Thanks to my congressman, Chaka Fattah, I got to see the inside the White House this week.
It wasn't easy.
I called Fattah's office in October, requesting a public tour. You know, the one for tourists with checked shorts, baseball caps, and white sneakers. I understood that there could be up to a six-month waiting period, what with new screening and security procedures put in place after 9/11. No problem. What I didn't expect was the 'And how many in your group?'question I got from the Fattah aide in charge of tours.
Three, I said.
Not good enough, I was told. Had to be at least 10.
'Is it all right, then, if I bring my Boy Scout troop?'
No, the aide said earnestly, her humor switch apparently powered off. I had to be a member of a 10-member group, or one that was even larger, she went on, without pause.
The aide surely wasn't making this easy.
Well, she said finally -- though she could have said this initially, as well -- ''We can assign you to an already pre-existing group.' Sounded to me like a medical condition.
Fattah's office called me last week.
'How's Tuesday?' this very same aide asked.
'Tuesday is good.'
By e-mail, I received instructions.
I need to meet my group a half-hour before the start of our tour at 11 AM. I can't carry an electric stun gun. Nor a pen. (Honest, this stuff is on the White House's list of proscribed items). And if I have any medications, they need to remain in the custody of a chaperone. Chaperone. I guess they're won't be any hand-holding on this tour.
I showed up at 10:30 AM at the 15th Street gate (the same one that the Salahis crashed through, incidentally) with my photo ID, whilst stowing my electric stun gun, knitting needles, fireworks, martial arts devices, and hair brush (yes, among other listed items) safely back in the car. Oops! I was carrying a pen.
I started looking for my chaperone. And my group. Something like a church knitting soldality, I figured. Without their knitting needles, of course.
Presently, I offered my ID to the gate guard, a uniformed Secret Service officer, and he ushered me onto the grounds, leading to an additional checkpoint and, finally, to an East Wing entrance that faces the west side of Treasury and, as I saw out a door window, another of those fake Liberty Bells that dot the country.
'I'm awaiting my group,' I told another uniformed guard as I planted myself on a bench nearby the door. Five minutes. I gazed desultorily at huge photographs of President Obama, looking presidential, that hung on nearby walls. Fifteen minutes. Other tourists. Some couples. Some singles. Some trios. And I noticed they're already starting their tours.
It's already well past 11, and it became clear. Of course, there was no group.
There was also no rush. The tour was leisurely self-guided, and relatively short, confined mostly to ceremonial rooms on a lower level and on the first floor. I helped myself in recognizing the art on the walls. For the most part, they're paintings of dead presidents, the portraits (some reproductions, in fact) that we see regularly on our paper money. As in Gilbert Stuart.
I was thinking two thoughts, as well.
First, the place was a lot smaller than I had reckoned. Not as grand as other national residences I've toured. Buckingham Palace and Versailles, for instance. Even some Robber Barons, in Newport and on Fifth Avenue, had some more glam cribs.
Who shrunk the State Dining Room? Maximum seating, 142. If you use round tables.
'Everyone thinks the same thing,' another Secret Service guard, stationed in the dining room, told me. 'Everything seems larger on TV.'
Still, I was impressed. Size isn't everything. For starters, try even getting into No. 10 Downing Street, or the Eylsee Palace.
Built in the late 1790s, burned by the Brits in 1814, reconstructed during the Truman Administration, the White House remains the oldest public building in Washington and home to every President since Adams. And as for cachet, what could be a grander address in America than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
My second thought? What happens if they catch me carrying a pen?