The Obstacle to the Obamas' Stay at Blair House: Former Aussie Leader John Howard

Blair House hospitality was extended to one former head of state, but not the Obamas.
Blair House hospitality was extended to one former head of state, but not the Obamas. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
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By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

Giving up power is never easy. That's the only thing that might explain the Blair House episode.

Yesterday President-elect Barack Obama and his family moved into Blair House, the guest house for official visitors to Washington. They had asked to move in earlier this month when they came to Washington to enroll their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, in Sidwell Friends School on Jan. 5. They were turned down because of "previously scheduled events and guests."

When I called Laura Bush's spokeswoman Sally McDonough to ask what events and guests could be so important, her answer was, "It is the guest house of the president with planned activities." She wouldn't reveal what the "planned activities" were. Later, my Post colleague Philip Rucker managed to drag out of McDonough that former prime minister John Howard of Australia would be staying there with his wife, Janette, for one night before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush. Other awardees -- former British prime minister Tony Blair and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe -- were also offered Blair House accommodations but made other arrangements.

Oh, yes, there was also a private reception hosted by Laura Bush for members of the Global Cultural Initiative.

But Blair House is huge. It's not one house but four houses put together. The federal government bought the house from the Blair estate in 1942 and connected the adjoining Lee house in 1943. The two closest houses to those were bought in 1969-70 and connected as well. So Blair House now has 119 rooms and is 70,000 square feet. It's larger than the White House. And yet there was no room at the inn for the Obama family.

You might ask: What is this really about?

Here's the back story. John Howard was a member of George Bush's coalition of the willing in Iraq. Howard is no friend of Barack Obama's. When Obama announced for the presidency, he proposed legislation that would withdraw troops by March 2008; Howard responded by saying, "If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats." Obama responded that it was "flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world" had attacked him.

Howard was about as unpopular in Australia when he lost his last election (and still is) as Bush is in the United States right now. The Australian press has gone crazy over the Blair House story in a way that the U.S. press has not, saying that Howard should have offered to stay elsewhere.

The unavailability of Blair House means that the Obamas will have to move three times in three weeks, adding an additional disruption for two young girls already in an incredibly pressured situation. Not only that, but the expense of staying at the Hay-Adams Hotel was considerable, as was the added expense and trouble of having to secure the hotel and its environs by the Secret Service. All of this so that Howard and his wife could have 119 rooms to themselves (including living rooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms and kitchens) for one night?

Why couldn't the Howards have stayed at their country's embassy, as Tony Blair did at his? Why couldn't the reception have been held at the State Department? The White House could easily have made these things happen.

Laura Bush is one of the most gracious first ladies we've ever had. And the Bushes have welcomed the Obamas to the White House and personally given them a tour.

In the end, though, the Bushes are about to relinquish the most powerful position in the country, maybe the world. And over the years, as that transition approaches -- no matter which party is in power -- there is always a last grasp, a moment when the outgoing first family tightens up on the reins of power as if to say: Not so fast. Until Jan. 20, we still call the shots.

Different people have different ways of expressing that reluctance to let go. For the Bushes it has been Blair House.

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