Party Time at the White House

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.



Dinner with Obama

Earlier this year, S. and I had dinner with the Barack Obama.  Well, he didn’t actually eat with us, but he was there while we were eating.  Actually, we weren’t eating when he was in the room with us, but we had finished our salad before he came in.  Never mind the details.  We met, spoke to, shook hands with, had our pictures taken with President Barack Obama and his lovely First Lady, Michelle (from whom I got a classic, big Michelle hug).  To say this was a high point in our political/social life would be a  understatement of indescribable dimensions.  You should view this in the context of knowing that I’m not a celeb kind of guy.  The only autograph I’ve ever sought was Dizzy Deans’ when I was ten years old, and the only celeb photos I’ve ever appeared in were ones which were taken when I wasn’t looking.  My delight at the event wasn’t even based on any ideological fervor.  While I agree with most of his political philosophy and support many of his policies, I don’t think he will go down in history as the greatest political operator or President, and there are things he has done as President that I disagree with.  I do think he is an extraordinary leader and human being.  And being married to a woman the caliber of Michelle doesn’t hurt either.

This was not my first rodeo as far as meeting Presidents.  I met George W. when he was Governor of Texas long before the presidency was a gleam in his eye.  I was most impressed by his willingness to admit what he didn’t know (which seemed to be quite a lot).  Unfortunately, he lost this characteristic on the road to the presidency.  I met Ronald Reagan in the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Office Building.  He was accompanied by the then Chairman of ATT, Charlie Brown.  I was there to press the flesh and get thanks from the Ronald for some work I had done for the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.  The study was entitled, “Possible Effects of an Electromagnetic Pulse on an Airborne Command and Control Center.  You can see this was a task to which I was perfectly suited.  To be honest, the only thing I can remember is the aforementioned name and that Charles Brown was wearing penny loafers with an actual penny in the little slot.  Oh, that and The Pres had the most highly shined shoes I’d ever seen.  And this from someone who learned to spit shine shoes at the Infantry School.  I wondered, only briefly, if he had done them himself, and, if not, who was it that shined the shoes of the biggest potentate in the land.

I also met Jimmy Carter at a function for inside the beltway business types of which I was then counted.  It was a small gathering as presidential audiences go and was in the Blue Room of the East Wing or the East Room of the Blue Wing, I get them confused.  Jimmy was running late as is the won’t of Leaders of the Free World, so we got the warm up act of Bob Strauss.  Bob was from Dallas and I felt an immediate kinship with my fellow Dallasite.  I was to meet Bob again soon as I would try to solicit his support to get replacement passports for my fellow EDS employees who were being held hostage in Iran.  But that’s another story.  Bob Strauss was one of the most charming men to ever put on lace up shoes.  He wowed the audience to the point where most were indifferent to whether Carter showed or not.  Carter ultimately made his appearance, but I remember nada of what he said.  Everyone, including me, did notice and later remark on the stark difference in the charm factor.

I never met Clinton, although I would have liked to.  He was the first president that I could actually identify with.  No, I don’t mean the skirt chasing part, but he did like to play golf and I’m sure he would’ve been a great one to pop a cold brewski with.  I recently saw a piece on George H. W. Bush which reminded me of why I would’ve like to have known him.  At age eight nine, he has shaved his head to show support for the two year old child of one of his security detail who is being treated for leukemia and has lost his hair as well.  Wow.  Also, I’m drawn to winners, and George the Elder was a winner at everything from pitching horseshoes to running for president.  George Plimpton in his book The X Factor cited him as having the secret sauce present in most all successful people…the ability, but more importantly, the will to win.  President George H.W. Bush had that in spades.

The only other president of my lifetime that appeals to me enough to want to have met him is Lyndon Johnson.  I know, I know… Viet Nam and all that.  But he was a oner.  They broke the mold.  His goods were really, really good and his bads were not so good.  LBJ had left the presidency and Washington long before I got there, but I wouldn’t have gotten to meet him anyway.  He was, as they say, way above my pay grade.  I did, however, hire a retired Brigadier General who had run the White House Communications Agency while Lyndon was in office.  With enough time and a modicum of whiskey, he could be induced to tell Lyndon stories for the ages.

My diner with Obama wasn’t my first personal encounter with him.  I, and a few thousand others, attended a function in downtown Dallas to honor (or raise money for) the Obama Campaign.  The function was notable in that Barack was introduced by Emmitt Smith…I dunno who thought that one up, and that I shook Obama’s hand.  “So what”, you say.  It’s little better than holding the reins to a rich man’s horse.  But this was different.  There was the typical rope line at the conclusion of his speech.  Our table was near the front of the room so I was able to maneuver to a place adjacent to the rope where he would be pressing the flesh with the masses, including me.  I felt a little foolish as I waited my turn, but what the hey…I was there, and he was there…why not.  As he neared, I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  Most pols that I had previously met under similar circumstances would extend their hand as they looked over your shoulder for the next encounter or to find someone more important.  Not so Obama.  He looked directly at me, took my hand in a firm grasp, and said, “It’s great to meet you and I’m so glad that you were able to be here with me today”.

I know there are those among us that will never like President Obama because of his political ideology.  There are those who will hold him in disdain for reasons that even they cannot clearly articulate.  There are others who will want to accord him sainthood without regard to his achievements or lack thereof as President.  I will not try to persuade either group to adopt another stance.  Before I give you my own view (which you surely must have known was coming), I want to share with you his words on the occasion of his victory in the Iowa Democratic caucus in January 2008.

“Hope is what led a band of colonials to rise up against an empire, what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation, what led young women and men to sit at a lunch counter and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s purpose.  Hope is what led me here today-with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas; and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.  Hope is the bedrock of this nation’s belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

Whoa!!  I don’t know about you, but that makes me gulp pretty hard.  Yes, I like Barack Obama, I respect Barack Obama and I would like to count him as my friend.  He may or may not be able to break the legislative log jam in Congress.  He may or may not ever cause another piece of legislation to be passed.  I know, however, he will continue to represent the very best in all of us and provide an example as a human being and an American, that the world and history will admire.

Why I Will Vote for Obama Again

I’ll admit it.  I was in a funk at the close of the republican convention.  Laying aside the bizarre sight of my man Clint debating an empty chair, the repubs did a pretty good job.  In fact, they made Romney seem almost normal, as far as politicians go.  Yes, I know that his VP guy, Ryan, told some whoppers, but everyone expects that of pols.  I’m reminded of the old aphorism, “I’d never want to be a member of a club that would have me”.  In political speak, that translates to an equally pithy thought, “One should never vote for a politician that wants to be elected”.  Clearly, Romney wants to be elected.  Hells bells, he’s taken every position, on every issue so as to increase his appeal to everyone.

At my early morning coffee klatch, the day after the close of the convention, the conversation inevitably turned to things political, but only after we had worn out all of the regular topics…yesterday’s performance by the Texas Rangers, the weather, the price of tea in China, etc…  All, excepting me, of course, opined that this should have cinched the deal for Romney.  You should know that I am the only left-leaning, socialist abiding, liberal, Obama loving, pinko, democrat at the table. So not surprisingly, I took the contrary view.

An esteemed, and mostly well informed member of our group, turned to me and said, “surely you’re still not going to vote for Obama”.  “Tell me why you would do that in the face of his first term performance.”  My mind raced.  My heart rate picked up.  I licked my lips.  Now was the chance for me to state the case for Obama.  I moved my mouth, but nothing came out.  I mumbled something about the terrible state that George W. had left things in, but nothing else emerged.  In short, I froze up.  I clutched.  I whiffed my big chance even though the odds of creating any converts were slim and none.  It did get me thinking, however.  I know that in certain political circles, facts aren’t terribly important, but I’m gonna give it a shot anyway.  Below are only some of the fact based reasons that I’m going to vote for Obama again.  You read it here first.

1.  On the first trading day in January after Obama took office in 2009, the Dow was at 8070, the S&P was at 850, and the NASDAQ was at 1477.  At the close of trading on the 24th of August, these indicators were at 13000, 1411, and 3069 respectively.  If you’re quick with a pencil, you will note that these reflect increases of 72% for the Dow, 66% for the S&P, and 107% for the NASDAQ.  I’d think all you coupon clipping, savvy traders with big portfolios would be showering Obama with rose petals.

2.  In the last four months of W’s administration, the economy was losing jobs at the rate of about five hundred thousand per month.  In fact, for all of 2008, the last year under W, we lost two million six hundred thousand jobs…the worst performance since the great depression.  Can we all agree, at least, that Obama had nothing to do with job losses before he took office.  Well, maybe not.  The repub veep guy blamed Obama for shutting down a GM plant before he took office, so I guess anything is possible.  The reality is that under Obama, we have now had twenty two consecutive months of total job growth and twenty nine months of private sector job growth.

3.  In the face of torrid criticism from the repubs, and even some dissent from his fellow  dems, Obama took actions that saved GM, Chrysler, and their supply chains from disaster.  Then for good measure, he also made it possible for AIG to survive.  It’s really hard to put a bad face on this….unless you’re Ayn Rand.

4.  He gave hope and insurance coverage to millions who would have been denied basic health care because of pre-existing conditions.  He made it possible for older Americans to afford to continue to buy the meds they need by closing the Part D “doughnut hole”.  He made it possible for dependents under twenty six to continue be covered by their parent’s health plans rather than go without coverage.  He cracked down on fraud and waste in Medicare and Medicaid saving millions.

5.  He preserved low interest student loans (Pell Grants).  In an environment when every job is precious and unemployment is still far too high we need to recognize that education may be our only long term solution.  Today, graduates of four year colleges have an unemployment rate of 4.1%, graduates of two year programs and jucos are at about 7%, while high school grads have over 11% unemployment and high school drop-outs are at 17%.  Yet the Grand Old Party wants to make it harder for college students to pay for college.  Go figure.

6.  By executive order Obama achieved what congress could not and would  not do.  He began the reform of our broken immigrations system by providing children who had been brought into the country illegally by their parents, but had otherwise lived good, productive lives, a way out of the shadows.  He increased deportations of “undesirable” undocumented workers, and decreased the number of illegals coming into the country by beefing up security on our borders.

7.  His record on national security includes getting rid of Bin Laden and Quadaffi, while continuing to protect the US homeland against terrorist activity.  He has largely gotten all US combat forces out of Iraq, is on a path to do the same in Afganistan, but has projected US military force in other areas of the world where appropriate.  How would you like to be a Taliban leader in the border region of Pakistan when you hear a faint “droning” sound?

I realize that the health care act is a sticking point for many, but an equal number, including me, believe that it is economically and morally right for our society and government to provide for a means of obtaining basic health care services for even the least among us.  As for taxes…no one, again including me, likes to pay unnecessary taxes.  I, however, would like to see discussion on how the money is spent, rather than on tax rate.  Having said that, I’m not sure that accelerated depreciation on corporate jets does much good for the body politic, but I am sure that I’m going to get by pretty well whether my effective tax rate is 16% or 18%.

It’s ok, I guess, for one not to like Obama and not vote for him, but I’d hope that it’s for the right reasons.  To say that he hasn’t done anything for our country in his first four years is not a good reason.




We Ain’t What We Was

Like him or not, the emotions are real. I’m hoping he and others are thinking of the election of Obama as a new beginning, not an end.

I know one is not supposed to talk about race in polite company, but in this case the occasion demands it.  My darling wife (DW) and I, like millions of others, have been mesmerized by the run up of political events overwhelming the airways and media in general, and race has inevitably became a part of the conversation.

To be perfectly honest, I did not decide to support Obama until the day before the primary.  I had been distracted by Hillary and others (good people all) presenting their own case for experience, etc., etc., etc.  I was watching one of the cable channels (certainly not FOX) interview a young arabic college student in one of the middle eastern countries.  He said in part, “can you imagine the impact of waking up one day and learning that a black man named Barak Hussein Obama had been elected President of the most powerful country in the world?”  I realized at that moment that I could, indeed, imagine it and that it would not only be good for our country, it might, just might galvanize our friends and our enemies around the world to see us once again as a bastion of hope and equality.  Perhaps in isolation, a bit flimsy, but taken with all of my other thoughts about the candidates that I had to choose from, it was enough to tip the balance.  I became an Obama supporter.  I took him not in spite of or because of his race, but because of what I thought he could do for our country.  But he is….certainly black.

And then it happened.  The American people did it.  They elected Obama.  Some were disappointed, a few were in despair, but many, many more rejoiced.  Some danced and sang, his ancestral tribe in Kenya killed and roasted a goat to feed the party, some gave speeches, and yes, some cried.  As I heard the words of Obama drifting out over the airways and the crowd of thousands in Grant Park, I followed the uplifting poetry of his speech with one part of my brain, but the other part drifted back to thoughts and events that provided a different sort of personal context for what had happened.

I remembered as a ten year old seeing a “white’s only” water fountain in the Sears store in San Angelo and wondering what would happen if a black person drank from it.

I remembered waiting for a Continental Trailways bus in Waco with a sign on the door which said, “No Blacks Allowed”.  And there were none.

I remember my baseball team being turned away from a motel in Pasadena because Roy F., our best player and only black, was a part of our team.

I remember my dear mother telling me about a new black classmate that I had met at school in the third grade to, “be nice to him but don’t play with him”, and wondering why.

And more recently I remember acquaintances reacting with surprise when I indicated support for Obama by saying, “how could you ever vote for a black man?”  I replied, “how could I not”.

I vividly remember the stream of “hate” emails intensifying throughout the campaign trying to convince me and untold others that Obama was a Muslim, or a closet terrorist, or was not a citizen or a patriot, or…….you know the kind of stuff.

On a far less personal, but yet meaningful, level I remember the story of Teddy Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington for dinner in the White House.  The first black man to be in the dinning room rather than the kitchen, and how Teddy was pilloried by the social and political pontiffs of his time for having done so.

I remember LBJ and our own Mr. Sam and others fighting for and getting Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to extend  the vote to the black community that had been guaranteed in theory by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution in the face of vitriolic opposition from some of the country’s leading politicians.

And then I saw the tears of joy in Rev. Jackson’s eyes.

I am mindful of the fact that in even our own family we can count ancestors who were slave owners, and perhaps grandparents or even parents who evidenced a far more subtle racist behavior as well as those of our own generation who have tried, more or less successfully to live as if all people really are created equal.  And now our sons and daughters and their children are wondering what all the fuss was about, and rejecting the anger and guilt that many of us have felt.

I’m not so naive as to believe that because America elected Obama racism will no longer rear its ugly head.  Even in this historic race, according to Gallup, 20% of the people admitted that race was a factor in determining their vote.  Nor should it be lost on us that while Obama won the national vote with 52%, he got only 41% of the white male vote.  While I can’t know for sure, I surely suspect that some of that gap is composed of those “I’ll never vote for a black man types”.  There is no doubt that with Obama’s election things have irrevocably changed for the better.  We will think better of ourselves, our friends and allies around the world will think better of us, and even our enemies will have to grant us a modicum of grudging respect.  We have shown that we can live as we have for so long spoken.  An old aphorism suggests that, “a mind once expanded will never return to it’s original shape”.  I believe it.

Nicholas Kristoff in his column of November 6th cited Dr. King’s speech to the State of Hawaii’s legislature in 1959.  He closed that speech by using the words of an aged black preacher who himself had been a slave and who had ended his sermon with this prayer in the vernacular of his time.  “Dear Lord”, he said.  We ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we gonna be; we ain’t what we ought to be; but, thank God, we ain’t what we was”.

We, too, now are no longer what we were.