Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Bonus

Yesterday, my brother-in-law and I took my kids and his daughter to the White House for the tour. My sister-in-law (wife of my husband's other brother), who works for a congresswoman, got us the tickets. We had to submit all kinds of information in advance--names, addresses, social security numbers . . . . I was a little worried, given the atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia that emanates from this particular Administration, a little worried that it would be some kind of nasty, unpleasant experience.

But it wasn't. I reminded the kids that the White House is the people's house, owned by everyone in the United States, including them, before we went in. Walking up through the whole pedestrian park they've made of the street in front (with no actual trees or decorations except semi-tasteful concrete structures designed to keep car bombs from rolling up in front), I reminisced about how nice it used to be to drive right by the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. Then, you felt free--free to drive right by the President's house and wave. It did make the whole concept of the presidency seem more accessible. But no more.

Secret Service agents are such a hoot. Unless you're doing something dangerous--then they get real serious, and one is reminded that they do carry guns and know how to use them.

But they are kind of funny--they're some kind of cross between FBI agents and the guards at Buckingham Palace. You can ask them questions, and they do answer, but they're kind of weirdly stiff and you don't really dare ask them something funny.

They were handing out these holiday programs for the White House and signed pictures of President Bush wearing some kind of baseball hat and windbreaker and stroking a black dog. Edith told the Secret Service agent who was handing them out that she didn't want one. When we were out of earshot, I reminded her that she was to say nothing about not liking George Bush or him being a bad man while we were here because even though we own this house, the president and his family were living here and it's not nice to say mean things about someone at their house. She obeyed.

The White House was gorgeous, all decorated for the holidays, so it was a lot of fun. We didn't get to see the room where they keep the official White House tree, but there were plenty of decorated trees in the rooms we did see: the Vermeil Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, the Green Parlor (do I spy a theme? it's the White House with the colored-coded rooms . . . ). The East Room was really great, as was the State Dining Room.

In the State Dining Room was the gingerbread model of the White House, which Edith loved. There must be some Food Network special about making it that we'll see sometime between now and New Year's. I asked the guard what they did with the gingerbread house after the holidays--he said they just throw it out, that they don't give it to charity. As we were walking off, I over heard a Secret Service agent say to the guard, "I wish they'd let us take it out to the shooting range, after having to answer the same questions about it for hours." I guess I don't blame him--White House tour duty must really suck after going through all that protect the president training.

But, back to the beginning--in the entry foyer as we walked in was the portrait of FDR. I wheeled Robert over to it and explained to him that FDR's cape was hiding his wheelchair. And that FDR was disabled because of an illness, and that even people in wheelchairs could be president. Robert grinned--he was really interested and very heartened to know that.

Also, part of the tour involved going up a large marble staircase. When Robert and I got to that point, one of the Secret Service agents (they were everywhere) waved us over to follow him under the rope and down a hallway, through many corridors, to one of the service elevators. We walked through the area where they store all the fancy chairs for the state dinners, and past a couple of the kitchens. And past some glasscase with various White House hats and shirts in it with prices on them that are available at the internal White House gift store (although there isn't one for tourists). The Secret Service agent reminded Robert to tell his friends at school that he'd gotten a little bit of a behind-the-scenes tour of the White House, with a Secret Service escort. He smiled.

Anyway, it's still grand at our White House. We just need a new tenant.

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