Monday, March 11, 2013

Flip This (White) House

the View from the Podium

Flip This (White) House

Today's View from the Podium is inspired by my visit to the White House last Friday.  Julie and I got the last tour before they all got discontinued due to the current round of dick-measuring between Democrats and Republicans called the Great Budget Sequester of 2013 (can't WAIT for Disney/Spielberg to make it into a 3-part movie series directed by Peter Jackson, set in Antarctica or somewhere else on-location in the Antipodes).  I just got to thinking about all the people who lived (and didn't live) in the Executive Mansion, a.k.a. the White House, how they liked it, whether or not they did normal home-owner stuff like cut the grass, order out for Chinese, and the various marks the presidents who lived there made on the stately old residence.

Firstly, you've got to find the actual, physical location of La Casa Blanca.  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, right?

Mitt: How do you get to the White House?
Barack: Yeah, not the way you tried.  Either time.
Weeelllll, not really.  To get to the White House, you've got to take a side-trip to the crypt (nobody's buried there!  True story) in the U.S. Capitol (the building with the big-ass iron dome they were building during that Daniel Day Lewis movie).  On the floor of the Capitol, you will see a fancy star.  This is the point that the architect of the Capitol, Pierre Charles l'Enfant (a.k.a. Baby Peete to his colonial peeps) used as the central radial point for all of Washington's streets, avenues and quadrants.  Essentially, he divided the Federal District into four parts: Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest.  The White House's OFFICIAL address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.  Pennsylvania Avenue cuts through the entire Federal District, so at its other end, in the SE quadrant, is another 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  And what's at THAT address?

I swear to God I am so-not-making-this-up
Yeah, a different global empire that dominates the entire civilized world --only that one's run by some clown named Ronald (hey, so was the other one for part of the 1980's!)

Now that you've found the White House, the next thing you might need to know is how to get in (now WHERE did I leave my house keys...)  Visitors enter on the right side, after going through more security than a guy named Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al Mutawiawh might be subjected to, trying to get into the National Security Agency on the Prophet's Birthday.  Staffers go in on the left side, after going through slightly less security than our pal Sheikh Ali above.  If you're President Kennedy and you've just had some face-tits-and-ass-time with, oh, I don't know, Marilyn Monroe, you could use a little talked-about secret tunnel. 

I'm not saying this is it --not saying it isn't it, either ;-)
If you're the president/king/Beloved-Leader-For-Life of a foreign country, you get to come in the front door.  But if you're super-uber-important and you've just spent a long weekend chillin' with the current occupant at his little country place, Camp David, and you've got to go back with the POTUS (President of the United States of America) to just jot a few things down with him in his little oval-shaped office, then you get to use the back door.  After getting out of a Marine helicopter.  Which lands on the White House lawn.  Right next to the current White House dog.  What a totally bad-ass way to come home!

"Wil-MA!  I'm home!"
Now that you're in, you had better be able to find your way around and find something useful to do if you want to keep working there.  On one end of the spectrum, we have Calvin Coolidge who liked to go down into the basement and inventory the number of apples on hand.  I'm thinking that there wasn't much to do in the government-department during the Roaring 20's, except perhaps actually doing something proactive to head off the Great Depression.  Then, we have the president who came next and actually got blamed for the Great Depression: Herbert Hoover.  Word has it that Hoover worked 14-16 hours a day, 6 days a week, to try to do something that would actually help the people that American capitalism had chewed up and spit out.  And no, none of the people he tried to help appreciated any of his efforts.  They promptly voted him out of office, and kept voting for the next guy so many times that Congress and the states  passed a Constitutional Amendment to make them stop.

"The only thing we have to fear, is pissed-off Republicans."
So, let's say that you'me managed to find the place and justify your stay there for at least four years.  It's only natural that you'd want to make the place a little more homelike --put your personal stamp on the place.  There have been a lot of former tenants, though not George Washington because the place hadn't been built yet (word has it that they were union carpenters supervised by federal bureaucrats).  The first resident, John Adams, was optimistic about his new digs, writing to his wife, Abigail, he hoped that "none but honest and wise men should ever rule under this roof."  Abigail found the place cold and drafty in the winter, tolerable only if there was a fire burning in every fireplace.  Her personal style-statement was to hang her washing in the East Room.  There is no reliable historical documentation on where she hung her laundry back home in Braintree, Massachusetts.
"Does this king sized sheet make my butt look big?"
You've probably heard that the White House was burned during the War of 1812.  What you may not have heard is that Dolly Madison saved the big portrait of George Washington and the silver plate before the Redcoats sat down to the meal she had originally prepared for Mr. Madison.  Fortunately, the place had a bit of a spruce-up just in time for it to be the scene of the first off-da-hook rave in America.  Yes, Andrew Jackson's election was a complete break from past tradition.  No more staid, boring parties.  Andrew Jackson was a man of the people, all of whom were invited to his first inaugural bash.  So many people crowded into the mansion that Jackson himself had to slip out of a window to avoid being crushed.  The only way to get the crowd out was to jack the booze up on the lawn, which is what some quick thinking White House butler did otherwise the place would have been trashed.

Descendants of Jackson's Inaugural Bender
After the party was over, Jackson became the first president to really take an interest in the building.  He added the iron fences, an orangery, running water, and a Foosball table (ok, not the Foosball table --but he SO would have if it had been invented yet!).  James K. Polk added gas lights and a statue of Jefferson.  A different Abigail, Abigail Fillmore, made the 2nd floor oval room into a library.  Franklin Pierce, from New Hampshire, added central heating --probably because he couldn't take those brutal Washington winter nights of 50 degrees, unlike the tropical  climate of New Hampshire.  

During the Civil War, soldiers were quartered in the East Room.  They were replaced by the body of
President Lincoln after his assassination, a very sad time for the White House.  Better times were to come with the Grants, who undertook extensive renovations of the house and grounds.  The coolest improvement? Rutherford B. Hays and the telephone.  When you called the White House, President Hays answered.  And his phone number? 1.

"Rutherford B. Hays my ass-
 put the President on."
It was the 20th Century presidents who did the most renovations.  The Oval Office, Cabinet Meeting Rooms, the Rose Garden were all added in the early days.  Electricity, more office space, even a pool and bowling alley were added later.  With the Cold War came lead-lined fallout blast bunkers and command-control electronics.  Post-911 additions included SAM-missiles on the roof and lots of secret enhanced security measures.

There are fun additions as well: garden parties, the Easter Egg Roll and the annual pardoning of the White House Turkey just before Thanksgiving.  There are parties for the famous, powerful, and even the needy.  There have been pets, both ordinary and exotic, lots of children, a couple of marriages, and even Amy Carter's tree house.

Oh, and yes, that story of Janis Joplin and Abbie Hoffman being invited to one of Trisha Nixon's tea parties on the White House lawn?  Totally true.  Janice and Tricia attended the same college (though probably weren't sorority sisters), so she got sent an invite.  Her plus-one was the reason they never actually got to attend: he had brought 100 hits of acid with him and was going to dose the punch.  What a psychedelic mess that would have been!

Trisha, you look so --groovy!  Wow...
But the best thing about the White House?  It's your house and my house.  Because, although you and I may not be invited there on a regular or even occasional basis, the White House is the symbol of our great nation.  The house might shelter just one family at a time, but it is the home wherein doth reside the sovereign majesty of the people.  I forget who said that.  It might have been me.  At any rate, do try to visit it the next time you're in DC.  After the Budget Sequester is over.

"Yes, I'm sure Michelle invited us.  Or Sasha.  Or maybe it was Bo.  Joe Biden?"

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