The last time we were in DC was in 1984. Reagan was the president, you could buy a super house for under $85,000.00, gas was a $1.10 per gallon and people stood in long lines to tour the White House. There were no metal detectors at the gates, no ID’s were required to walk in, so all persons, both foreign and US citizens were welcome and picture taking inside the President’s House was encouraged. It was a really great tour.
Fast-forward to today; 2009. There are no tours for the general public, foreigners (other than those on diplomatic passports) cannot gain admittance, little to nothing may be brought inside and picture taking, if you do get in, is absolutely prohibited. Certainly, it is a different time.
So, how were we able to get inside the White House? Well, we had gone to see our Congressman, Henry E. Brown, Jr., who represents the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina. Kim and I wanted to meet him and discuss the government run health care bill and get a pass to observe the House of Representatives in action. With our business concluded and the obligatory photo op taken, Congressman Brown asked if we wanted to take a tour the White House. Of course we said, “Yes!”
We learned that each Congressman and Senator has a certain allotment of spaces for their constituents on official White House tours. You get no real choice of time or date of tour, you just hope you can make the next one that’s available, for which your representative has openings. Our tour would start at 0730 hours, on September 24, 2009.
Well, even though we were now on a tour schedule, there was tons of stuff yet to do and lots of planning still required. First, we had to submit all sorts of personal information to the Congressman’s Office. You see, there’s a complete U.S. Secret Service background check required of all hopeful entrants into the White House. The background check takes 5 to 7 days and the Secret Service can deny you admission to the White House without explanation.
We had to make sure that we could get to the White House at 0700 using public transportation, so a few days before our scheduled tour date, we did a dry run. Making that dry run turned out to be a good thing, because the access to the pedestrian gate follows different paths at different times of day. Also, the pedestrian gate, as depicted on the map, isn’t exactly where it says it is. The bottom line was, we had to leave the boat at no later that 0545 to walk to the METRO station and make the right connection to reach the White House by 0700.
We received our notice of security clearance and, on the date of the tour, got up at the appointed hour, made the subway and it’s connections (God, it’s quiet at that hour) and arrived at the white house by 0700. Were we ever surprised to find a crowd of 40 or 50 people already there! Once in line, there was an additional wait of about 20 minutes (during which an additional 30 or so people came into the line behind us) before a Secret Service Agent came out and announced how the line was to proceed, how the metal detectors and inspection worked and what documents and ID’s we’d need to provide to gain entrance. Wouldn’t you know it, there were women who showed up with hand bags (they weren’t allowed to proceed) people who forgot their letters or ID’s (they were turned away too) and people with cameras and video recorders (They were sent packing as well.) Why bother to get instructions if you’re not going to read them and do what they say.
Next, it was past the Agent with the list of names, then through metal detector, then waved over by the magic metal wand (in case the metal detector missed anything) and finally, we were on the lawn of the White House. Then, we were ushered up a path, inside a side entrance to the East Wing and placed in a group of about 30 people with our own, personal Secret Service Agent as tour guide. Finally, the official tour of the Whit House began.
We saw Libraries where Teddy Roosevelt smoked and read, salons where First Ladies entertained and rooms that used to be laundries that are now elegant sitting rooms. There were green rooms, red rooms, blue rooms and State Dining rooms. Oh yes, and don’t forget ballrooms. All in all, the tour was pretty cool. And, thanks to modern technology, cell phones and an understanding agent, we even managed to secure a photo or two of the East Room.
The 45-minute tour flew by as if it were only 4 or 5 minutes long. As quickly as it had begun, the tour was over and we were ushered out, sub-group by sub-group, onto the streets of DC. We spent a few additional minutes in front of the White House gates for a picture or two and then it was back to the boat to gather cameras, maps and guide books and enjoy our last day in DC.