A day in the life of the heavily toured White House
Sunday, February 21, 2010
The flood of visitors into the White House started just after 7 a.m., beginning another day inside the nation's most rarified building. Among the first to arrive was a family from rural Wisconsin that had never been to Washington, followed by a local bureaucrat back for his ninth meeting in a month. Each passed through a background check, two security stations and a metal detector before entering the office and home of President Obama.
It was Oct. 28, 2009, but it could have been any day inside the White House: 2,215 visitors arrived, drawn from across the country to attend one of 112 appointments that occupied Obama's administration from dawn until midnight. The visitors included a hedge-fund manager, an army general, a calligrapher and a pianist. Obama met with 385 of them. Fifty-eight White House staff members hosted meetings.
In an attempt at transparency, Obama has decided to make public the list of all visitors after a 90-day lag to preserve security. His staff recently released the first month of records, from October, and the data provide an unprecedented view inside the White House. On Oct. 28, a senator briefed the president on national security while a stage designer hung a fuzzy seven-foot spider on the roof in preparation for Halloween. A tourist parked his battered sedan in a nearby garage moments before the Singaporean ambassador pulled onto Executive Drive in a five-car motorcade. An activist cut short a trip to Australia and a small-business owner traveled from Killdeer, N.D., all to spend anywhere from six minutes to eight hours among the country's political elite.
"If they're coming here, they're here for a good reason," said Darienne Page, the receptionist who greets visitors in the lobby of the West Wing. "It's a big day for most of them. I end up seeing a lot of nervous and excited people."
As is her habit, Page arrived at work that day more than an hour before Obama's first meeting. She set out copies of seven daily newspapers in front of the six armchairs and three couches that form a waiting room around her desk. She filled a glass jar with individually wrapped starlight mints, which replaced bowls of M&Ms as the more sanitary White House candy offering after the swine flu outbreak. She added to the stack of cups emblazoned with the presidential seal, which are intended for coffee or tea but more often swindled out in purses or briefcases as souvenirs.
An Iraq war veteran and Obama campaign volunteer, Page is known by the president's staff as "ROTUS," for receptionist of the United States. It is her job to make a flawless first impression on visitors who wait to be called into meetings in the Oval Office, the Roosevelt Room or the vice president's office. On this Wednesday, her desk was polished and decorated with a vase of fresh flowers. She looked over the day's schedule and researched the names of unfamiliar visitors online, so she could greet people and make conversation.
Daniel Loeb, a New York hedge fund manager, helped raise more than $100,000 for Obama's campaign and then donated $25,000 for his inauguration. He would talk with Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, in a meeting Loeb's office characterized as "just two old friends catching up." Robert Allbritton, the owner of Politico, would meet with Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser. One of Obama's afternoon meetings was scheduled for the Cabinet Room, which meant that water glasses needed to be poured three-quarters full and set in front of each chair and that Page would need to confiscate all BlackBerrys before guests entered the secure room. The schedule foretold a busy day in the lobby -- Make-A-Wish children, Harvard economics professors and three ambassadors -- and Page surmised that she could be surrounded by as many as 40 visitors at once, some waiting for more than an hour.
"The day can get busy really fast," she said, "so I want to be totally prepared before the president arrives."
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Even before Obama left the residence for an economic briefing, a meeting with his advisers and lunch with Vice President Biden, a deluge of guests started parading through the president's home. At 7:30 a.m., 203 tourists entered the White House, followed by 198 at 8:30 and 270 more at 9. With the Secret Service acting as guides, the visitors toured the library, the China Room, the Vermeil Room and the entire first floor while Obama exercised and ate breakfast upstairs.
More than 5.5 million people requested tours of the White House last year -- an unprecedented demand that threatened Obama's desire for personal space and his goal of normalcy for his two young daughters. Early last year, the first family decided to open the house to guests Tuesday through Saturday mornings, usually after Sasha and Malia have left for school. Tours are sometimes postponed or redirected at the last second to accommodate news conferences, motorcades and family walks with dog Bo, staff members said. On Oct. 28, after the last visitors left about noon, White House ushers had less than an hour to transform the East Room from a tourist destination into the site of a presidential bill signing.
"It is a daily occurrence that we adjust around the family," said Ellie Schafer, director of the White House Visitors Office. "We reroute tours. We have screens we can put up. We make sure their privacy remains intact and we don't get in the way of any business."