Josh Lipsky Makes White House Visitors Feel Welcome
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Josh Lipsky stands under the Dolley Madison portrait, in the doorway between the empty Red Room and the empty State Dining Room, in the early-morning hours of a dog day of summer. This spot is where visitors usually bottleneck.
"We have a flow problem here," he says.
Flow matters during this last week in August. This week is about numbers.
With the Obama family on vacation, the White House Visitors Office is trying to push 36,424 people through their home in five 12-hour days, rather than the normal six-hour days. That's nearly four times the normal flow, the highest rate of visitation since 2 million people came through in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was president. It's the literal part of what Obama calls the "most open and accessible administration in history." It's gate day for Lipsky, meaning he's the Visitors Office staffer who makes sure 6,000 people get in by nightfall.
"We are open for business," the 23-year-old says at the stroke of 8 a.m., hanging up the phone in the cream-colored, shabby-carpeted, five-person Visitors Office in the East Wing, the hub of visitation management.
The people have always been able to walk into the house, in one way or another. Andrew Jackson invited the public to his inaugural party in 1829, and crowds surged toward the spiked orange punch, nearly crushing the president. In the '30s, Herbert Hoover had regular hand-shaking hours with anyone who showed up (no background check needed). Harry S. Truman was the first to institute fixed visiting hours, and the process was refined from there. For this end-of-summer week, the White House doors are as wide open as they can get in this modern, dangerous, democratic age.
"Everybody else is gearing down in August," says Ellie Schafer, director of the office, "and we're gearing up."
Twelve-hour days. An endless parade of visitors, hundreds every half-hour, who must be treated like guests rather than tourists. They're heeere.
Lipsky -- Greenbelt native, newsaholic, Orioles fan -- throws on his charcoal suit jacket and heads to the East Wing door. He holds it open for the first visitors of the day: a woman pushing her mother in a wheelchair, a tourist family in khaki shorts and droves of area bureaucrats on a field trip.
"Welcome to the White House, guys," he says. "Go on in."
At 15, he'd skip last period at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville and run down to Capitol Hill to intern for Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.). At 18, he was checking badges at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston when the magnetic oratory of a U.S. Senate candidate lured him into the arena. Last year, he graduated from Columbia University, dropped his luggage at home and hit the road to do advance work for the senator's presidential campaign, stuffing envelopes, answering phones, knocking on doors.
Now, on a Wednesday in late August, he's half gatekeeper, half host of the executive mansion, fresh-shaven with a sensible burgundy tie, all smiles and handshakes, as genial as a former student body president (which he is), just another former chapter head of the College Democrats, just another future leader of America in the right place at the right time with the right attitude.