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Through the keyhole at the White House

Tomorrow morning, the Obamas will wake up in some pretty cool digs. From FDR's private cinema to the bed where Barbra Streisand laid her head, Rupert Cornwell peers through the keyhole of America's historic – and iconic – First Residence

Tuesday 20 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Ronald Reagan called it an eight-star hotel. Harry Truman, no less accurately, described the place as "the crown jewel of the federal prison system". As Barack Obama will quickly discover, the White House is a fortress impossible to penetrate, yet almost as difficult to escape from. Life there is cosseted and claustrophobic, luxurious and regulated, but, above all, watched over at every instant.

Even the most innocent unscripted deviation from routine will have the Secret Service protectors quivering with anxiety. For these latter, in an ideal world, America's First Family would not set foot outside the building throughout their entire time there. For Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama, the most precious commodity these next four or eight years will be normality.

They will find it, if anywhere, on the second and third floors of the executive residence, the classically styled white porticoed mansion the world knows as the White House. That, for the Obamas, will be home. The West Wing, made famous by the TV series and site of the Oval Office, is a smaller, two-storey building linked to the mansion by a colonnaded walk. On the other side is the East Wing, housing the Office of the First Lady.

Every president divides his working day differently. George Bush was an early-to-rise, early-to-bed creature of habit, waking at 5.30am, up at 6am and in the Oval Office for his daily intelligence briefing an hour later. He could eat in his private dining room (simple fare like hamburgers and salad) or even at his desk. By 5.30pm he'd be home, for a quiet dinner, perhaps some TV or a movie, before bed by 10pm at the latest.

Bill Clinton was the opposite, a later riser who got going as the day progressed. Bush always wore a suit and tie to work. Clinton's White House, in the early days at least, was a place of jeans and brainstorming sessions, fuelled by pizza and phone calls deep into the night. Ronald Reagan's day started at nine and ended at five. The ultimate presidential minimalist, however, was Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s, who took a regular afternoon nap – from which he was wont to wake and sarcastically inquire: "Is the country still there?"

But for all of them, refuge was back on the second and third floors of the mansion. An estate agents' brochure would make it seem a standard home for a corporate hotshot: drawing room (the Yellow Oval Room), two/three sitting rooms, dining room and six bedrooms, plus the Truman balcony with its stunning views, where Obama will be able to sneak a cigarette, or even a quick indulgence in his officially proscribed BlackBerry. And that's just the second floor. The third has a solarium, games room, linen room and another small sitting room (which the outgoing Bush used for workouts).

That bare description, however, only hints at the amenities on hand. One hundred staff, including five full-time chefs, are at the disposal of this particular chief executive and his family. On top of this, Obama will have his mother-in-law, the 71-year-old Marian Robinson, living with them. Endless fodder for jokes, of course, but she'll be another bastion of normality, helping to look after the girls and the as yet unacquired First Puppy. The Obamas will have a private theatre (all deep red with soft chairs you could drown in) at which the movie of their choice will be shown, if necessary before general release, and where he can practise for a presidential debate, or rehearse a State of the Union address. And if you're president, not only can you invite movie stars in person, they come running.

Michelle, furthermore, has a $150,000 (£102,000) budget to redecorate the private quarters as she pleases, to make it feel more like home. Question: will she remove the plasma television in the Lincoln Bedroom, where favoured guests of the First Family stay?

And even before the makeover, the Obamas will lack for nothing. In her 1989 memoir, My Turn, Nancy Reagan gave a flavour of living there. "Every evening, while I took a bath, one of the maids would come by and remove my clothes for laundering or dry cleaning. Five minutes after Ronnie came home and hung up his suit, it would disappear to be pressed, cleaned or brushed."

These days, 21st-century communications have made a president's existence busier and more stressful. Earlier presidents have had a putting green, swimming pool, bowling lane or horseshoe pit put in to relax them. Obama famously has mused about getting a basketball court. More probably, though, as the first genuinely urban president in years, he'll try to get out on the town, and visit Washington neighbourhoods – that is, of course, if his Secret Service detail lets him.

In depth: the White House

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