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Visiting the White House

I mentioned in my post last week that being in Washington D.C. was “more surreal than usual” because it was election time. Well, imagine being inside the White House just two days before the election! Because indeed, that’s where I was.

A little background is in order. More than five years ago, I got a Premium subscription upgrade order from a guy named Jeff, and his email domain caught my eye: eop.gov. There wasn’t, and isn’t, a web server on that domain, but a little research brought the answer as to what it was: the Executive Office of the President.

The EOP provides the staff for the Office of the President — the folks who do the day-to-day running of things for the president.

My initial reaction: “Yikes!”

About a third of the 1,800 employees of the EOP (some work in the White House, others work in buildings across the street), including Jeff, are non-partisan — they stay on from Administration to Administration, which helps ensure continuity for the ongoing operations. Jeff has been there since the Clinton Administration.

I of course dropped Jeff a note, and he replied to say he had been a fan for some time, hoped I didn’t mind if he used his official address for the mail (since all mail into and out of the White House offices is archived), and asked me to let him know if I’m ever in town as he can give me a private tour of the White House.

My wife, Kit, had to be in D.C. for a meeting this fall, so I decided to tag along and sent Jeff a note to say we’d be in the area.

The White House, from Pennsylvania Avenue. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

If it was OK to come during the evening or on the weekend, Jeff said, we’d get to see more. If he was willing to come in on the weekend, that’s fine with me, so he set it up — and told us (several times, in fact), that there is definitely a dress code for the White House: “Wear clothing appropriate for the nature” of the visit, the protocol he forwarded insisted: “business or business casual. This means NO JEANS, SHORTS, T-SHIRTS, TANK TOPS, FLIP-FLOPS, etc. regardless of weather conditions.”

I didn’t really know what “seeing more” really meant until we got there. Jeff told us we wouldn’t be going to the East Wing, which is what the public tours see, but rather the West Wing, which contains the Oval Office.

One bit of good news: unlike on the public tours, we could take a camera. The bad news: We were not allowed to take photos inside the White House, with the one exception being the Press Briefing Room. Photos outside are fine, so I snapped away before going inside:

Our entry into the White House. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

And a close-up of those doors. I like the Presidential seal visible on the wall inside:

Note there is no guard. There are plenty inside, though, not to mention we have already gone through security and of course have an escort — Jeff. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

The ground floor entry area is pretty interesting, the walls lined with photographs of recent visitors, such as the Pope. (The White House Photo Office is down there too, so no wonder. The official photographers are the only ones allowed to take photos inside.) We could look into the Mess Hall, which is run by the U.S. Navy (and is separate from the president’s dining room on the first floor). Right down the hall I noticed a closed door: the White House Situation Room. Nope: we weren’t allowed in there!

The West Wing’s ground floor. We entered via the Foyer, middle left. (Image: White House Museum)

Then we moved upstairs. At the top of the stairs we could look into the Cabinet Room, where Jeff pointed out the President’s chair is just a touch taller than the others. We then passed by a closed door, and suddenly I found myself standing in the open doorway of the Oval Office. I had no idea we would be able to go near it, let alone see it. Couldn’t go in, of course, but I could touch the oval rug with my foot. And I did.

Suddenly there was someone behind us. A guard aiming for my extended foot? Nope: it was Jared Weinstein, Special Assistant to the President — George W. Bush’s Personal Aide. He had heard Jeff was in the building and wanted to meet him, so he swept us into his office area — the closed door we had just passed. We were now inside the President’s secretary’s office, which is right next to the Oval Office. If there was any doubt, the closed door opposite where we came in was curved, so it blends in with the Oval Office’s walls!

I didn’t find a floor plan for the first floor on the White House Museum’s web site, but I found this one on Wikipedia:

The West Wing’s first floor. (Image: Wikipedia, public domain)

One thing I noticed when researching these images: I’ve seen “mistakes” on every floor plan I’ve looked at. No, I won’t say what the mistakes are.

The first thing I noticed about Jared was he was there on a Sunday. It was definitely a quiet day, being just two days before the election. There was also a secretary there. I guess one never knows when the president needs to go to work, so at least some support staff is there.

The second thing I noted about Jared was that he was a terrifically nice guy.

And the third thing I noted about Jared was that he was a terrifically young guy. When I commented on it, he instantly offered that he was 29. According to a 2006 profile by the Birmingham News (no longer online), Jared is

…always within the commander in chief’s earshot or line of sight, but never in the way.

That’s a narrow field of operation.

“You have to be ready on a whim and yet you have to be prepared to be a piece of furniture in a room,” said Andrew Card, Bush’s former chief of staff, who recommended Weinstein for the job. “It’s never about Jared. It’s always about the president.”

Weinstein, 26, is to President Bush in the West Wing what Charlie Young was to President Jed Bartlet on the television drama “West Wing.”

“You’re not a camera hog. You don’t assert yourself in meetings, but if the president looks for you, you make it easy,” said Ed Rogers, who worked in President George H.W. Bush’s White House. “The president should never have to do more than nod his head or twitch his finger and you know what he wants.”

Weinstein is barely a month into the job, and he’s already got a handle on the selfless angle: He declined an interview. But members of the small fraternity of former presidential aides describe the qualifications as loyalty, discretion, intelligence, honesty, good judgment, high energy and a willingness to remain anonymous. People close to Weinstein in Washington and his native Birmingham, Ala., say he’s a match for all.

I found very little about Jared online, so that “willingness to remain anonymous” bit is clearly true. I don’t know what his plans are after January 20, but I’m sure he has big things ahead of him. Jared: if you ever do start to do interviews, let me know. I’d love to do one.

I figured anyone who can give that much was truly deserving of a Get Out of Hell Free card, so I gave Jared one. Jeff smiled, but said nothing (he has some already). I invited Jared to visit my web site sometime. Ashley, the also-quite-young on-duty secretary who was looking on, had a quizzical look on her face, so I handed her one too.

Then Kit said, “Randy? Don’t you want to leave one for the President?”

Uh oh, I thought to myself. As a matter of fact, no: I wasn’t intending to. But I recovered quickly, pulled out a third card, placed it on Ashley’s desk, and told her, “I’ll let you decide what happens to this.” The poor girl!

We normally would have been able to go out into the Rose Garden, but couldn’t that day (we checked back several times, and finally learned “the dogs are out.” That would be Bush’s Scottish Terriers, Barney — who later that week in a pique of anti-liberal-media rage bit a reporter [photo, right, from aprildryan.com] — and Miss Beazley, who apparently has a more favorable opinion of the press.)

So while that was a disappointment, Jared did let me take a shot of the Rose Garden through the office window:

 

Rose Garden view from the President’s secretary’s office. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

We all bid each other farewell and headed to our next stop, the Press Briefing Room.

Once we got outside (no going down the hall the President uses to get from his office to the briefing room), we could take photos again, so I asked Kit to snap one of me:

North entrance to the West Wing. The “A” badge means I was there by appointment. (Photo: Kit Cassingham)

The awning in the next photo…

Heading east from the West Wing, with the grand portico in front of the main portion of the White House (see first photo for front-on view). (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

…is the entrance to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, which was recently rebuilt. It’s on top of the now-defunct presidential swimming pool (yes, really!), which was built for FDR, who had paralysis from polio, to give him a private place to exercise. Brady was Ronald Reagan‘s press secretary, and was shot in the head in the attempted assassination of Reagan by John Hinkley Jr — who happens to have been one of my wife’s childhood friends. (It really is a small world!)

The room is essentially a fairly large permanent TV set. It was completely renovated in 2006-2007:

White House Press Briefing Room. (Photo: Randy Cassingham)

There was still a reserved seat in the front row for Helen Thomas.

There were indeed reporters around, and a technician at one of the consoles in the rear — they never know when news might break. The tech on duty was watching a football game over the satellite.

Me in front of the lectern (visitors aren’t allowed on the podium). The hallway behind me leads to the West Wing offices. (Photo: Kit Cassingham)

It neither excited me nor bothered me that I was in the “Bush White House”. It was, rather, exciting to to be in the White House — it didn’t really matter what Administration was resident: this is a place steeped in history and symbolism, and it was a privilege to get to see it, especially at a time when the world was so deeply interested in what is about to happen there. It was a fantastic tour, and I’d like to thank Jeff publicly for setting it up.


A Brief Aside

Immediately after the tour, Kit and I headed for dinner with Vince Sabio, who really old-timers will recognize as the proprietor of the original (but sadly long-defunct) HumourNet mailing list and the originator of the “Unsubscription Fee” debacle. Vince is one of my oldest online friends, and we’ve kept in touch for many, many years. He still lives in the D.C. area.

Sadly, Vince isn’t planning on bringing HumourNet back — for some reason, it seems he likes having a life. His web site (linked above) does have an archive, at least. He says hello to any fans that happen to read this, and as you can see he’s just as ugly as I am:

Vince Sabio of HumourNet and Randy Cassingham of This is True. (Photo: Kit Cassingham)

 

30 Responses to Visiting the White House

  1. Greg in Sparks (not Reno), NV November 11, 2008 at 12:34 am #

    Great write-up, Randy! I felt like I was there with you, meeting Jeff, Jared and Vince, walking the halls of the West Wing, and passing out GOOHF cards (one of my favorite pastimes :-). Since you won’t tell us what’s wrong with the WH maps, maybe you’ll tell us what was on Vince’s t-shirt.

    Heh! I’ve already asked him to send it, hope to hear back soon. As you’d expect, it’s funny. -rc

  2. Cathy in Casselberry, FL November 11, 2008 at 3:26 am #

    You said that you noticed mistakes on every floor plan. I can’t help but wonder if the lack of a “ladies room” on the West Wing’s ground floor is one of them.

    OK, I’ll confirm that one. -rc

  3. David, Winnipeg, Canada November 11, 2008 at 6:38 am #

    I am very envious, the only way it could have been better is if you ran into the President himself (and gave him a card in person!)

    Regardless of one’s views on either man, Obama is the one that probably needs a GOOHF card far more than Bush does at this stage of the game …

  4. Sue in Grand Rapids, MI November 11, 2008 at 8:46 am #

    Kit’s childhood friend is James Brady, not John Hinkley Jr, right?

    Nope; Hinkley. She hadn’t heard from him for years before “the incident,” of course. -rc

  5. Sue, Claremont, CA November 11, 2008 at 10:32 am #

    Thanks for including us in your tour. The photos of the White House & grounds are wonderful & I think the ones Kit took of you are the best I’ve seen of you. Ugly, indeed! lol

  6. Jenni Colorado November 11, 2008 at 10:32 am #

    I was delighted to hear Vince is still alive and kicking, but bummed he plans to never revive Humournet. I almost got to meet him in person several years ago, but sadly we just couldn’t coordinate our schedules while I was in DC. Glad to know he’s doing well!

    And thanks for the virtual tour of the White house!

  7. Ron from Moose Jaw, Sk,, Canada November 11, 2008 at 10:32 am #

    Thanks for the reminder about HumourNet and for the link to many fine memories. It was good to see a picture of Vince Sabio. It is funny how I expect people I’ve never seen but admire greatly to be ten feet tall. He could have been over eight feet tall at most. 😉 Thanks for the wonderful travelogue.

    He was standing on a milk crate in order to get his arm on my shoulder. -rc

  8. John, Philadelphia November 11, 2008 at 12:23 pm #

    Very cool narrative, and the photos help bring it alive. I liked it that you made a reference to the “West Wing” TV show; it made me realize that this fictional show is my own frame of reference for the offices, rooms, and interior spaces in the White House–more so than the public tour I took 30 some years ago.

  9. Vicki, CO November 11, 2008 at 12:41 pm #

    I also noticed no women’s room on the first floor plan, thinking…it figures. Good to know it is a deliberate error.

    And there is that degree of separation thing again…James Brady grew up and went to Centralia, IL High School, where I also grew up and went to high school (a few years behind Mr. Brady, so I never actually knew him).

    No idea if the lack of a ladies room on the map is a deliberate error or not. That one is an older floorplan, but from what I could tell not a whole lot has changed. It could be that when it was made, there wasn’t a ladies room, and it’s been added since. But that would surprise me…. -rc

  10. Linda, Seattle November 11, 2008 at 3:03 pm #

    It shows how this world really does evolve around who one knows. And to think if you hadn’t started ThisIsTrue, you’d probably still be with JPL!

    What an insight on being able to tour the West Wing and to meet Jared, who heard that Jeff was there. I’ve heard that the floor plan was not the actual. Loved the fact that your toe touched the Oval Office rug.

    You’re looking great. Great camera!

    Heh! Yeah, it’s all in the camera. 🙂 But just so: I had a pretty good little career going at JPL, and it wasn’t a bad place to work. I just didn’t like living in L.A. anymore…. -rc

  11. Vince Sabio, HumourNet Bunker, Location Undisclosed November 12, 2008 at 1:36 am #

    FYI, it is not a _fait accompli_ that HumourNet is permanently deceased. It just occupied a lot of time, which happens to be a scarce commodity at the moment. (Note: “at the moment” == “for the past, oh, 8 years”) If I ever get my hands on some free time — on a more or less consistent basis — it is likely that HumourNet will be exhumed, dusted off, and re-animated. Note, though, that the original mailing list will not be exhumed; I will start the list over from scratch.

    Hmmm. I might want to consider posting something to this effect on the web site….

  12. Alida, Lancaster PA November 12, 2008 at 11:16 pm #

    Pretty darn cool!

    I’d also noticed the lack of women’s facilities and had chuckled. Now I wonder what the Ladies Room is masquerading as on the floor plan…

  13. gho Vancouver November 13, 2008 at 6:19 pm #

    thanks for the writeup! i have just one question — is jared “always within earshot or line of sight” only during public appearances?

    I presume so, or at least while the President is “working.” I’m pretty sure the President was in-house while we were there, but definitely was not in the immediate vicinity. -rc

  14. Erika Head, Wichita, KS November 14, 2008 at 10:09 pm #

    Very cool, Randy. It’s nice to see a glimpse of some places we see on the news every once in a while. I’m glad you enjoyed your tour and shared it with us.

  15. Walter, New Hampshire November 14, 2008 at 10:12 pm #

    What amuses me is the office for Homeland Security appears to be smaller than the men’s room. Perhaps that is why HS hasn’t been doing so well. Nice pix. Thanks.

  16. Sue in Bremerton WA November 15, 2008 at 1:11 am #

    Thank you so much, Randy and Kit for showing and telling us of things we will never know about. The closest I ever got to somewhere ‘real’ people aren’t supposed to be unless accompanied was on my son’s ship, when he was in the US Navy. And he could only take us (my sister and I) from the signal deck to the third deck down (mess deck). But it was thrilling nonetheless.

    Having visited Washington DC a couple of times, we always managed to drive past the White House. I waved both times, but once they (President and family) were in England. Still… I did get to wave at the White House. Does that count?

    I remember the tour thing that Jackie Kennedy had on TV, but I don’t remember much of it. Oh well… your visit was a thrill of a lifetime. Thanks for sharing.

    Sure driving by counts — you can’t do that anymore! -rc

  17. steve, Evansville, IN November 15, 2008 at 5:33 am #

    Who cares what you left for the President – you found VINCE!!!!! Just kidding but that is the first photo I’ve seen of Vince. I was a Humournet subscriber up to the end. True and Humournet were my first two online subscribes and I have only one regret – that Humournet folded. I also have one of his quotes on my homepage – http://www.geocities.com/avenger243. I hope he does revive Humournet and I trust you will let us know if he does!

  18. Nola - Australia November 15, 2008 at 6:17 am #

    I, as well as the rest of the world have been fascinated with what has been going on in the White House these last few months, fascinating reading. Got to wish the new President all the best for his term leading the USA, hope he and Kevin Rudd (Aust. Prime Minister) get along.

  19. John in Lexington, SC November 15, 2008 at 9:08 am #

    Maybe you should have left a copy of the column on the refusal by the man in charge of the monument to accept the already paid for and cut marble to repair the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier…

    It would make a nice Executive Order for “W’s” last weeks in office!

    I’ve already made sure that the Executive Office of the President was aware of that case. -rc

  20. Liana in San Francisco November 15, 2008 at 9:59 am #

    Thank you for saying that you visited THE White House rather than the BUSH White House. It really is OUR White House, not the President’s White House. The President is only a temporary tenant, whoever he/she is. Congratulations and thank you for the very nice story.

  21. Lisa, Trenton, Ont November 15, 2008 at 11:27 am #

    It’s a pity Vince will not come out of retirement. His is the first list I ever signed up on.

    Well, Lisa, just remember that your “first” isn’t always your “best”. -rc

  22. Steven, Israel November 15, 2008 at 4:44 pm #

    It’s “extras” like these that I *really* enjoy TiT, uh, This is True (suppose you can’t use initials on that, now can you?). And one day …. *sigh* …. One day I may even subscribe to the premium edition…….Take care & keep it up, it’s a great ezine…..

    Now you know why I call it “TRUE” for short. -rc

  23. Robert, Silver Spring, MD November 18, 2008 at 9:56 am #

    I was able to take that same tour a few years ago escorted by a friend who worked there. It is pretty neat.

    One difference, we were there before the press room was remodeled (although it looked good on TV, it was a real dump — they had to remodel to get rid of the rats and mice I heard). We got to stand behind the podium and get our picture taken.

  24. Rebecca Cassingham Nicol Hudson, Wyoming November 19, 2008 at 2:00 pm #

    I’m sooo jealous! When this administration has had so many firsts and records, you get to be the first to personally deliver what they truly need! Having Helen Thomas back is also historic, I am a great fan. I do have to say that since we have a distant blood tie, I don not find you ugly, but FABULOUS!

    You’re biased. 😉 -rc

  25. CJ, CA for the moment November 23, 2008 at 10:18 pm #

    Wow, what a fun opportunity! Thanks for sharing your verbiage and photos! Wonder if the GOOHF card was given.

    I’m guessing I’ll never know, unless W. mentions it in his memoirs or something…. -rc

  26. Reshad, London, England November 30, 2008 at 6:16 pm #

    Hi, I have been in the free publishing of This is True for three years now, and must indeed ad enjoying of your newsletters. You are indeed doing a very good and noble job because at times when I read your newsletters it makes feel that there are many people out there in the world who are getting on with life like many of us here in London, England. Honestly, I myself don’t really have much time (work commitment) for traveling nor sightseeing, yep, not even London. Anyhow, about two years ago I met an American Girl in university who showed me round London, it was great. The unusual part is that she was here on a three week course.

    That was a bit of background to express how lucky you are to get a private tour of the White House and sharing your exciting trip with us. To be honest I didn’t even know about the East or West wing and what the purpose of each was until I read about your trip. So, thank you for giving me – at least – an extra knowledge it felt like I was in the trip too.

    Keep up the good work.

    Go outside and look around once in awhile, Reshad. There’s a big world out there. -rc

  27. Peggy - CA December 9, 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    Oh, I just KNEW it’d be a GOOHF card! And although it’s sort of amusing, if they worked at all, I’d wish you hadn’t left that asshole ripoff monster Dubya one – he doesn’t deserve to get out of hell free. He has cost so many Americans so much – including all the American man and women killed in that useless, senseless war – and here we are poorer than ever while he and his cohorts are richer than ever, having more money than their families for many generations will ever be able to spend, while millions of us are jobless and struggling. And now the rest of the world hates the US so bad we might be in danger from them. Oh thank you so much!

  28. Robert, Silver Spring, MD September 10, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    Been on the same tour and it is fascinating. We got to have our picture taken at the podium.

    And good to see Vince. Worked with him some years ago at the Army Research Lab.

    Always fun to meet another FOV! -rc

  29. Matt, Mass. September 11, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    Funny that they didn’t let you on the podium. I got my picture taken on the Podium.

    There is a definite difference between being able to, and being allowed to. I was told the rule, and then left pretty much unsupervised. I could have easily ignored what I was told, but chose instead to respect the place and my hosts. -rc

  30. Robert, Silver Spring September 12, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    Agree about the rules. We were actually invited up to have our picture taken.

    Different times, different rules I guess.

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