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At White House, Tainted Tours

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  • By Lyndsey Layton
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page A23

    On her first visit to the White House, 8-year-old Brooke Cusimano put on her holiday best, a Victorian-style royal blue wool coat, and held her parents' hands as they wound their way through the famous mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue that seemed so much smaller on TV.

    Ask the little girl what she knows about the White House and she can talk about Buddy, Socks and Monica S. Lewinsky.

    Hundreds of tourists who flock each day to the People's House to gaze at oil portraits of Founding Fathers and take each other's pictures on the North Portico still are infatuated with the White House enough to arrive by the bus load and get in line by 6 a.m. for free tickets.

    But the scandal and looming impeachment threat to President Clinton have made them uncomfortable about what the building now represents.

    "He's cheapened it," said Maria Izzi, an educational consultant from Rhode Island who waited for hours in line outside the White House as "Stars and Stripes Forever" played from speakers in the bushes on the White House grounds. "It pains me. It gives an empty feeling inside. Like someone you trust betrayed you. Like your husband had an affair."

    Izzi's boyfriend, Patrick DeSimone, joked that he wanted to see "the Bill and Monica room" on their tour.

    "When you think of the Oval Office, you think of Queen Victoria and the desk she gave. You think of the Kennedy kids and the way they would play under the furniture," said Mona Royer, a tour guide who was shepherding a group of 30 people from Georgia. "Now, it's 'Where's that little room?'" she said, referring to the space where Clinton and Lewinsky met privately.

    Others said they support the president and are angry with the Republican Congress for pursuing impeachment.

    "They're sanctimonious little pinheads," said David Milot, 45, a real estate broker from Seattle who hoped to visit the House Judiciary Committee hearing after the White House, "so I might be able to boo and hiss."

    Michelle Flamer, a 41-year-old corporate lawyer from Philadelphia and a self-described "Christian woman," is particularly peeved at the timing of the impeachment move. "This is just in stark contrast to what is represented by the Christmas holiday," she said. "Where is the forgiveness? What about peace?"

    As he waited for his 11:20 a.m. tour yesterday, Chris Suever was enmeshed in his paperback copy of the Federalist Papers, rereading sections of the Constitution in the back regarding the duties of the president.

    "He's guilty, in my opinion," said Suever, a 41-year-old air traffic controller from Alexandria. "Ronald Reagan had such respect for the Oval Office, he wouldn't go in without a jacket and tie on. And this guy. ... It's embarrassing, what he did to this country. It kind of saddens me, actually."

    One German tourist said he didn't understand what all the fuss was about. "Like the most of Europeans, I think, 'Let the president do his job,'" said Michael Schebesta, 33.

    The White House is the only residence of a head of state that is regularly open to the public. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people visit each day, said Phil Walsh, the National Park Service's chief ranger at the White House. Since the scandal broke, there's been a slight increase in visitors, Walsh said.

    A stroll through the building seemed surreal yesterday. As Judiciary Committee members cast historic votes that could lead to the eviction of the First Tenant, the Clinton White House was decked out for holiday celebrations. This year's theme, "Winter Wonderland," turned the East Wing into a dreamy haze of gold and silver, icicles and cherubs, and twinkling lights.

    Dawn Cusimano, Brooke's mother, was startled by the Clintons' Christmas card, on display in the East Foyer among White House cards dating from Eisenhower. Clinton, his wife and daughter were beaming, a color image of love and family. It was all too perfect.

    "The grins, the grins just made me think of the scandal and the damage that the country is going through," said Cusimano, a 33-year-old accountant from Woodbridge.

    In the State Dining Room, few people stopped to read the inscription in the marble fireplace, written by John Adams: "I pray to Heaven to bestow the best of blessings in this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof."

    Jeff Ruby, 29, an engineer from Arlington, was struck by a videotape in the visitors' center in which Clinton appears in the Oval Office. "It was weird to see Clinton in the Oval Office talking about history and tradition," said Ruby, adding that he doesn't want Clinton impeached. "He's kind of a sleazebag, but so was Kennedy, and he was a great president."

    Some visitors felt such a personal connection to the stone building and its history that they said they refuse to allow the controversy swirling around Clinton to taint their White House.

    "Do they still keep Jackie's picture in the bayyysement?" asked Carolyn Reynolds Parker, 73, in her thick Georgia drawl as she hunted the ground-floor corridor for the portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Handbag in gloved hands, Parker waved hello to a Secret Service officer and admired the fragrant pine swags that hung from the walls. "Now those are pretty swags, aren't they, Mary Jean?" she said to a friend. "I love this place. I am just absorbed by it."

    Impeachment Storm Sends Ripples Elsewhere
    Around the country, far from the stately confines of the White House, interest in the president's fate was fleeting at best.

    Boston newspaper headlines blared the news with several pages of coverage, predominantly out of Washington. The front page of the Boston Herald read simply: "Historic Step."

    But in the teeming downtown malls, few people appeared to have the time or patience for more of the same. They were too busy buying gifts, planning parties and navigating the pre-holiday hordes.

    "People are just so tuned out, you'd think these hearings were taking place on the third moon of Jupiter," said Kevin Sowyrda, a GOP political consultant who hosts a national radio talk show.

    In Miami on Friday, the vote on the first impeachment articles led the 5 p.m. news on WPLG-TV but was knocked off the lead at 6 p.m. by a report that baseball legend Joe DiMaggio had come out of a coma.

    Staff writers Pamela Ferdinand, Liz Leyden and Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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