Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Year's Eve at the White House

I have a cousin named Aaron. He is the oldest of 11 children (this always amazes me), he is a recent graduate of UVA law school (last summer), and he is awesome. He also happens to work as a speech writer for the President at the White House. That's right, I've got someone on the inside.One of the things Aaron does is fact-checking for various speeches, so he is on the phone a lot. It's always fun to hear his stories of how people change vocal demeanor after he says, "Hi, this is Aaron Cummings calling from the White House." Except the pizza guys - they never believe it.

One of the perks of working for the President is that Aaron can give tours of the West Wing. This ain't no get-tickets-through-your-Congressman White House tour. These are private, after-hours, small group affairs offered only to those with connections. I knew Aaron takes his own personal time to do these, and with a new baby at home and the current administration's days numbered, I thought we might not be lucky enough to get in on one of these tours. But he called a few weeks ago with an opening on New Year's Eve and we jumped at the chance.

We met Aaron and the other four "tourists" - Aunt Janet, her roommate Pat, Aunt Merrilee and her father - in the frigid wind outside one of the gates by the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. We had our ID's handy for the couple of security points, then made our way into the complex. I badly wished I'd worn a hat - it was FREEZING. Aaron started our tour outside, and then inside, the Executive Office Building, which is right next to the White House. Aaron's office is just inside the EEOB; after all, he says,
"Proximity to power is power."
Aaron in the hall outside his office at the Executive Office Building

It was awesome. Having grown up near DC I developed a general boredom regarding museums, government, and tours with guides. But this was way different, and I'm way more mature now. It was actually fascinating, and while I have a mind like a sieve and cannot remember facts nor figures from one minute to the next, it was amazing to be in a room while Aaron told us the historical meetings, announcements, or events that took place there, decades ago. He pointed out architectural details, symbolic statues and engravings, and told the stories behind things like the brass railing on a staircase that President (was it Cleveland?) had installed because he had slipped on those stairs, and the porch on which President (I can't even remember which one) used to go out to smoke cigars.
Ed viewing pictures of past uses of Room 180

I was so impressed with the level of interesting-ness of the things he was telling us that I asked him what kind of training he'd gotten to give the tour (because other tour guides in DC could use it), and he said none. It was just a bunch of things he had picked up in reading different books.
Well. I just resigned myself to spending the evening in awe.

One example of how this post-Civil-War era building has been updated to support today's technology

The view of the White House from the EEOB

After the EOB we crossed the little driveway between the buildings and entered the West Wing. Saw the Navy Mess, the door to the Situation Room (closed), the Cabinet Room, the Roosevelt Room, the Oval Office (George was in Texas). There are several lobby/sitting areas throughout the wing, all decorated with beautiful art that Aaron knew details about. One of my favorite things were the photographs. Lining most hallways, staircases and some foyers were dozens, possibly 100+, recent photographs of the President in various settings, from a speech to troops to a meeting with the Italian president to wearing dirty jeans and a cowboy hat on his ranch. They were beautiful photos, and Aaron said they are constantly changed and updated to reflect the most recent events. The President also chooses his own art for the various meeting rooms, from an art catalog they have, and chooses his own rug and decor for the Oval Office.

We couldn't take pictures inside the West Wing, but we could in the Rose Garden and other areas outside. Aaron knew which president had added which porch and portico and who had done what where. Amazing.

Ed in the Rose Garden. The tree down off the tip of his nose is by the window to the Oval Office

The Press Room was pretty cool - it used to be an indoor swimming pool but is now a super high tech cozy meeting room. On our way out we saw the spot on the lawn where all the White House based news reports are made - they have to leave their equipment out there covered in tarps all the time. Finally we saw the Blair House across the street, where incoming presidents usually stay, and where the Obamas will be starting January 15. And we saw all the bleachers and scaffolding that are in progress for Inauguration Day.

Thank you again so much, Aaron, and Katy who was home with Baby Reuben, and my parents who were home with our kids. It was a perfect, and memorable, way to spend the last night of 2008!


dave said...

Very cool! I'm having trouble seeing the pics - am I the only one?

Disco Mom said...

Yeah, I don't know what the problem was but once I deleted 2 of them it seems ok now. Maybe I'll try uploading them again in a few hours.

Jenifuz said...

That would be a fun New Years Eve!

Just Katy said...

Wow, great post!

"Proximity to power is power." Ha - that's why Aaron married me. Bwa ha ha ha.

Lindsay said...

That is so cool!

Jen said...

I am so jealous. I got to go on a White House tour when I flew to D.C. for Michelle's wedding. I think they stopped public tours shortly after that, due to September 11th, if I'm remembering correctly. I wish I had "appreciated" my glimpse into the historical significance of the White House a little bit more. I am dying to come back out to D.C. (Still wear the FBI shirt I bought on the street there, lol.)

MiaKatia said...

I am always so impressed with people who really know things about their surroundings. That sounds like it was an amazing and fun tour.

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