A day in the life of the heavily toured White House

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A01

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."

* * *

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."

By the time Robert Boguslaw entered the East Room just after 1 p.m., it looked geared for an event. The ushers had set up four rows of chairs, a podium, an American flag, some decorative ferns, a small wooden desk and a 1938 Steinway grand piano, where Boguslaw took his seat. A pianist in the Marine Corps Band, he typically plays at the White House three times a week. It is his full-time job, and a role he shares with two other pianists. He had spoken with Obama only a handful of times, but he had provided background music for many of the president's public events.

In the hours before he arrived at the White House, Boguslaw had studied the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill Obama was scheduled to sign. It was, Boguslaw concluded, a tough assignment. Some bills lent themselves to music -- "Teach Your Children Well," for instance, went nicely with an education bill -- but budget legislation "can sometimes leave you searching for inspiration." He had brought a book of music with a handful of songs, but he carried thousands more memorized in his head. He guessed that he would probably stick to mellow jazz, remembering how a White House social staffer had chafed when he played a more traditional George Gershwin piece, and how Obama had complimented him for playing Miles Davis.

While Boguslaw performed, Obama's 132 guests entered and passed the piano. There were more than a dozen members of Congress, each deposited moments earlier by personal drivers on East Executive Avenue. The family of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts snapped pictures with digital cameras. Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. chatted near the lectern.

Judy Shepard took her seat in the first row, next to Holder. The bill contained the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, inspired in part by Shepard's son Matthew, who was murdered in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998 because he was gay. Shepard had spoken moments earlier with Obama and concluded that the president was "well briefed," having remembered her loss and the names of her other family members. Now, minutes before Obama stepped behind the lectern and thanked her by name, Shepard leaned over to Holder and joked that the small chairs and cramped space made the East Room feel more like a first-grade classroom.

"You're squeezed in and uncomfortable," Shepard said, "but at the same time you feel like it's this momentous occasion and the world has come to a stop."

Except everywhere else in the White House, where business continued at its usual, frenzied pace.

In the office of speechwriter Jon Favreau: Andrei Cherny, a former White House staffer back to visit old friends, watched Favreau hurriedly finish writing Obama's remarks for the bill signing. "He was ducking in and out of meetings, running into Axelrod's office," Cherny said, referring to senior adviser David Axelrod. "My internal panic alarm started going off just being back in that environment."

In the basement mess hall: Gerald Shea, assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO, ate lunch with Nancy DeParle, Obama's health-care specialist. They sat in leather chairs and discussed health-care reform while Navy waiters dressed in full uniform placed their food on a white tablecloth.

In the office of Cecilia Muñoz, director of intergovernmental affairs: Half a dozen immigrant activists lobbied for better coverage in the health-care bill, trying to craft an argument that was at once forceful and respectful. "In terms of the setting, it can be intimidating to speak your mind," said Charles Kamasaki, vice president of the National Council of La Raza. "You're a lot less likely to reach over the table and start grabbing people by the lapels in the White House."

On the roof: James Kronzer, a local stage designer, searched for an outdoor spot from which to hang Halloween decorations. He took measurements with a White House staff carpenter, careful to avoid the snipers who continued their usual patrols. The social office had invited Kronzer to design the North Portico and instructed him to avoid "blood, gore or anything too scary," he said. After three walkthroughs, he decided to suspend a gigantic stuffed spider in its web and line the driveway with 400 paper-bag lanterns.

* * *

By the time Kronzer finished his work, Obama was already on his way back to the East Room, which had been transformed once again. This time, the space was decorated for a reception to celebrate the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and butlers carried silver trays of hors d'oeuvres and roamed the marble floor of the entrance hall. Members of Congress chatted under chandeliers in the Green Room and the Red Room. A total of 290 guests mingled and waited for the president.

After Obama met again with his senior advisers in the Oval Office and threw a few shovels full of dirt to commemorate the planting of a new tree, he walked into the East Room and delivered his fourth speech of the day. Afterward, he stayed for 20 minutes, shaking hands, remembering names, once again impressing his guests for being engaging and well briefed.

When the event ended, leftover hors d'oeuvres were distributed around the West Wing, where most of Obama's staff continued to work through dinner. Jarrett listened to a roundtable of six small-business owners, who had come from as far as North Dakota and California to share their concerns for 45 minutes. Lawrence H. Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser, met with the British ambassador and then spoke to an expert on tax policy. Tina Tchen, director of public engagement, visited with the chief executive of REI, an outdoor gear and apparel company, about ways children can spend time outside.

Visitors continued to enter the White House until nearly 10 p.m., and some stayed until almost midnight. But, on this day, the last person listed as leaving was the president himself.

Obama walked out of the residence at 11:45 p.m. and boarded Marine One for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He spent two hours at a church there with families of troops who died in Afghanistan and then watched as 18 flag-draped transfer cases were unloaded off a cargo plane. He returned home at 4:45 a.m. and slept for three hours while visitors began touring the first two floors of his house. Then it was back to the West Wing, where Page sat at her desk behind a fresh vase of flowers, the lobby filling up around her with a new flood of visitors Oct. 29.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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