Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The White House

On May 7, 1982, I saw the White House in person for the first time. But only from the outside, since I also saw a long, long line to get in for a tour, and decided to put off seeing the inside for another time. That other time turned out to be August 17, 2011.

Tourists no longer queue up for White House tours outside the property. These days, citizens query their representative in the U.S. House well in advance for a time to get in. This we did about six weeks ago, by e-mail. I will give my Congressman, or at least his staff, credit for getting us into the White House last week, even though as a member of Congress, I consider him a bonehead -- one of those who was fully prepared recently to see the United States of America default on its debt, and who in fact voted for that outcome.

Never mind. To enter the White House, you arrive a little before the appointed time (11 a.m. for us) at the Southeast Gate at Alexander Hamilton Pl. and East Executive Ave., which sound like streets, but have long been closed to public traffic. First a Secret Service agent makes sure you're on the list, and that the name on the list exactly matches your identification. Then you proceed to a room with metal detectors and another Secret Service agent who eyes your ID once again. After that, you're in.

A long list of items are verboten. These include cameras and video recorders; handbags, book bags, backpacks, and purses; food and beverages, tobacco of any kind; "personal grooming items," such as makeup and lotion; strollers; "any pointed objects" (I took that to mean pens, too); aerosol containers; and "guns, ammunition, fireworks, electric stun guns, mace, martial arts weapons/devices, or knives of any size." It's remarkable that the White House would feel the need to specify those last items, since any fool ought to know that trying to carry a weapon into the executive mansion would, at the very least and if you're very lucky, mean a long spell of detention for questioning by the Secret Service.

It isn't a guided tour. Once you enter, you can move along at your own pace, and look at whatever you want to within the carefully circumscribed path through the building. Secret Service agents occupy each of the rooms along the way, presumably to watch for mischief, but also to answer questions about the room. After listening to most of the agents talk, and asking a few questions myself, I got the impression that some of them considered this an excellent assignment ("l love the history of this place," one of them said), while others were grudgingly following their orders, but really considered this talking to tourists business beneath the dignity of a Secret Service agent.

One of the agents told me something I knew was wrong. Benjamin Harrison added electric lights to the property in 1891, and TR fully electrified it during the major renovations of the early 1900s. I asked the agent when gas light had been brought to the White House, and he told me that before electricity, only candles had been used. This is nonsense. Later I looked it up, and it turns out Washington Gas added gas lights to the White House in 1848, during the Polk administration. But I didn't call him on his mistake. I might have been wrestled to the ground for my trouble.

The tourist path through the White House begins on the ground floor at the East Wing and then proceeds through the East Colonnade -- a good many interesting photos of presidents doing things at the White House are displayed there -- to the executive residence proper, where visitors get glimpses of the Vermeil Room, the China Room, and the Library, which house vermeil tableware, china and books, respectively.

Then the path goes upstairs to the "State Floor," into the spacious East Room, the largest room in the White House, and currently undergoing a little repair work. Displayed there is the only artifact at the White House from before the 1814 fire, the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington famously saved by Dolley Madison. From there you go through famed rooms of various colors: Green, Blue and Red. The State Dining Room is near the end of the path, after which you go downstairs again and out through the Entrance Hall, but not before passing the White House's Steinway, an ornate gift from that company in 1938 that's often in the East Room, but not at the moment. I asked the agent standing near the piano whether Truman had ever played it, and he said maybe, but it was impossible to know for sure. Later I read that he and Margaret preferred Baldwins, but that doesn't exclude presidential noodling on the Steinway.

I could go on about each and every room I saw -- the presidential portraits, the other artwork, the furnishings, the historic events associated with the various rooms -- but the details are easily available elsewhere. Enough to say the place was poshly gorgeous and a focus of American history. It was a highlight of the trip.

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