”
They used to have weeks, he said. Now they get hours.
Calligraphy, an art long practiced by Greeks, Romans, and Chinese, is not exactly a profession in high demand. Few schools offer degree programs for it, calligraphy studios are scarce, and demand is soft outside the wedding planning business or colleges that need calligraphy on diplomas.
“You may as well do it with a little human touch,” Paulus said. “At the White House, it’s about that level of detail.”
Paulus got his start in calligraphy as a 12-year-old, buying a set for $5. He apprenticed at a studio in Washington, and was later hired at the State Department — one of the only other government agencies that has its own calligrapher.
In 1998, he arrived at the White House, the pinnacle of almost any career. And he brought about a mini-revolution: adding a computer to the office.
Roughly 40 percent of the work was done by hand, Paulus said, with other work being done using computers.
Interactions with the president, he said, were “very, very, very rare.”
“Thank God, he’s got bigger issues,” he said. He had more dealings with the first ladies, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush.
“Of the two, Mrs. Bush was quite heavily involved in the details of what we were doing, the design work,” he said. “Mrs. Clinton pretty much left it in our hands and trusted we would do a good job.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.