Touring America’s ‘First Home’

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by BawBaw on April 11, 2012

Himself and Yours Truly have toured the White House, home to the sitting president of the United States, on three different occasions spaced over a period of nearly four decades. During this time, growing security concerns have made for very different experiences—as did the particular circumstances of each visit.

Our first tour occurred on October 21, 1973. I can be so sure of the date because Richard Nixon was president, and the previous night he had fired the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in—an act that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. We as a family were taking advantage of one of those rare occasions when the White House opened both the grounds and the mansion to visitors in conjunction with one of the District’s many local festivals. I don’t recall which festival was under way, but I will never forget the date.

Arrangements for this visit consisted of queuing up with our two young daughters and waiting our turn. Nothing special was required in terms of security. The tour took us first through the grounds, highlighting such features as the Children’s Garden, trees planted by various presidents, and the Rose Garden. From the Rose Garden, the tour entered the house and our guide pointed toward the location of the Oval Office. That’s when trouble started. A few members from our tour group pulled out improvised protest signs and tried to gather near the entrance to the president’s office. White House security quickly intervened and escorted the protestors away, moving the rest of us along to the conclusion of our tour. This was apparently not an isolated incident because the day’s tours were discontinued shortly afterward.

Our second visit occurred when a family member was selected to serve on a presidential commission. The date was June 26, 2008, and George W. Bush was president. The swearing-in ceremony was conducted in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is located next door to the White House. The tour was limited to the new commissioners’ invited guests and was conducted on a largely informal basis. The contents of the tour were more or less standard, but the circumstances were not. We were a small group, entering and leaving the Mansion by somewhat less traveled ways—much as employees of the Executive Office Building might do. Security was strict and handled up front as part of the main event (the swearing-in ceremony). As guests, we had been required to submit answers to a series of questions and provide identification information before we arrived.

Our final visit was in February 2010, with Barack Obama as the sitting president, and it followed what is now the standard method for touring the White House. At my mother’s request, we obtained tickets through the office of her Senator. The tickets were keyed to a specific time and date. On the appointed day, we entered the White House through East Executive Street entrance and joined a sizable group of other visitors.

In all three cases, the tour included the Diplomatic Reception Area, the Red Room, the Blue Room, the China Room, the State Dining Room, and we were allowed to climb one of the grand staircases. Last time around, Mother was in a wheelchair. This meant that she was escorted upstairs by means of a small elevator, and her detour was rewarded with a quick glimpse of the White House kitchen.

These days, touring the White House requires careful planning. Tickets are free, but it currently takes anywhere from several weeks to several months to obtain them from your elected representative (Congressperson or Senator). Non-U.S. citizens are not prohibited, but they are advised to have American friends handle their arrangements. Basic security information is collected for each potential visitor, and tickets are not transferable. Potential visitors should also understand that even with tickets, tours can be cancelled with little-to-no notice. On the day of our visit with Mother, changes in the official schedule for the Mansion resulted in the cancelation of all the tours that would have followed ours. We truly lucked out. Tickets holders for cancelled tours were offered alternate dates through their elected representatives. Garden tours are still offered occasionally, but in that case, tickets are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis on the same day the gardens are open.

Physical security has tightened considerably since our first visit in 1973. Then we entered the grounds and the Mansion with a diaper bag, cameras, and other portable items all in hand. Today’s tourists are allowed very few personal items inside the White House (e.g., wallets and keys). Cameras, backpacks, diapers bags, and purses are simply not permitted. Visitors must arrange to stow these items elsewhere for the duration of the tour, and storage is not available on site. Restrictions are carefully outlined in the paperwork that accompanies tickets. Unfortunately, many hopeful visitors arrive without having read the rules and must hustle to find last-minute storage—or leave disappointed because they cannot do so.

For those expecting a grand tour of the entire Mansion, you should know that the actual number of public rooms included on our various tours was relatively smal. By the standards of those accustomed to visiting the great houses and palaces of Europe, the White House doesn’t seem terribly impressive. Still the furnishings and architecture are interesting, and the portraits of former presidents lend a marvelous sense of history. More to the point, there is simply no denying that there is something heady about visiting one of the world’s great seats of power.

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