The old expression, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is truer in D.C. than anywhere else, I think. It was a case of this who-we-know that found me and the little sister on a private tour of the West Wing recently. After hours certain staff can lead appropriately vetted friends, family, or (in our case) friends of friends through the outer sanctum of the inner sanctum.
And yes, it was incredibly cool.
The husband was skiing with his brothers that evening so the little sister was happy to accept the other half of the invitation. A friend stayed with the sleeping little oyster, and the little sister and I went off to see just how Obama’s White House compares to Jed Bartlett’s. Short answer: It doesn’t, not even a little.
Photography isn’t allowed in the West Wing, but I like to think I can paint an accurate word picture (like what I did there?) for you, dear readers. The photo at the top of this post is outside the president’s entrance to the West Wing. His motorcade picks him up and drops him off there. It’s also where dignitaries and the vice president and cabinet members come and go from the West Wing. The blacked out windows over my left shoulder are the White House Situation Room–more on that later.
The immediate entryway to the West Wing looks like a nice and yet ever so slightly outdated office building. It could pass for an upscale insurance agency anywhere in the country. Really, the whole place was remarkably humble. Unlike the Capitol Building with its marble floors, soaring ceilings, and antique detailing, the West Wing has standard ceilings, clean but worn carpet, and plain off-white walls. For as much as this president likes to spend our money, he’s not spending it on redesigning the West Wing. I know, I was kind of surprised, too.
On the walls are large prints of recent events and activities from the president and vice president. The photos are large, full color prints, something you could order from Snapfish (although I’m sure they don’t). The photos are swapped out often, the hard-copy version of digital photo frames. This is one of them:
The flow of the West Wing is nothing like what I’ve ever seen on a show or in a movie. As in, there is no flow. And the hallways are most definitely not wide enough for senior-level staffers (who would probably work next door in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building anyway) to walk-and-talk as Aaron Sorkin would have us believe and none of the rooms lead to any of the other rooms. Once you arrive at your destination, you have to turn around and go back the way you came to get anywhere else.
The White House Situation Room was like going to see the Great and Powerful Oz. At the risk of accidentally giving away state secrets, I’ll say no more except to say that the Situation Room isn’t–it is rooms. Many of them. And unlike the imaginary Situation Room of many a movie, the rooms are well-lit. With that, I’ll say no more.
The West Wing cafeteria is near the Situation Room. And by cafeteria, I mean china-and-crystal with fancy linens and real silverware. The cafeteria (I feel like I should call it the “cafeteria”) has paneled walls and the feel of a ship captain’s private dining room. The United States Navy has had the responsibility of feeding the first and second families since, um, a long time ago, and the little sister and I suspect that’s why. Why not, you know?
Before we knew it, we were at the Oval Office, across the tiny round hallway from the Roosevelt Room. Neither looks like it does in the movies. Both were extremely cool to see. Fun fact: The only individually alarmed item in the West Wing is Teddy Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize, which hangs on the wall in the Roosevelt Room.
(See? The top one is the real one, courtesy of Wiki. The bottom one is the fake one. Totes not the same, not even a little. In real life, the Roosevelt Room is named after both Roosevelts, not just T.R.)
The Oval Office is smaller than I thought it would be. And like I said, we were there before we knew it. The important rooms in the West Wing, these super historical places that most people don’t ever get to see, snuck up on us one by one. It’s not a large complex of rooms, it’s a moderately sized office building where really important stuff happens. Actually, that makes me feel good about things. As beautiful as the Capitol Building is (and should be), the White House and West Wing are more utilitarian. Not shabby at all, and they shouldn’t be, but we’re definitely not talking Versailles or Buckingham Palace here.
Sneakily tucked under the White House is the White House press room. Officially the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. The room is built over a pool that FDR had for exercise. Nixon boxed it in but there is still a trap door that gives access to the pool, if you have the key to said door. The little sister and I were a little bit hoping we could “accidentally” pull an It’s A Wonderful Life and go for a dip but it didn’t happen. Probably for the best, since it was cold out.
The press room is small. Really small.
But not so small we couldn’t play!
But big enough that the names on all the chairs should be spelled correctly:
As we left, staffers were coming to work. Returning to work, maybe. Perhaps they were Very Important People who have Very Important Things To Do. But it was 9 p.m. and people were coming to the office, parking and getting out of their cars in suits, wheeling their briefcases behind them, and that was sad to me.
The little sister and I had a grand adventure. As we left the grounds, completely turned around from where we came in and disoriented, which I think was on purpose, a man dressed in black and armed to the teeth suddenly appeared from the trees to our left. We both saw him for a second, this guard whose job is to be unseen, and in two shakes he was gone again. Were we sure we saw him? Pretty sure. These guys are good, we said. Very good.
And then we went home.