I didn't bring any presents with me the first time," says the one and only official presidential Santa Claus, Robert George. "I was standing out there near the tree with Vice President Nixon, waiting for the Eisenhowers' car. I had orders from the Secret Service not to get near it. But when it drove up, Nixon gave me a big push. 'Give 'em hell, Santa!' he says. So I did."
That was 24 years ago. Santas may be a dozen a dimestore these days, but there is only one genuine, certified Santa Claus at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He's got the White House tie clips and cuff links to prove it. "A-ho Ho Ho. Oh my. Hmmm. You betcha!" he chortles.
"Ike said I was the best-dressed blue-eyed Santa he'd ever seen," says George. "I had goose bumps, let me tell you. And then he appointed me the official White House Santa. Gave me a key to the city, too. And the Secret Service man said to me, 'Mr. Santa, if you don't make a million dollars off of this, I'm going to kick you to you know where.'
"Mamie wanted to see my belly shake -- like a bowl full of jelly, you know -- and I must have done it for a good two minutes, just shaking and shaking. Felt more like two hours."
He started out as a barber, in Cozad, Neb. Carl Curtis, then senator from Nebraska, discovered him, and got him invited to the lighting of the national tree, where Eisenhower took a shine to him.
George wheezes, he pulls on his curly white beard (genuine), he squeezes his blue eyes shut in an ecstasy of Santa-ness. He and Mrs. Claus, Stella George, fly to Washington each Christmas from California to deliver the spirit of Christmas to the first family. "They can always use it," he says, patting his stomach, which is at the moment covered with a white T-shirt. He can see the White House from the window of his suite in the Washington Hotel. His well-pressed scarlet trousers are tucked neatly into his black leather boots.
"I'm not a preacher," says the presidential Santa, "but I believe I was put on this earth to make people happy."
He goes about his work with an almost mystical sense of mission. It began with a dream, he says, in 1949. "I dreamed I was supposed to become the true Santa. And in that dream I met a president." A few years ago he had a vision. "We were driving home from Las Vegas. Up in the sky I saw a cloud shaped like a sled. Even the shape of me standing in it." His eyes widen.
Between the dream and the vision he moved to the West Coast and eventually into a Santa house in a small theme park near Anaheim. It's open all year round, equipped with snow-making machines and cameras so visitors can be snapped with Santa. The Georges live on the second floor. Their daughter takes the pictures. "Wait till you see this," George says, whipping out a large glossy photograph of himself, lounging in a foot or two of snow in his red overalls.
He also does television game shows, and commercials. "And telethons and things like that.
"I'm not a rich man," he says. "I've been broke two times, and I'm not ashamed of it. All I need is enough to make the food and rent. This," he says, looking down at his suit, "is what I was born to do." He says that being the presidential Santa has cost him more than $75,000 over the years, but he has no regrets.
He's on the phone with the White House now, trying to get things straight for yesterday afternoon's visit. They've put him on hold. He sighs.
The presents, the stuffed toy for Amy, the chocolate sleigh, the basket of California fruits and dates, are piled on the couch, right next to Mrs. Claus. Her dress is made from the same material as Santa's suit, with pompons of white rabbit fur on the bodice. Her stockings are opague red, and her boots are white leather kneehighs. Santa lounges, but she sits up square. h
"I was working as an escrow officer at a bank when I first met him," says Mrs. Claus. "He was flirting with my sister from across the room at a Lebanese restaurant in Hollywood. We were eating there together. But my sister was married. He started calling me five times a day at the bank."
They married, and it was Christmas forever after that.
"She's the adopted sister of Lon Chaney Jr.," says George proudly.
"I never imagined this," she says. "Oh my no. I'm an educated businesswoman! And I don't think he had any idea this whole thing would snowball, er, grow like this."
The White House has picked up the phone. "Yes! They definitely know. Yes. All right. I'll wait to hear from you." He hangs up. "Don't give me any of that!" says Santa, disapprovingly, looking out the window at the White House roof.
"I've got a big basket of jams and jellies and pancake mix for the Carters," he says.
"And there's a German folk dress for Amy," interrupts Mrs. Claus.
"We spent a full day down in Plains, Ga., with Miss Lillian in 1977," says Santa. "'Jimmy's damn tight,' she says to me. 'Santa, what did you get me for Christmas? She said she wanted a Learjet, so she could get to heaven faster.
"President Johnson," says George, "asked me for a ranch in Texas. I said, 'Ho, ho, ho, Mr. President, I thought you owned them all.'"
"President Nixon," he continues, pulling on his padded belly for effect, "remembered me from '56. He asked for a new topcoat."
"And we made sure he got it," says Mrs. Claus. "We talked to his wife."
The phone rings again. Santa's mouth is dry. He gulps some water, then picks up the receiver. "Ho ho ho. Yeeesss? Santa here." It's the White House. "3:20? Hmmm. Ho Ho. Southwest gate? I suppose they'll take the presents there?" There is a pause. "My social security number? I never use it! A-Ho! Wait a minute," he says, looking it up. "Will they let me by? Hm. And Mrs. Claus? I'll be in a cab," he says, replacing the receiver.
All five of his sleds -- 42-foot motorized contraptions "pulled" by mechanical reindeer -- are sitting back in California.
"Too hard to get a clean-up man," he says. "A-ha ho ho ho ho."