By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Mrs. Bush sounded wistful about the new reality. "I hope that we -- and pray -- that we will, as time goes on, not live in a time of terrorism where we have security concerns. . . . That's certainly something we all pray for at the holidays."
* * *
On Jan. 20, when Barack Obama gives his inaugural address, he should take his eyes off the teleprompter and enjoy the view. He'll be one of the few who can anymore.
From the temporary podium constructed between the two grand staircases of the West Steps of the Capitol, he will see American democracy itself distilled: Before him, the People, listening and perhaps cheering. Slanting to the right, the parade route he will shortly travel, Pennsylvania Avenue NW, connecting -- and separating -- the People's House (the Capitol) from the President's House (the White House). Finally, there are the key monuments, the obelisk for the first president and, beyond it, the temple to the president who held the republic together through the Civil War.
Remember when you, too, could climb the West Steps and see all that at a glance? Many Washingtonians knew what tourists didn't: Here was the best view of the Mall. The steps, including the broad terrace to which they ascend, were the first place you took visitors, to give them a panoramic orienting overview.
Lingering there became a Washington tradition as soon as they were built in 1892. According to an 1897 book on the Capitol: "On summer evenings, when the heat drives the townsfolk from their homes, there is no more popular resort than the terrace-promenade."
The West Steps became Washington's bleachers to watch fireworks and listen to concerts. Joggers and dog-walkers scaled and descended the staircases at all times of year, in all weather.
But since shortly after Sept. 11, the West Steps have been barricaded. Except for very special occasions when the lowest steps have been temporarily reopened, that space and vista are perks enjoyed almost exclusively by congressional leaders, with overlooking offices, and Capitol Police sentries.
As the Capitol welcomes unprecedented numbers of visitors inside through the new visitor center on the east side, folks still can't be outside on the West Steps.
Congressional committees and the Capitol Police Board -- comprising the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms and the architect of the Capitol -- have authority over access.
Terrance Gainer, the Senate sergeant-at-arms, said last week that the day may come when the steps and the terrace are reopened.
There is no timetable, he said, but there is "constant discussion about when all of us, at any time, can go up and down those steps. It's a combination of what's going on in the fight against terrorists and your everyday thugs, and the implementation of technology here. . . . It's slow and steady. . . . It will happen."
* * *
Meanwhile, the terrorists, perversely, are memorialized in what has been taken away.
Osama bin Laden lives on in the curtailed candlelight tours of the White House and in the pictures of the Mall no longer taken from the West Steps.
But some spaces retain their unrestricted promise of casual encounters with what it means to be an American, a Washingtonian.
Planted at the opposite end of that spectacular vista Obama will behold on Jan. 20 is the Lincoln Memorial.
Climb the 58 steps and turn to face the Mall. The Capitol peeks from beyond the Washington Monument.
This is the reverse of the view from the West Steps. It is roughly the perspective Martin Luther King Jr. had when he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
The view from here is different, not just because it has been the vantage of protesters speaking to power. From here the landscape is pastoral. It is all trees and sky -- sky above and sky mirrored in the Reflecting Pool, framed by a long corridor of trees. Here you can dream.
Within the hushed marble precinct is the statue of the brooding figure. One wall is chiseled with the words that Abraham Lincoln delivered in 1865 on his second trip to the inaugural podium -- though back then the ceremony took place on the east side of the Capitol. The war-weary president spoke of slavery and war, and mused on the cost in blood of a nation's sins.
"With malice toward none," he said, "with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . ."
Many will visit the Lincoln Memorial next month. It is a fine place to contemplate Obama's inauguration. No one will keep you out.