They’ve been having parties of all sorts at the White House for…well, for a long, long time, and I’m sure they’ll be having them long after I am gone. But this one was different. I was there. To be accurate, my darling wife, about three hundred solid citizens (only a few of which I knew, and I were there. This was one of several White House Christmas receptions in 2013, or maybe they now call them Holiday receptions in an effort to be perfectly politically correct. Come to think of it, I did see a lot of Christmas trees, but I don’t remember seeing any angels. I know for a fact that they also have at least one Hanukkah reception as well because a friend of mine of that persuasion was at the White House on Thursday before ours on Friday. I did not see a Star of David or Menorah either.
I don’t know the calculus by which one gets invited to one of these deals, but I’ll suspect that it involves money at some level. I personally never have had much luck donating to politicians, because I always seem to choose the losers, but my darling wife has a knack for picking the winners. To illustrate the point, she’s on first name basis with Senator Al Franken (D) Minnesota. Who woulda thought that a down and out talk show host/comedian would be elected. But he did…with more than a few donations from my darling wife. He calls her from time to time just to chit chat. I think you can be sure that his conversations with her are motivated by other than a desire to pick her brain on immigration reform; although, he probably should get her views on almost everything. We also get at least two hundred phone calls a week ranging from some just out of college political aspirant running for democratic state representative in Rhode Island to solicitous representatives of the Democratic National Campaign Committee. This fiscal outreach is supplemented by literally thousands of emails from politicos of all stripes seeking her largesse. And most often it is given, without reservation.
So you can see why I am suspicious about our inclusion on what turns out to be a not so exclusive invitation list. It turns out that the White House reception we attended was not the only one (surprise, surprise), In addition to the Hanukkah Reception, which I guess, counts, there were twelve or eighteen others. I can’t get the exact number, but my guess is close. The king and queen of White House Christmas receptions appear to be none other than Bush 43 and his lovely wife, Laura who hosted twenty-five or so in their last year in office. But, none the less, I went, and I loved it. I’ll tell you why a little later after a short (I promise) tutorial on presidential parties and the White House.
The White House, as I’m sure you know, was commissioned by G. Washington in 1791, but he never got to live in it. The first presidential family was J. Adams and Abrigail who took up residence in what is now known as the East Wing in 1800. His successor, J. Madison and super hostess Dolly, after which those creamy cupcakes were named, lived there only briefly before the dastardly Brits burned it down in 1814. It is said that Dolly, who always loved a party, decamped the White House with a squadron of red coats on her heels leaving a table set for forty, but with the silver in hand. J. Monroe rehabbed the place and was happily ensconced there in 1817. Not to leave well enough alone, later presidents and their first ladies were always prone to fiddle with the place. To mark their space, so to speak. A few did it in a big way. Teddy added the West Wing and named it after a popular TV show by the same name. Now it’s where the minions work. H. Taft, stout of build, directed the construction of the Oval Office, to his own dimensions. H. Truman, ever the pragmatist, effected a major remodel. Actually, it was more of a re-structure than a remodel, as the residence and office of our head of state was literally falling down. It remains now a modest one hundred thirty two rooms, including thirty-five bathrooms in two major wings on six levels. I’ve had the fortune to visit a few other similar structures in other countries, and I’m here to tell you, ours is the best. It’s certainly the hardest to get in to.
In addition to the Christmas event that we attended, the White House has been the site of all manner of parties since its habitation. Let me assure you there are highlights and low lights aplenty. There have been, of course, the traditional sit down State Dinners which are limited to one hundred forty due to limited kitchen capacity. And who can forget the Egg Rolls on the South Lawn every year. There are Halloween parties, celebrity parties, the aforementioned Christmas receptions, and it’s rumored that JFK hosted a few late night pool parties. I’m not even going to mention the private intern parties that Clinton was prone to. Of course, where ever there are parties, there are party crashers, to wit: Tareq and Michaele Salah who were able to talk their way in to a White House shindig only a couple of years ago.
The party to end all parties was a not so exclusive soiree hosted briefly by Andrew Jackson on March 4, 1829. He had thought to democratically host an open house at the White House as a sort of thank you to his supporters who, as it turned out, were a little rough around the edges…socially. A “mob” of some ten thousand stormed the grounds of the White House upon learning there was free food and booze to be had. The results were sad but predictable. Broken furniture, smashed china, stolen bath mats, etc. Jackson is said to have beat a hasty retreat through a rear window. U. S. Grant is said to have hosted the first State Dinner. The occasion which gave rise to the dinner is lost in history, but it is remembered that the dinner was composed of twenty-nine courses. Brandy and cigars were extra. Kings, Princes, dictators, Prime Ministers, beggar men and thieves have all had there turn supping at the White House trough. The State has survived through it all.
Our party was different. Of course…we were there. The entrance was through the South East Gate, which is the traditional entrance for social visitors. Business visitors generally enter through the West Gate as I had done on my previous visits. Employees have their own entrance. After two name checks, one wanding, one inspection by a high tech sniffer machine, and one sniffing by a low tech dog, we were there, or almost there. We entered the lower level of the East Wing through a long hall way, greeted by some very sharp, handsome military attaches, and immediately plied with a champagne. With drink in hand, we wandered the variously colored and named rooms of this lowest level of the White House. A rather smallish men’s restroom facility was located off the Library (a rather small number of very old books resided here). I was to visit this room several times during my visit. We were thence directed up a broad curved stairway to the main level of the East Wing. It was designed as a long hallway with function rooms opening on both sides and anchored at each end by a large rooms purposed for hosting large functions. Both had full bars and tables laden with food offerings to please every palate. Most of the crowd was already tucking in to heaping plates and their libation of choice. I avoided the solids and went immediately to the liquids. I found a barman with a good pour and stuck with him throughout.
S. and I wandered the rooms soaking it all in. The china that Washington ate from, Coolidge’s wine glasses, portraits of all the men who had walked these halls as president, and, above all, people. S. noted that the demographics of the crowd seemed more or less reflect the nation. Yes, there were expensive suits and ties and fur coats, but also bad fitting sport coats, dresses from Ross Dress for Less, some ethnic apparel whose origins I couldn’t identify, military uniforms, a few kids, and more than a few lawyers and lobbyists. It was, for us, a comfortable crowd. I didn’t take a survey, but I don’t think there were many Tea Partiers in attendance. No one was dissing Obamacare, or bemoaning new banking regulations. We didn’t talk politics. We mostly talked holidays, and the party, and how good we felt.. I did have one conversation with the political director of The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. She felt that our veterans today were being treated better than, say, Viet Nam veterans, but there was still much to be done. I enjoyed talking to an Army Major of the female persuasion who, on her dress blues, wore the insignia of the Medical Service Corps. These are the guys and girls who take care of soldiers when they get hurt. She also had Parachute Wings and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and had already served tours in the middle east. Wow, where and how do they get these young people to volunteer for us.
And then there was Obama, and Michelle of course. No receiving line, no photo ops. Just a few minutes of gracious welcome. He also wished us the happiest of holiday season, and his heartfelt thanks. I couldn’t have asked for more.
I hope I get to go again.