Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Is a White House tour worth the wait?

June 28, 2018 at 7:15 AM

A tour of the White House is a strangely self-guided experience. For extra context, download the new White House Historical Association’s app. (Diego Cambiaso/)

According to the White House website, all you have to do to get a tour of the building is to request one through your congressional representative. Since I live in D.C., I don’t really have a representative — though I do have Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting member of Congress. So I called up her office and requested a White House tour. “I live here, so I can go anytime,” I said. “I’m totally flexible.”

That was two years ago. I called back. I emailed. I phoned some more. But no matter how hard I tried, I was not able to get on a White House tour. Giving up on going as a regular D.C. citizen, I decided to play my media card — I emailed the White House Historical Association from my Washington Post address and got my invitation the very next day.

I arrived at 15th Street NW and Pennsylvania an hour early, with all my belongings stuffed into the pockets of my cargo shorts. (There’s a strict “no bags” rule for this tour.) Thus began a strange, 40-minute security odyssey that included a pass through a metal detector and walking past fans that blew my scent to police dogs that were hidden behind a screen. (At least that’s how the guards explained it to me when I asked.) As someone who often wears cat-themed accessories, I’m glad the Secret Service ensures their bomb-sniffing dogs aren’t swayed by appearances.

As I walked this path alone, I had no idea I was finally approaching the actual White House.

Unlike the tightly packed queues of airport security, the White House security process scatters people across a sprawling area. Alone for most of the time, I wandered down poorly marked paths, through tents and, at one point, into what appeared to be a cubicle-filled office. When I finally walked through an unremarkable door into what turned out to be the White House, I thought it was just another security pavilion.

“Where am I?” I asked the security guard. “Am I supposed to be here?”

Apparently used to these kinds of existential questions, the guard assured me that I had finally made it to the actual, real White House.

I never really got over that initial sense of confusion. This is, in part, because the White House tour isn’t really a tour at all. After you clear security, you’re let loose to wander the bottom two floors of the East Wing at your own pace. I and my fellow tourists reacted to this unexpected freedom with bovine unease. We formed small herds and shuffled around slowly, hoping for someone, anyone, to show us around.

As it turns out, you have to be your own guide at the White House. The officials stationed around the building are there, primarily, to keep you off the furniture. They’ll answer your questions, but if you’re feeling shy, or don’t know enough to even ask good questions, I recommend downloading a new app called White House Experience.

“OK, so before Roosevelt, this room was the White House’s laundry room,” I said, reading from the app for the benefit of the assembled herd. We peeked into a small room known as the library, and one astute tourist noticed that the evenly spaced books and stiff chairs seemed more like a backdrop for televised interviews than an actual reading nook.

Security guards are primarily there to keep you off the furniture.

In fact, this wing of the White House feels more like a Hollywood set than a place where people actually live and work. It’s just too orderly, formal and small. Even the flower arrangements, so symmetrical and perfect, seem made-for-TV. Other people apparently felt this uncanny vibe, too. I overheard several people asking whether the rooms on the tour are actually used for anything.

“This is where state dinners take place,” answered one guard who was stationed in a handsomely decorated, but rather small, dining room.

“Really?” I said. “I mean, I’ve lived in houses with bigger dining rooms.”

“Believe it or not, 140 people can fit in here,” he replied.

He added that Thomas Jefferson once used the state dining room as an office, and it’s also where Lewis and Clark planned their expedition.

“Wow, Thomas Jefferson,” a gray-haired woman said to her grandkid. “Can you imagine?”

We stood there for a few more moments, picturing the explorers poring over maps and drafting up lists of supplies. Even the kid seemed impressed. There’s something undeniably magical about being in a place where so much history has transpired.

Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt both held court in the Red Room.

I also enjoyed chatting up the guard in the aptly named Red Room, the very spot where Dolley Madison held her famous salons (though, back then, it was painted sunflower yellow). Later, Eleanor Roosevelt held informal press conferences for female reporters there, the guard said.

“She would tell the women reporters the same information the men were getting, but she would add a little color to it, so the women reporters’ stories were always better than the dry stuff the men were putting out,” the guard said.

Toward the end of the tour, people lined up for selfies beneath a doorway bearing the presidential seal. I took that opportunity to ask my fellow tourists if they’d had as much trouble booking a White House tour as I had. Visitors from Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas all told me they had simply contacted their representatives and gotten their invitations without a hitch. A group from Chile told me they requested their invitation through their local embassy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t run into anyone else from D.C.

Though it takes some historical knowledge (or a handy app) to fully appreciate the White House walk-through, I totally recommend it. But if you’re a D.C. resident like me, you may need to move to a proper state — or get a job at The Washington Post — first.

More adventures with the Staycationer

D.C.’s secret Navy museum is amazing — if you can figure out how to get in

A paranoid visit to the DEA museum

D.C. bus tours: The good, the bad and the just plain weird


I'm the "Staycationer," author of a biweekly column reviewing tourist hotspots in the Washington, D.C. area. I also preview upcoming performances and write quirky and fun feature stories.

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