The White House's marathon of mirth.

The White House's marathon of mirth.

The White House's marathon of mirth.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 10 2008 3:43 PM

Marathon of Mirth

Think you have a lot of Christmas parties? Be glad you're not the president.

Laura Bush.
Laura Bush introduces the 2008 holiday decorations in the East Room of the White House 

In a bad economy, office holiday parties usually get scaled down or canceled. But George W. and Laura Bush are still expected to throw a number of parties at the White House this holiday season. In 2005, John Dickerson described the arduous social obligations imposed on the president and first lady during the month of December. His original article is reprinted below.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a Slate political columnist, the moderator of CBS’s Face the Nation, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail

No matter how much you may enjoy your office holiday party, there's always someone you'd like to avoid running into at the punch bowl: Bob from the seventh floor who won't shut up about his Big Bertha Fusion golf club, or Felicia in accounting who wants to know where your expense reports are.

Imagine hosting a party for only the people you've always wanted to avoid. The president and the first lady will hold two such events next Thursday as they welcome the press corps into their home. They are less the hosts of these parties than their victims. The first couple will not sip at eggnog or nibble on tiny lamb chops in the state dining room. They will stand in one spot in the Blue Room, next to a Christmas tree, as hundreds of correspondents, sound people, and photographers line up to have individual photographs taken with the first couple.

During the holidays, the president is a virtual prisoner in the White House. He and his wife will perform this grueling act of cheer at 26 holiday parties between Dec. 4 and Dec. 20. There's one for the diplomatic corps, members of Congress, the Secret Service, and top military brass. Invites also go out to political donors and allies across the country. The last evening is reserved for the White House staff—the plumbers, electricians, cooks, and butlers who hang the president's towels when he leaves them on the bed and polish his floor. For most of that period, the Bushes will have "two-a-days," hosting one party from 4 to 6 p.m. and a second from 7 to 9.

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This year's theme (because Jackie Kennedy insisted there must be one) sounds secular—"All Things Bright and Beautiful"—but it comes from a religious hymn. The Bush White House isn't hiding the baby Jesus. There He is among the wise men and barnyard creatures in the 18th-century Italian crèche. Mrs. Bush calls the 18-and-a-half-foot Fraser fir from Laurel Springs, N.C., a Christmas, not a "holiday," tree.

It takes three days to fill the public rooms with decorations. The White House florist directs a team of volunteers to drape the fireplaces with boxwood garlands, stand topiaries of lemon leaves and tangerines in the state dining room, and arrange dozens of paperwhite narcissus, amaryllis, and wreaths of pears. Few tabletops are left alone. On one sits a gingerbread White House, a tradition started by Richard Nixon, and on another squat topiaries of the White House pets, a tradition that one hopes will begin and end with Bush. The press release promoting the decor reads like Southern Living: "The color schemes of tangerine, lime green and hot pink boldly accent the traditional touches of the holiday decorations."

The 9,500 guests will consume roughly the same menu of ham, turkey, lamb, cheeses, and gnocchi from an enormous candlelit table in the State Dining Room. The first lady's office reports that when the last guest collects his coat, 30,000 Christmas cookies, 10,000 petit fours, 1,100 truffles, and 2,100 pounds of sweet potatoes will have disappeared. At the Hanukkah party tonight for Jewish religious and community leaders and Jewish members of the staff, there were also the traditional latkes, or potato pancakes, and a kosher buffet. The spiked eggnog is the only thing available for anyone who needs a bracer before standing in line.

The parties run with the precision and efficiency of a military parade, while making an effort to have you feel like you're the only guest invited for the night. Smiling, uniformed military personnel appear at every turn, directing you to the coat check or staircase or bend in the hallway. They're glowing and you almost forget that they'd pin you like a bug if you tried to scramble upstairs to the residence.

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White House staffers moan about having to attend so many of these events every year, but both Republicans and Democrats start to sound like children when they look back on the party season. Bruce Reed, who served as Bill Clinton's domestic policy adviser before rising to become a blogger on Slate, describes it this way: "With the giant, over-decorated tree in the Blue Room, the pastry chef's marzipan model of the White House in the dining room, the boughs and lights twinkling in the East Room, and a Marine band playing Christmas songs on the grand piano in the foyer, visiting the White House is as magical as climbing aboard the Polar Express."

Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan describes her first impression with the same misty nostalgia: "I was new at the White House. I walked over from the EOB, entered the White House and thought it was like walking into Santa's playhouse—trees, garlands, sparkling stars. Everything shined and there were red velvet bows. It was a wonderland. It had everything but elves and then I saw the NSC staff in their little beards."

The Christmas parties have grown considerably in scale and number since President Benjamin Harrison dressed as Santa in 1893 and handed out gifts beside the White House Christmas tree in the oval library. Now Mrs. Bush and the White House staff start planning Christmas events in April.

Karl Rove starts checking his list even earlier. The president's top political aide keeps an extensive record of the donors and allies across the country who have worked to help Bush and who might help Bush (and Rove) in the future. The president of a small college in a swing district who let Bush speak at his school during a key moment in the campaign might get an invitation. So might the local pol in Tampa, Fla., who hustled to get voters to the polls on Election Day. Donors known as Rangers who raised $200,000 or more for the last campaign will certainly be asked to attend. Rove's office had better make sure Tom Donahue, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, is on the list this year. Two years ago, the important ally somehow fell off. Rove had to act quickly to keep from needlessly alienating a friend and crucial corporate ally.

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If we could get a peek at Rove's list, we could probably divine from the people he wants to please what he has planned for Bush's second term. We could also get an early hint of how he sees the 2006 congressional elections playing out—in which races he thinks the party needs help and where he's building allies. The most tantalizing thing we might learn would be who he's courting that might be helpful to the GOP in 2008. Rove has said he will stay out of the next presidential election. Does his guest list say that?

The true Washington cave-dwellers who have received invitations over many administrations affect a weary air about these nights. Just one more social obligation, they sigh. They've been to so many of these parties. This year, they might not even go. Don't let them fool you. In Washington, eminences need to pretend that they're bored with such events, but for weeks after they've gone to the party they will be starting sentences this way: "When I was at the White House Christmas party …"

In fact, for guests anxious to trade on White House proximity, the photography line is an efficient machine for maximum distribution of glory by association. Guests can leave with two nuggets: a picture they can hang on their "glory wall" to impress visitors and a little anecdote about presidential face time.

Holiday pictures with the first couple can wind up anywhere. They show up in local newspaper profiles or Web pages of law offices and foundations, as proof of a person's Beltway credentials. Washington-establishment types who have intimate pictures with the president don't think the holiday snaps have much cachet, so they send the staged photos to their parents to sit on the breakfront. Rita Cosby * used her White House photo with President Bush in the ad promoting her talk show on MSNBC. Monica Lewinsky's Christmas party picture with Clinton is in the book about her affair with the president.

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But all who stand in line can also legitimately claim they've had a chat with the president, even if the conversation is measured in tenths of a second. Lobbyists can boast to clients that they've taken their case to the highest levels. Lawmakers will be able to tell their constituents they talked Iraq by the fireplace with the leader of the free world.

In reality, a lightning exchange takes place. A marine reads your name and the clock starts. You walk a few paces from the line into place, the camera snaps, and you're expected to withdraw immediately.

In the two years my wife and I stood in line, we did not make good use of the moment. She told Bush she thought it was nice for him to invite in the street people. He understood that she was comparing the press to hobos and laughed knowingly. The next time, my wife was weeks away from delivering our daughter. The four of us exchanged a few distinct sentences about 1) children; 2) making it home for bath time during campaign season; and 3) children's names, before the next couple was in place behind us. (My in-laws have enjoyed their photos.)

The president and his wife have to produce such sheer tonnage of cheer in those 26 photography sessions that it must affect the cheek muscles. Yet they never seem to show fatigue. I imagine stewards prepare bowls of crushed ice so that afterward they can soak their weary faces. All invitees can bring one guest, so the president and first lady have to be emotionally nimble enough to react to many different kinds of characters. They must deliver a compliment to a staffer's mother without necessarily remembering what the staffer does. Smile for a same-sex couple the same way they would for any other pairing. They need to show ready grief if someone announces they're scheduled for surgery the next day or elation when presented with a happy couple newly engaged.

Some presidents can't stand the false bonhomie. Nixon stayed upstairs as the Watergate scandal heated up, unwilling to mingle for his last White House Christmas party with the press. The journalists waited and waited and finally Pat Nixon and daughter Tricia arrived for the unhappy chore. Clinton did just the opposite. The House voted to impeach him during the party season, and he not only went to his party but mingled with the members of Congress who had voted to remove him from office.

When it's time to go, doors start quietly closing. Velvet ropes appear. The crowd moves without realizing it's being herded and only occasionally must one of the ushers hustle people along. When they do, they use some kind of elfin Ninja technique. They smile and lift a hand. The latticework of cheer propels you outward, until you're back standing on the curb in the cold.

Correction, Dec. 14: The article originally and incorrectly spelled the MSNBC host's name Crosby.(Return  to the corrected sentence.)