Limited Access to the Post-9/11 White House Hits Home Most During Holidays
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The White House smells great.
Walk in the front door and a blast of pure pine clears your head and makes you smile. The spicy bouquet floats from 27 Christmas trees that Laura Bush has deployed throughout the mansion. It's like a pheromone that stirs holiday yearnings for a hearth, a fire, a full house of family and friends.
The White House smells like your house, if you also do the Christmas thing at home. That's what has been so great about the tradition of first families (more accurately, their armies of staff and volunteers) hanging elaborate thematic displays and throwing open the doors for the public to see, hear, touch, taste and smell. It has made Washington seem smaller, more personal; the first family more human, more like us -- just as kitschy, sentimental and chocolate-loving.
But that Washington is ever slipping away. Public spaces where the masses might interact with the actors and institutions of official Washington are becoming more controlled and contrived. Or closed altogether.
The millions of visitors coming over the next five weeks for the holidays and the inauguration won't know what has been lost. The Bushes, too, are entering their eighth holiday season of restricted public access to the pine-suffused White House. It's all they've known as the first family.
The security measures taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks continue to dictate what is possible. Scaled way back are the evening candlelight tours of the White House decorations, a tradition started by Pat Nixon. As many as 6,000 people a night, for three nights, would line up -- no reservations necessary -- to experience the holidays that way.
This year, the tours are not even mentioned on the White House Web site or tour hotline. But, according to the first lady's press office, they still exist for as many as 1,200 people a night on Dec. 26, 27 and 29. You just have to know to ask. (Insider's tip: Call your member of Congress now and you might get into the mansion on one of those evenings.)
Gone probably forever are same-day tickets to visit the White House during the holidays or any other time. Now you have to arrange tours up to six months in advance through your congressional representative's office.
That's still access, Mrs. Bush insisted the other day as she gave the media a privileged peek at the festooned rooms. "The public still does come," she said. "We're the only house of a world leader that I know of that has public tours. The public just needs to make their reservations before, when you used to -- they just lined up at the door."
The new system -- favoring the organized tourist over the whimsical last-minute house-caller -- has resulted in fewer guests. The White House estimates that 60,000 people will visit during the holidays, including invitation-only receptions. That's down from the estimated 125,000 to 160,000 visitors during the holidays in the 1990s.
To compensate for restricted access, in 2002 the Bush White House created Barney Cam, a video tour of the mansion's decorations starring the presidential terrier. Barney is back this year at Whitehouse.gov.
But there's nothing like a live visit to the State Dining Room, where this year a white sculpture the size of a trunk radiates powerful smell-waves of . . . CHOCOLATE! The carving turns out to be a model of the White House, made from 350 pounds of white chocolate and 125 pounds of gingerbread.