By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"My little Alex P. Keaton," says Schafer, who offered the job to Lipsky after working with him on the campaign. "I love this kid."
His actual title is "staff assistant," perhaps the most common and lowly title in government. Like the legion of other staff assistants who are feeling for a foothold in Washington (35 are on the payroll of the White House alone), Lipsky is a sort of utility player. Today the job is mostly about sorting full legal names and back-slashed dates of birth and hyphenated Social Security numbers, and fielding last-minute tour requests from congressional offices. But other days it can be about something bigger, like preparing for a state arrival, or standing on the misty South Lawn at 4 a.m. to brace for the Easter Egg Roll's 30,000 visitors, or doing advance work for the president's trip to Five Guys or Buchenwald.
It's also about getting grief from older, more hardened White House staffers. Like the time he forgot keys to the Visitors Office and had to climb through his office window -- a security guard shouted that the rooftop snipers were poised to shoot.
And on gate day it's about kinda-sorta having the run of the house for a day. At 9 a.m. he zips to the southeast gate to clear up a date-of-birth issue with a group from the Romanian Embassy. He then does another walk-through of the visitors route, fist-bumping a maintenance guy by the China Room, pumping the hands of Secret Service guys in the East Room. Back in the Visitors Office, the TV is tuned to MSNBC's coverage of Ted Kennedy's death and the "end of an era."
"How's the gate so far?" asks Katie Seighman, deputy associate director of the Visitors Office.
"Only one," Lipsky says, referring to the morning's only hitch.
"It's a long day," says Seighman. "We'll see what happens."
Shortly after 10 a.m., Lipsky chats up a family that has been detained at the gate while personal information is sorted.
"Does this happen all the time?" asks the grandmother, and Lipsky says it'll just be a few minutes.
"You guys excited to see the White House?" he asks the children. "It'll be worth the wait."
"Good," says the daughter.
There are about a dozen "issues" throughout the day, but no one is turned away. They keep rolling up to the Southeast gate, through the metal detectors, into the residence. A big rush of people arrives after 6 p.m. They're mostly locals who don't get to see the White House because they're working during morning visiting hours. A thousand have to be admitted by 8:15 p.m., when the gates close for the night. It's a long day for everyone, and Lipsky sees himself as a bit of a cheerleader.
"How you doing?" Lipsky asks a Secret Service agent posted outside near the East Wing driveway.
"Don't talk to me, Josh," she says gruffly, playfully.
"We brought M&Ms to the Secret Service inside," he says.
"Don't tell me that."
At 7:23 p.m., with daylight dimming, the colonnade is clogged cheek by jowl with people. Lipsky makes a call to the gate to slow the flow. Chatter echoes through the East Wing, the Blue Room, the Red Room. Outside the north portico, dozens of people linger and talk as if they're at a backyard barbecue instead of on the front driveway of the president's house.
After 12 hours, Lipsky's shirt collar is finally unbuttoned. He talks about deferring from Georgetown Law School to take this job. (He declined to say how much it pays, though White House staff assistants earn $36,000 to $41,000.) You don't want to miss out, he says, even if you're a tiny piece of the agenda.
"When I was growing up, the White House was like a different universe," he says. "People will tell me they're from the D.C. area, but that the White House can sometimes feel a world apart. You just got to remind people and show them it's not. I think part of my job here is to connect the two worlds."
By 7:55, it's quieted down, save for the cicadas in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. The last of the crowd flows steadily out of the White House, which regains the evening aura of a private residence. Twilight silhouettes the grounds. And Lipsky, sitting at his desk absorbing the Kennedy encomiums, gets a call from the gate.
"We got one guy," he says after hanging up. A man named James Harper is stuck at the gate because the Secret Service doesn't have his name. The rest of his group has already moved through. The folks at the White House access system have already left the phones for the evening. After 10 minutes of phone work to offices around the White House, Lipsky finds a list with the man's name. James Harper, the last visitor, gets in, thanks to the staff assistant.
Harper, in the Red Room, is gracious when Lipsky says hello and apologizes for the delay.
"I just made it," says Harper, 48, the bus driver for a church group from Brandywine. "It's okay. Well worth the wait. To be born and raised in D.C. -- you see the White House every day on TV, but it's not the same as walking through it."
By 8:45, Harper shuffles out the north portico past an illuminated row of geraniums. The fountain out front goes plashplashplash. In the dusky distance, beyond the iron gate, camera flashes twinkle like giant fireflies.
Ellie Schafer wanders into the foyer as Secret Service makes a final sweep of the visitor route to make sure no one's hiding in the fireplaces. The last visitor is out. Another notch toward 36,424. Schafer and Lipsky look out the front door of the White House, then give each other a high-five.
"Sweet," Schafer says.
"Lock it up," says Lipsky.