|The First Lady meets the press. To her right is White House executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, pastry chef, William Yosses, and florist, Nancy Clarke.|
| Christmas at The White House
By Carol Joynt
There aren’t many occasions when politics are set aside in Washington, but one of those rare times happened yesterday, when Laura Bush performed a ritual that goes back decades: the First Lady welcoming members of the White House press corps into the residence to view the holiday decorations and to feast on a stupendous buffet that on this occasion included Chicken Fried Steak and Tamales among the Smoked Salmon and FrenchedLamb Chops.
Only the famous eggnog was missing, but apparently that’s too potent to either A) serve during the day, or B) serve to the media. Or both.
The unveiling of the decorations also marked the start of the President’s holiday social schedule. There will be parties practically every night for the next few weeks for the diplomatic corps, for Congress, for media, and for friends and family. There was a reception Wednesday for the artists who hand-painted the 347 ornaments on the 18-foot tall Christmas tree that stands in the Blue Room.
The theme this year is “America’s national parks, memorials, seashores, historic sites and monuments.” A standout among them says “Remember September 11, 2001.” Because the site where United Flight #93 crashed on September 11 is a national memorial, the ornament honors the innocent victims who lost their lives that day.
Washington may be a city divided by war and party loyalties, but an invitation to the White House at Christmas is a treat and should not be turned down. After all, it is our house, too. Also, the previously mentioned eggnog is insanely good. The waiters serving it have been there longer than anyone.
|An almost well kept secret in this town is that some off-duty White House staff will work freelance, and there’s undeniable cache in having a White House server work your private party. They are mature, courtly, trained in the higher arts of good service, and manage to keep the most serene straight faces no matter what the conversation or behavior may be at the table.
Rare books dealer Kinsey Marable knows this first hand. “I have never met finer gentlemen. They make my parties fun for me, and you know from experience that they have seen some that were, well, not so tame.” That’s true, but that’s also another story.
The media scrum were on their best behavior yesterday, especially when First Lady Laura Bush appeared in the East Room in a bright red suit to make a few brief remarks about the decorations, to commend the artists, chefs and florists, and to take a few questions. No surprise to anyone in the room, veteran correspondent Helen Thomas broke rank from the polite inquiries about Mrs. Bush’s favorite holiday memories to lob one in about the Iraq war.
|Clockwise from top left: The Red Room; A white chocolate White House made from more than 300 pounds of chocolate and gingerbread and featuring Bush family pets and other animals; The White House collection's latest acquisition, "Workmen," by Jacob Lawrence, 1947; The seal over the door into the Blue Room.|
|Clockwise from top left: Tulips and a circa 1810 bust of Benjamin Franklin in the Green Room; The President's view of Washington, from the Blue Room; The entrance to the real West Wing, where a Marine always stands guard.|
|How did the First Lady feel about the progress of the war? “We’re encouraged by what’s happening in Iraq,” she said. “Some of the people who had left are trying to go back.” As for her favorite holiday memory after seven years in the White House, she said it was Christmas 2001, when the theme was “home for holidays.” Because of the terrorist attacks, she said, it “had a special poignancy for me.”
The first (and last) time I saw a First Lady’s tour of the White House during the holidays was courtesy of Ms. Thomas. It was back in the dark ages, when it was still called “Christmas” at the White House, Richard Nixon was president, and I was a very young gofer at United Press International where Helen was the White House correspondent. This was before fax machines and e-mail. The bureau chief had something to be delivered to her and dispatched me from the nearby National Press Building to the White House, where clearing me through the gates involved not much more than a phone call.
When I arrived the “news hens,” as they called women journalists back then, were gathering in the shabby press room to head over to the mansion for the tour. Helen asked, “Do you want to go along?” Absolutely.
|And off we went, all of maybe 25 of us, who were greeted in the main hall by Pat Nixon and, I think, Tricia or Julie, who answered questions and posed for pictures as we casually walked through the formal public rooms to admire the poinsettias, garlands, lights and baubles. It was very straightforward and Mrs. Nixon was accommodating. We were not offered drinks or food.
Now it’s a much bigger business and much more controlled. There were also well more than 100 members of the media, including still and TV photographers, and as many men as women, all of whom were sequestered in the East Room, arrayed in a semi-circle, as Mrs. Bush was brought in to make her remarks. There was no mingling with the First Lady.
|After she spoke, and returned to wherever, the journalists were free to roam from room to room, but now that a lavish buffet has been added to the event it’s no surprise most people wanted to get to the food and beverages, which they did with haste. The food is always good at the White House.
Since that first time when Helen Thomas let me tag along on the tour, I’ve been fortunate to return to the White House, often as a guest at evening receptions during the holidays. It seemed the best food, and the most lavish decorations, occurred during the Reagan years.
|Those parties were smaller and, for a while, journalists often co-mingled with White House staff and Reagan social friends. Sometimes, too, there was dancing after the buffet. There was always the Marine band – the “President’s band” – playing seasonal music.
George and Barbara Bush seemed to enjoy the parties more than most. One year President Bush (41), lingered in the Green Room, happily Caroling along with the guests. That was before the ritual of being photographed with the First Couple became the time-consuming and almost drill instructor-like assembly line it is now. It’s been removed from the main floor rooms down to the basement. It is an essential perk for the invited guests but tedious for everyone.
|Yesterday, after the tour, I returned to the press room, which is re-designed and brand new. It’s not shabby anymore. It also is dedicated to former Reagan press secretary James Brady, who was shot by John Hinckley at the same time as President Reagan. While no longer dreary it is still as small as the old White House swimming pool on which it sits. Small and cramped. The pool is still intact, light blue walls and all, but where Jack Kennedy once swam and romped there now are miles of electrical cable and tons of generators and other technical apparatus that serve the media.
In the old days, before the re-design, the only way to get to the pool was to drop down through a hatch in the press room floor. Today there is a door and steps. But in a sentimental touch, all kinds of people have signed the pool’s walls. You’re nobody in Washington if your John Hancock is not inked on the walls of the old White House swimming pool; inscribed for the ages.
I hung in for press secretary Dana Perino’s mid-day briefing, but it was too much reality after all those pretty holiday decorations. The Bushes expect to entertain more than 60,000 visitors between now and Christmas. After September 11, public tours stopped. If you aren’t among those who receive a formal invitation, you can put in a request for a tour through a friendly member of Congress.
|Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.|
|Photographs by Carol Joynt.|