The White House employs calligraphers. And pays them money!


The Weekly Standard‘s Daniel Halper, who yesterday broke the story of a government leader reminding his employees to obey the law, unearths another scandal: the White House employs calligraphers. And pays them money!

Chief White House Calligrapher Gets Paid $96,725 Per Year

With the White House closing its doors to public tour groups in order to save money for the sequester, it’s worth remembering some of the other costs the White House incurs annually.

Like the “Chief Calligrapher,” Patricia A. Blair, who has an annual salary of $96,725, and her two deputies, Debra S. Brown, who gets paid $85,953 per year, and Richard T. Muffler, who gets paid $94,372 every year.

Yes, it sounds a little silly that we’re paying people good money to do fancy handwriting while threatening to furlough people doing real jobs. But the White House is, after all, home to the head of state of the most powerful nation on earth. It hosts state dinners and engages in all manner of ceremonial functions. It’s not shocking that a whopping three people are employed doing calligraphy.

Presumably, these individuals are members of the US civil service. The White House is subject to the locality pay for the Washington-Baltimore area and pay is standardized. So, that means Blair and Muffler are either very senior GS-12s or a junior GS-13s. Brown is likely a mid-level GS-12. (None of the amounts precisely match the pay charts; presumably, they include merit bonuses.)

Is that too much to pay people to do fancy handwriting? Maybe. It’s more than a lot of learned professionals make, even in the DC area. Then again, one imagines the White House has rather high standards and these three individuals are among the best calligraphers in the country. I haven’t a clue what the market is in that industry, but mid-grade civil service pay doesn’t strike me as inordinate.

Oh: It’s probably worth noting that President Obama didn’t open the Graphics and Calligraphy Office and staff it with his Chicago cronies. Here’s a C-SPAN “Tour of the White House Calligraphy Office” from the Bush administration; Blair was heading it back then, too. I haven’t been able to figure out when it first opened but someone has been hand-writing White House invitations since at least the John Adams administration.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bill says:

    i read that this morning, it’s awesome! what a niche job they have……

  2. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Meanwhile, police, firefighters, other first responders, air traffic controllers, and others are being sent home…

    Aren’t they?

  3. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:
    You’re a knucklehead: The Standard’s story doesn’t say the calligraphers are being kept on while first responders are being furloughed; the story says there are calligraphers.

    Again, JI13, you’re a terrible troll because you’re boring.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Meanwhile, police, firefighters, other first responders, air traffic controllers, and others are being sent home…

    Aren’t they?

    Sequestration has forced local governments to lay off local EMTs, police and fire personnel? Really?

    Maybe the Weekly Standard should worry about Saturday postal service? Oh wait, Republicans want to save Saturday delivery … never mind.

  5. JKB says:

    Those are mid-grade GS employees. They are at the very top of the normal schedule. Anything higher usually requires significant managerial responsibilities. Beyond GS/GM-15 is the Senior Executive Service.

    GS-12 is equivalent to a Lieutenant Commander or Major (O-4)
    GS-13 is equivalent to a Commander or Lieutenant Colonel (O-5)

    That is above or at the rank of the men who wrote the Counterinsurgency Manual that altered the war on terror.

    A Ph.D. applying for a scientist position would be hired as a GS-12.

    None of this is Obama’s fault. The GS system has been broken for decades with little relation of GS level to education and experience anymore.

  6. Moosebreath says:

    In the scale of Presidential scandals where Watergate was a 10, this one is about a negative 2.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Republicans are so desperate…it really is comical.

  8. Fiona says:

    I’m so glad The Weekly Standard is on top of this story given how significant it is.

  9. The Washington DC metro area has moved to the top of the ladder income wise in the Obama years.

    That never would have happened if John Boehner was willing to compromise. Those damn Republicans are out to destroy our country.

  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @JKB: The operating word re: the Ph.D. “hired.” After a decade on the job, he will no longer be a GS-12.

  11. Console says:


    I don’t know if I’d call the GS system broken. It just really flattens on the top so you get white collar workers making almost as much as management. In my line of government work, it’s not unusual to see the worker making way more than management. If there’s something wrong with that, then so much as there is a solution, it’s to pay astronomical sums to the top level of management like the private world does.

    But for me, the only place that low pay becomes an issue is at the SEC.

  12. Mikey says:

    These aren’t just run-of-the-mill calligraphers. These are calligraphers who hold Yankee White security clearances.

    It makes a difference, pay-wise.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @JKB: GS-12s in the DC area are doing clerical work. It’s very inflated compared to the civil service system in the rest of the country. My dad was a GS-12 at Fort McClellan, Alabama years ago and was one of the senior civil servants on post. Here, his duties would have been at the GS-15 level.

    PhD scientists should start at GS-13 level. A PhD automatically qualifies you for GS-13, in fact, although there’s no guarantee of actually getting hired at that rate.

    Nor does the GS-military comparison work very well. Since Reagan”s time, military pay has skyrocketed while civil service pay has stagnated. Prestige has declined accordingly. While a GS-12 is technically equivalent to an O-4 for protocol purposes, the former makes $84,855 (at Step 5 with the DC locality adjustment) while the latter has a base pay of $82,234.80 (at 12 years of service) plus $19,640.40 (if married, slightly less otherwise) in guaranteed tax free bonuses. That’s a whopping $101,882.40, much of it tax free. Which is to say, the major gets paid like a mid-level GS-13 or a junior GS-14, even though he’s “equivalent” to a GS-12.

  14. rodney dill says:

    …maybe if they only pay by the letter and keep that to a minimum they can still keep them… ‘course every thing will then be signed.
    Pres’ent ‘Bama

  15. de stijl says:

    while threatening to furlough people doing real jobs

    This is a skill that has some demand. It requires aptitude, training and long practice. People are willing to spend good money to acquire the output of people with these skills, both in the public and private realms. It is a real job.

  16. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: Wow, I hadn’t looked at the pay grad charts since the 1980’s.

  17. swbarnes2 says:

    Good thing this blog is covering important matters like this, and not the fact that conservative lawmakers are too cowardly to support or openly oppose the right to vote.

  18. JKB says:

    @James Joyner:

    Perhaps but pay isn’t the comparison to make, the comparison should be made on duties. A calligrapher, regardless of perfection, is a technical skill. Or is there some suggestion they are exercising discretion in what they write? Or making choices inherent to government? At best they should be a GS-7. Maybe equivalent to a Warrant officer?

    Now that pay has been inflated in DC regardless of locality pay due to nearness to the throne through grade inflation, well, that is endemic in DC. It is something that has grown regardless of the party in question.

    But we have the sequester, let us as the questions that terrify the DC bureaucrats:
    What are you spending your budget on now?
    How is that still a necessary expenditure?
    How could it be done cheaper?

    I was in DC at the start of Bush’s first term. They brought in a budget director who had been at DoD until then. She asked terrible questions during budget briefs. The office or program manager would give their presentation on how big an increase they wanted but she’d go back to slide 2 and ask them to explain what their base budget was being spent on, ignoring the increase. Almost none could answer the question. The first year. After that, the managers cut activities and programs they couldn’t logically justify anymore. It was a brilliant way to reform the agency.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @JKB: The federal government, like all employers, vies for the services of talent based on market conditions. The fact of the matter is that, to get people of sufficiently high caliber in the very expensive DC Metro area, you have to pay them a wage that’s higher than would be the norm in, say, Omaha. For the civil service, that leads to pretty severe grade inflation.

  20. James Joyner says:

    @swbarnes2: The right to vote hasn’t been in question in decades. What’s at issue before the Supreme Court is one extraordinary provision of a nearly-half-century-old law that requires a handful of states to be treated differently than all other states. It’s not relevant to this thread, nor, since it gets debated every time the law is up for renewal, a particularly interesting question.

  21. John Peabody says:

    Fully agree with James…this is a non-issue, just very high on the “colorful” meter. And the last two comments from James are spot on, as well.

  22. swbarnes2 says:

    @James Joyner:

    When poor, non-white Floridians see that their voting lines are 4 hours long, they know who is responsible. When early voting is curtailed in Democratic counties, and nor Republican ones, people know whose idea that was. When Republicans try to enact deliberately sloppy voter purges, people know. When Spanish speakers only are given misinformation, when filled out voter registration forms are trashed by Republican operatives…and so on, you have to know more examples off the top of your head than I do. Minorities take the vote pretty seriously, and when Republicans overtly sabotage their access, it will motivate them.

    If Florida doesn’t want to have its policies towards its voters scrutinized, perhaps they ought to stop deliberately curtailing access.

    But I guess passing policies to make Democrats unable to vote is less important than fancy handwriting.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @swbarnes2: But none of that is at issue in terms of the VRA debate before SCOTUS. It’s a very technical issue. The issues you point to, by contrast, have received rather extensive coverage here. It’s just not a particularly hot topic in March of an off-year.

  24. swbarnes2 says:

    @James Joyner:

    Keep arguing just like that. That it’s fine and dandy for Republicans to deliberately target Democratic voters, because the VRA is just technical, and minorities would be wrong to be worried about Republicans calling their access to the vote a “racial entitlement”. No, they are supposed to look in the hearts of Republicans, and if they are openly saying that they really do want to curtail Democratic voters, well, what matters is that deep in their hearts, they are nice guys.

    Keep it up. It’s brilliant minority outreach. Less interesting than the handwriting stuff, of course.

  25. Elen James says:


    Bless your heart, you are having a bad day and are now attacking people who would otherwise love to hear your well thought out arguments. And please stay on topic, otherwise you become boring and one wouldn’t want that.

  26. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @James Joyner: Additionally, these particular employees are more than just clerks (separate from the technical aspects of calligraphy). In order to do their jobs, I would imagine that they require access to the schedules of the Obamas and Bidens, and to lists of dates, times, locations and attendees of all State events far enough in advance to send official invitations – highly confidential information that can only be entrusted to people with insane levels of security clearance.

    Imagine the damage that could be done if one them went rogue.

  27. JKB says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    You mean like the airmen who man Air Force One, the janitors in the White House, the interns in the West Wing. The reason they do security clearances is to find out if you are someone who would sell out for a pittance, not how much they have to pay you to keep you selling government secrets.

  28. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: Well, this is the same reason why people who do quality control in the purchasing chain can end up with insanely high salaries–companies want to make sure they aren’t inclined to be bribed to slip in a few cheap knock-off counterfeits from China into the automobile/airplane assembly line. From the viewpoint of defense against liability if one of those suckers crashes, the high salary is much, much cheaper.

  29. My word program produces fancy writing… I wonder if I should be paying it 90K a year to do that?

  30. MM says:

    @A Conservative Teacher: Does your word program regularly communicate with foreign dignitaries and heads of state?

  31. san rafael blue says:

    I respect their skill and talent, but c’mon, we do not need calligraphers at this price level in this OBAMARECESSION

  32. anjin-san says:

    @ A Conservative Teacher

    My word program produces fancy writing

    If you really think your word processing program can duplicate the work of an elite level calligrapher, I submit you may be too ignorant to be a teacher.

  33. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    The problem with an outlook like yours – envy towards anyone that is more educated, talented, or successful than you – is that you end up like Lois Lane.

    Jealous of the whole world.

  34. Scott O says:

    Can we please launch a drone strike on Daniel Halper?

  35. But, why do these enobled scribes have to reside in DC? Can they not ply their trade in some lower cost locale, say Botswana? Or Camden, NJ. One assumes universal internet connectivity. Or fax machines and Fed Ex.

    And I take Conservative Teacher’s point. Dear Leader can invite Tiger Woods to golf via email. An engraved invitation is overkill, surely. Ditto for Malia taking her peeps to dinner in NYC on Air Force Teen; Facebook or Evite is undoubtedly up to the task.

    I’m all for Tradition. And God knows we need to keep up appearances when hosting the despot du jour. But we also used to have a tradition that Americans couldn’t be killed without Due Process and that’s been thrown out the window. Seems to me that calligraphy is significantly less important the the Fifth Amendment. But then, I’m not a liberal.

  36. Console says:

    Calligrapher for the white house… that’s pretty much the TOP OF YOUR PROFESSION as far as something like that goes. But people balk at the idea that this person makes good money. They don’t even make top artist money. I mean seriously, try to understand this point… they are commissioned to produce good looking work that represents the US for the most important and powerful people in the world.

    Could any of the commenters, crying about these salaries even tell me what the typical lead graphic designer makes at a top company? Just because you’re mediocre at your job doesn’t mean no one else deserves what they get.

  37. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl: Sure; that’s the substance of the post. I’m just saying that it’s easy to understand why, at first blush, it sounds silly. Does the White House need calligraphers? I think so. But they’re somewhat further down the totem pole than, say, air traffic controllers or Border Patrol agents.

  38. In a day and age when a computer printer can do the job faster and cheaper, why are we paying a quarter of a million dollars for non-essential personnel?

  39. Nikki says:

    @Rhymes With Right Though troglodytes might not be able to discern it, one can tell the difference between machine-created and hand-crafted calligraphy. As the most powerful nation on the earth, do we really want our White House to cheap out on dinner invitations to the leaders of the world?

  40. You Gma says:

    @Gold Star for Robot Boy:

    I agree that there’s no report as to whether or not the White House calligraphers will be furloughed. I hope that they will be at least furloughed, if not fired.

    My main concern is that we pay 3 calligraphers for what appears to be a fairly simple job. I have a feeling that these calligraphers make one original of “official” invitations or sentiment cards (think of White House Hallmark cards), then copy the rest. Add to this simple project the fact that they can do their calligraphy electronically. This means that their services are not actually necessary. I’ve created equally beautiful wedding invitations using PowerPoint. It takes me less than an hour to create an original, electronic version, then a few simple sample printouts that allow for corrections in alignment.

    Since I have had invitations to the White House, as well as seen birthday cards to their employees (yes, they send birthday cards to employees – which costs even more money), I am familiar with their layout, content, and fancy writing. Believe me, it really isn’t very difficult. One administrative assistant can do the same job.

  41. YoungGMa says:

    @You Gma:

    Yeesh – I put in the wrong Name for this post. Sorry folks – looks kinda funny saying “You GMa.”

  42. @Nikki: Love the ad hominem attack that you substituted for rational discussion and debate. Clearly you have neither a point nor a clue. Dismissed.

  43. YoungGMa says:


    No, you can’t tell the difference – they don’t do the calligraphy on each invitation. The invitations I have seen are obviously copied in both the body of the invitation as well as the signature at the bottom.

    Yes, I want our White House to “cheap out” if it saves money. We already look like fools because we cannot balance our budget. In addition, with the high-quality of copies they use, it looks very nice.

  44. YoungGMa says:


    I’ve personally seen these invitations. Yes, a word processor can duplicate the calligraphers’ efforts.

  45. @swbarnes2: Not one conservative opposes the right to vote.

    What some of us question is whether the use of statistics that are 40–50 years old ( and which will be 60-70 years old when the current renewal expires) to determine what jurisdictions are covered by special provisions is so irrational as to violate the Constitution. Assuming that the current test for the implementation of Section 5 is overturned (as it should be), the opinion will no doubt invite Congress to formulate a test that uses more recent elections to determine coverage or to cover the entire country (and thereby provide equal protection of the law to all Americans).

  46. @anjin-san: And I suggest that your ad hominem attack proves that you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

  47. Jim Treacher says:

    @Console: So are you just pretending not to understand that the issue is government spending? Or do you really not get it?

  48. Nikki says:

    @YoungGMa: Yes, you can tell the difference. My sister has produced professional-quality calligraphy for decades. Just because YOU can’t doesn’t mean others can’t.

  49. grumpy realist says:

    sorta like the difference between engraved and embossed for wedding invitations?

    I guess I go along with the guys that say, heck, if we have to tighten our belts, let’s have EVERYONE tighten belts. So until we get the deficit back on track, that’s no, no calligraphers. (If the White House wanted to really make a point, they’d use a cheap-assed mimeography machine spitting stuff out in purple and in Courier, which is the ugliest font that has ever been invented.

  50. Mikey says:

    @Chris Wysocki:

    But, why do these enobled scribes have to reside in DC? Can they not ply their trade in some lower cost locale, say Botswana? Or Camden, NJ. One assumes universal internet connectivity. Or fax machines and Fed Ex.

    I submit that the public internet and fax machines would not meet the information security requirements of the Presidential schedule.

    That doesn’t mean human calligraphers are a requirement, but it does mean if we’re going to employ them, and grant them the exceptionally high level of security clearance required to work in the White House, they will have to work in Washington, D. C., rather than Gaborone.

  51. @Mikey: Really? The government *never* uses electronic communications for anything even remotely sensitive? What pray tell do they use? Carrier pigeons?

  52. Scott O says:

    I’m looking forward to the next Presidential primary season when we’ll see angry Republicans in town hall meetings asking the candidates if they will fire the White House calligraphers, if they’re going to be flying around in air force one to go golfing with their buddies and how many Christmas trees they intend to have in the White House.

  53. Mikey says:

    @Chris Wysocki: You didn’t suggest they use what they use for transmitting classified information–you suggested the internet, fax machines, or FedEx.

    It is, of course, possible to transmit classified information via electronic communications networks. I do it every day, and have for nearly 20 years. But the requirements for transmitting information at even the Secret level–let alone the Top Secret required of what would come out of the White House–would add so much cost, overhead, and inefficiency that it would not be cost-effective to employ the calligraphers elsewhere.

  54. wr says:

    @anjin-san: Lois Lane?

  55. Console says:

    @Jim Treacher:

    Spending is the problem? What kind of nonspecific generic nonsense is that? Is spending a problem because journalists that aren’t savvy enough to understand real policy know a big number when they see one?

    Answer this question. Since 2009, has the deficit shrank or grown?

  56. Rafer Janders says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I guess I go along with the guys that say, heck, if we have to tighten our belts, let’s have EVERYONE tighten belts. So until we get the deficit back on track, that’s no, no calligraphers.

    But we don’t have to tighten our belts. Tightening our belts in the middle of a low-grade recession is a stupid, stupid thing to do; we should instead be spending money in an expansionary effort. The deficit is nothing to worry about right now.

    I understand that that’s hard for people who can’t grasp economics to understand, but it’s the simple truth.

  57. Rafer Janders says:

    Also, too, assume we get rid of the calligraphers. That’s three people who were making very good salaries now out of work. And they’re supposed to do…what? The most likely result is that they wind up on unemployment for months, if no years, and so they and their families not only are supported by the taxpayers, but they stop spending money in their local communities. So that’s three or more less people going out to dinner, going to movies, paying for piano lessons, keeping up with the mortgage, buying gas, etc., which in the long run is less money in the economy.

  58. Al says:

    So we’re spending $400 billion on a bad fighter $32 billion on a bad Stryker/Bradley replacement vehicle and $37 billion on leaking ships but we want to talk about how the White House is spending $.0003 billion? That sounds like it’ll be really helpful.

  59. anjin-san says:

    @ wr

    In the Superman II movie, Lois Lane tells Superman that she is “jealous of the whole world” because she has to share him with the entire human race.

  60. anjin-san says:

    @ Nikki

    You can absolutely tell the difference. My wife is studying calligraphy. She still has a long way to go (in spite of her being a talented artist, calligraphy is pretty hard!) but her stuff is better than anything I can do on my computer, and I have a lot of experience producing print docs, including invitations, for Fortune 500 companies.

  61. wr says:

    @anjin-san: Ah. Thanks.

  62. grumpy realist says:

    @Rafer Janders: Oh, I definitely realize that and I’m a Keynsian. I just think we should say: “you want austerity? Fine, we’ll give you austerity until you choke on it.”

    That includes cutting the DOD budget in half, obviously…..

  63. Susan says:

    One of the jobs of the White House calligraphy office is to regulate the use of the Presidental Seal of the United States. That’s why you don’t see it on NASCAR, for instance, or bags of potato chips. Just sayin’…