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Entries in White House (19)

Wednesday
Dec302009

A Tour of the White House - Getting In

Despite my warnings, one of the most frequent questions I receive is "How can I get to see the White House?". Sadly, it's just probably not going to happen and, even if your Congressman does get you in, you're probably not going to be allowed to bring your camera. I know, I know, I find this a great loss as well, and it's probably officially time to go back to referring to it as the Executive Mansion, as that is what it is now.

But one of the virtues of living in Washington, DC is that when opportunities arise to go off the beaten path,you're in a position to do so.So it was last week when I was invited along to take the Holiday Tour of the White House (certainly not because of my humble efforts with this blog, it was my wife's fault). Wonder of wonders, we were even allowed to bring our cameras, so I clicked away unabashedly, loosing any rights to mock tourists for the remainder of 2009 and much of 2010.

So for all those who will never get to take the standard tour, and for those who do but don't get to bring a camera along, here's a little travelogue for you. Before we start, I apologize for the quality of the pictures; I am at best an indifferent photographer.

Our tour starts with the inevitable wait to pass through security. The line to get in extended down much of 15th St along the Treasury Building until we were able to access the checkpoint at the corner of E St. Thanks to some Northern Virginia asshats I won't deign to name, we had to jump through several additional hoops to verify our names, but the line moved smoothly and with good cheer. The Park Police even seemed to be in the holiday spirit, decking their horses out in Santa caps.

Park Police getting into the spirit

And as much as I despise the way DC has become increasingly an armed camp, I have to hand it to the Secret Service. It is possible to be thorough and professional without being officious and just downright rude, and they pulled it off nicely.That unpleasantness aside, we moved through the screening quickly and with rather less hassle than you would see going through an airport security checkpoint. From the outside looking in The Treasury Building decked out At this point, we were on the White House grounds, ready to enter the East Wing.Which is where we'll pick up tomorrow.

East Wing

Monday
Dec072009

Sari, No White House State Dinner for You!—or How to Get into the White House without a Sari

Much as we here at DC Like a Local would hate to add to the fracas about the uncouth activities of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, aka “The White House Party Crashers”, it got us to thinking about why all the fuss?

Well, for the first thing, admit it, we are all jealous.  Who among us would not like a photo op with President Obama—in addition to the rest of the hot shots who were present at the November 24, 2009, dinner?  Just think how much hay we could make in our annual Christmas letters about that.  I mean, we would “one up” everyone on our Christmas card list.  We wouldn’t have to tell them how our house was in foreclosure, talk about how we lost our jobs last year or make up things about, ahem, our unsuccessful adult children.  We could just show them The Photos.  Eat your heart out Christmas card list.

It wasn’t always this hard to get close to the President.  In fact, job seekers used to bombard Abraham Lincoln all the time.  Just read any major book about it.  The people drove him crazy with requests—and amazingly he invited them in to talk about them.  He felt he had to.

 With assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy), attempted assassinations (Jackson, both Roosevelts, Ford and Reagan) and 9/11, that sort of access to the president has been progressively closed down (unless, maybe, you have big money to donate to a presidential campaign and qualify for a romp in the Lincoln bedroom upstairs).

 You try getting a White House tour these days.  Moreover, the regular tour does not include access to anything other than Green Room, Blue Room, Red Room and East Room and a look at some china (no Obama access).  It is about as easy as climbing Mount Everest.  We've talked about access to the White House before, and you should be forewarned; tours have to be requested by Congressmen and Senators in groups of 10.  Some form groups of constituents and some require you to form the groups.  So what does a family of four do?  Go out and borrow some kids or just hope they have a cooperative Congressman?  Foreigners are told to contact their embassies, but some embassies (e.g., the Australian Embassy) tell their nationals to go away.  They don’t go away because the skivvy on the travel boards is that DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton will get foreigners tickets.  The Australians all bother her.

 Maybe, if all the women bought designer saris and men hired tuxes and came in the evening, they would be luckier.  By the way, sometimes people think they have a White House tour and, a couple of days before they are told “Sari [sic] no tour.”  White House tours can be canceled on short notice for any reason--but apparently not for the Salahis.

I can’t say that I haven’t tried crashing, but I doubt I would have the chutzpah to crash the White House. I once rode on Eugene McCarthy’s campaign plane to get back to college, but I asked, so I don’t get credit for that one.  I did crash a “rubber chicken” event for Ted Kennedy in Boston in the early 1970’s with a phony press card.  But that was before 9/11 and metal detectors everywhere.  I don’t dispute the necessity for such things, but it does have a way of spoiling the party, doesn’t it?  There is just something so exciting to going beyond the gate that tells the peasants to keep out.

If you are traveling to DC on a vacation and want to get into the White House, you can try buying saris and tuxes, but they will be checking more carefully now and I doubt that particular gambit would work again.  Maybe a designer gown and white tie would be better.  Dunno.  Since most of us cannot afford such clothes (and prefer to pay our bills—apparently unlike the Salahis), we can always stand outside and have our photos taken on either side of the White House standing against the fence.  If you are determined, you can always jump the fence, but it is not something this writer would advise.  People have done it before.  If you are not shot first, you will no doubt be given an appointment for a mental exam and housed for awhile at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital--DC’s institution for those who are somewhat mentally absent.  Besides, the Secret Service will clear the area and others will be prevented from taking photos to prove they actually saw the exterior of the White House.  The only ones, alas, who have free reign of the White House ground are the squirrels and Bo Obama.

You know what? The White House ain’t so hot anyway.  Everyone comes out a bit disappointed (although, after all, they do the tour, not the state dinner) and you can’t bring cameras to have your photo taken inside (although phones with cameras are allowed; you figure).  You want to see the best building in DC, go to The Capitol and take the tour.  You’ll still go through the metal detectors but you could see someone famous in the hallway—and, if you get passes from your Congressman to watch the House in session, you might see Nancy Pelosi in the chair. No cameras are allowed inside the House or Senate though.  After all, you are not at a state dinner.

As for me, I am still awaiting my invite to a state dinner.  I am not holding my breath because I can't afford the sari.

Wednesday
Dec022009

Oh Chanukah Oh Chanukah!

So you thought freedom of religion meant the government was out of the religion business?  Think again.  When it comes to Christmas we started with the National Christmas tree.  Then the Chabad Lubavitch—a sect of orthodox Jews—demanded and got equal time for a menorah and we get all the festivities on the Ellipse that go with Chanukah.  Oy, it has become a big deal.

Because Tim is a good guy and wants to do a piece about a holiday about which he knows next to nothing, he has asked me to write something about Chanukah in DC.  My big qualification for this is that I am Jewish.  Since Tim is a friend, I took up the challenge and gave him the day off.

The dates for Chanukah, which can be spelled approximately 10 different ways (I picked my favorite spelling), are based on the Jewish calendar--which is lunar based with an extra month thrown in periodically to confuse people.  Most Jews have to consult a calendar to know when it is.  I had to look up the dates online because I didn’t upgrade my computer program to have it automatically entered on my calendar (my learning curve for things involving computers is very slow).  Chanuakah generally occurs in December, although not always.

Jewish holidays always begin at sundown and end at sundown.  Chanukah is 8 days and begins this year on December 13, 2009, and ends this year on December 21, 2009, if I have done my math correctly.  If you happen to be in town on those dates, you might want to check out the menorah on The Ellipse (next to the Christmas tree).  The menorah is a candelabrum with 9 candles. The one in the middle is always lit during Chanukah.  The other candles are lit one at a time (1 the first night, 2 the second night) until all 8 are lit.  Then the holiday is over and the menorah gets stored until next year.  In my house there also was a cleaning out of the candle wax but the menorah on the ellipse uses light bulbs and is put in a much larger box than mine at home.

The lighting of the menorah (near the Christmas tree) will take place on Sunday December 13th at 4:00pm.  Tickets are required but they are free and apparently available. By the way, due to the fact President Obama is not expected to show up, tickets are easier to get than those to the lighting of the national Christmas tree (I don’t know anyone who got those tickets—doled out in a lottery—but some enterprising lottery winners were selling them on ebay for $175 last time I checked).  The tickets are for standing room; I don’t think there are seats anyway.  Free latkes (potato pancakes) and donuts are promised; these foods are traditional at Chanukah.  Also promised is music from the United States Air Force Band and the Three Cantors and dreidel kits.  Dreidels are tops traditionally used in a game at Chanukah.  I have no idea what a dreidel kit is.  Maybe the kids are supposed to make their own.  My kids always got little plastic ones to play with which usually got lost and then found when someone tripped over one buried in the carpet.

A listing of other events during Chanukah can be found here.  There is even a Matzoh Ball (no, I am not kidding) on December 24, 2009 at 9:00pm for young professionals.  Who knows, you might meet your match!  It would make your Jewish mother happy.

Chag samayach!  (Means “happy holiday” in Hebrew).  For the rest of you out there Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Season's Greetings, etc., etc.

Tuesday
Nov242009

Christmas in DC

photo by Mike GiarloI'm a firm believer in holding the Thanksgiving line, as we struggle in the annual war of attrition that is the fight to keep Christmas sane. There is a well reasoned argument to be made to fall back to the Halloween line, and cede Thanksgiving to the forces of darkness, but I'm sticking to Thanksgiving. I'm no stranger to quixotic battles, and I refuse to start my Christmas celebrations before I've had my full of turkey.

But I suppose those that are making plans to come here for the holidays probably should plan ahead a bit. Plane tickets have to be purchased, hotels booked, Congressmen bribed, and so on. So I'll compromise somewhat and throw you a small bone, with the strict understanding that nothing in this post authorises anything, not even a single piece of tinsel, to go up before 12:01 am this Friday. And frankly, I'd prefer you wait until December 1st.

Obviously, the best known Christmas icon in DC is the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. The current tree is a Colorado Blue Spruce and was planted in its present location in 1978. It was fifteen years old at the time and transplanted from the home of a family in York, Pennsylvania where it had been a Mother's Day present some years before. However, the ceremony itself (with other trees) dates back to 1923, when Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree, illuminated by 2,500 electric bulbs. The ceremony has gone through many iterations as different trees and locations were tried out, and perhaps most famously remained unlit by order of President Carter during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

The Tree will be lit again this year on December 3rd, and if you came across this site looking for a way to attend, it's too late this year. However, it will be webcast live and broadcast on Friday the 4th for the first time ever on PBS. Nothing says Christmas like huddling with your family around a computer and watching the President flip a switch. Frankly, since 9-11 the ceremony has gone into the "too much trouble for what you see" category for me (see also Inaugurations and Easter Egg Rolls), but once the crowds have left, grab some hot chocolate and take a stroll down to the Ellipse. It's worth a visit.

But the National Christmas Tree is not the only show in town. I often have visitors who looked at me puzzled and say "I thought the tree came from my state?". Unless they're from Pennsylvania they are mistaken, but it's an easy slip up to make. For in addition to the National Christmas Tree, we have a few other options in town:

  • Capitol Christmas Tree: Unwilling to be shown up, the legislative branch has had their own Christmas Tree on the West Front of the Capitol since 1964. Not a permanent tree, it comes from a different National Forest every year, courtesy of the US Forest Service. In 1999, the tree was quietly renamed the Capitol Holiday Tree, which even my agnostic leanings find foolish. It was safely renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree in 2004. If you're going to attend a lighting ceremony, I'd recommend this one over the National Tree; as it still remains some semblance of the holiday spirit. This year's tree is an 85 foot blue spruce from Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona, and will be lit on December 8th.
  • White House Christmas Tree: I list this, not because you have any chance in seeing it, but because this is another tree often confused with the National Christmas Tree. By far the oldest traditional tree, it has been a part of White House Christmases since the mid-1800s. Jackie Kennedy started the tradition of a themed tree, with a "Nutcracker Christmas" 1961, and it continues to this day. This year, the first for the Obamas, the tree was selected from Sunback's farm in West Virginia, which has also supplied two trees for the Reagans and one for the Carters. And no, neither the White House nor President Obama have banned religious ornaments from the tree. I missed this month's newsletter, but I believe the godless atheists have decided to wait to the second term before taking over the country via Christmas.
  • Norwegian Christmas Tree: My personal favorite, simply because I can gaze at indoors. And it has a cool model train set. For the thirteenth year in a row, our close friends at the Norwegian Embassy set up a Christmas Tree in the Great Hall of Union Station (presumably they have permission to do so). The tree will be lit on the third, just like the National Tree. Be sure to come out for the bazaar the weekend afterwards, they usually have some clever gift ideas. Although I'd be wary of the Norwegian cookbook my wife got me a few years; most of the recipes seemed to involve destroying a perfectly good fish in unique ways.

So I hope that will keep you early Christmas lovers at bay. I'll share a few more upcoming events with you as the holidays approach, but that'll have to do for now. If you have ideas of your own or events you want our visitors to know about, feel free to leave a link in the comments, either here or on our Facebook site.

Now, I'm off to get a turkey.

Friday
Oct232009

Halloween for the Grown-ups

Sure, Halloween was fun as a kid. But whether you've managed to ditch them with a babysitter, or you are just unencumbered with little ones, you're going to want to experience the ghosts and ghouls of Washington, DC in your own way. Yesterday's post covered lots of great ideas, but let's be frank here. If you throw on a sheet, call yourself a ghost, and walk down East Capitol Street and don't have a kid or two in tow, at best you're going to get a few weird looks.

So let's take a look at a few ideas for adults:

1. Georgetown: This is the traditional place to go for a wild and crazy time in Washington, DC. It will be, as always, a madhouse, especially as this year Halloween falls on a Saturday night. That can either be a selling point or a warning to you. If you're looking for thousands of people decked out in costumes, hopping from bar to bar, with crowds spilling off the sidewalks, than this is for you. If not, go nowhere near it Halloween night (or probably the 30th as well). Keep reading and we'll find something more your taste. Now, I wonder if my wife and kids will notice if I sneak off after they've gone asleep....

2. Embassy Row: If you're looking for a different feel than the packed masses in Georgetown, head over to Dupont Circle and check out the Embassies along Massachusetts Avenue. This is another DC tradition, with most (but not all) of the Embassy's handing out goodies. It's a fun way to get a little culture in before you take advantage of the area's many bars and clubs.

3. H Street: H Street NE is relatively new to the Halloween scene, but it promises to be a good time. They are embracing the Dia de los Muertos theme this year for the week of Halloween. Many of the bars and restaurants are offering specials the week prior, and will be building, I kid you not, shrines to the dead in front of there stores. It culminates in a Thriller on H Street party on Friday, the 30th, at 9 pm. Costume contests, drink specials, and, believe it or not, a haunted golf course, will be on tap for Halloween night. I'm hard pressed to list a "favorite" H ST bar, but let's just say that Palace of Wonders can be spooky any day of the year. More about H ST can be found on The Hill is Home's Halloween round-up.

4. Ghost Tours! - You knew it was coming!. Without shame I'll push my outfit, Ghost Tours DC. We'll be running tours in Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill at 8 pm on the 23rd, 24th, 30th and 31st. If you must, here are a few other ghost tours going on:

  • Old Town Alexandria: Alexandria Colonial Tours offers a walking tour of Old Town that ends up in a grave yard! Spooky stuff. Its popular so I would recommend booking early.
  • Lafayette Park: Washington Walks, an excellent local tour company that offers a variety of walking tours, features a Most Haunted Houses tour Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights (seasonally). Lafayette Square across from the White House is probably the most ghost-intensive section of the city, and they cover a few of the ghosts of White House as well.
  • Congressional Cemetery: Be sure to watch out for more discussion of this incredible place in the future, but for now I'd highly recommend their ghoulish Halloween tour they are giving on the 31st at 11 and 11:30 am. The Cemetery is easy to get to from the Blue and Orange Line. Exit at Potomac Avenue and walk up the Avenue to 18th St. The tours meet at the gatehouse on the corner.

This is just a few of the many offerings DC rolls out for Halloween. If you have any favorites I left out, leave them for others to see in the comments. And join DC Like a Local next week when we embark on a week of ghost stories set in your nation's capital.

Halloween for Grown-ups