If Christmas at the White House is a rare window of peace and forgiveness, the Easter Egg Roll brings out more familiar Washington traits: the ruthless struggle for power, the clash of insatiable egos, the frustration of gridlock, the temptation of bribery. And that's just to get in. Families who make it past the palace gates witness another display of traditional values: a mad dash to get ahead and trample anyone in the way.
Indeed, the Easter Egg Roll has always been a Washington parable. According to the White House official history, the event began on the grounds of the Capitol but caused such damage that Congress passed one of the most aptly named bills in congressional history, the Turf Protection Law. President Rutherford B. Hayes, no doubt still smarting from his failure to win the popular vote, let children frolic on the South Lawn instead.
Quagmire: Every White House event is a challenge for the social office, but the Easter Egg Roll is a nightmare. From a logistical standpoint, the event makes the invasion of Iraq look easy: Months of careful planning devolves into the chaos of little boots on the lawn.
The fatal flaw in the Easter Egg Roll is arithmetic. Every young family in Washington wants to be there, including hundreds of White House employees, thousands of appointees, members of Congress, and hordes of supporters from outside the government. That's not counting the people for whom the event was created in the first place: the general public. Thousands of people from Washington and beyond skip school and stand in line from the crack of dawn to get their hour in the sun on the South Lawn. USA Today once estimated the crowd at 40,000 children.
At Christmastime, the White House can manage such crowds by holding several parties a night for staff, friends, and supporters, and herding the general public through during the day. But there's only one egg roll, which lasts about two hours on the Monday after Easter. Clearing a small city of parents and toddlers through security and ID checks took hours even before 9/11. Now, parents of rambunctious young children might want to leave them on call at the Marriott a few blocks away.
With such crowds, the Easter Egg Roll is a remarkably democratic event. When it's over, it's easy to understand how Andrew Jackson must have felt when thousands stormed the White House after his inauguration: Democracy is a wonderful thing, provided you survive it.
Don't get me wrong—my family loved the Easter Egg Roll. Standing in line for two hours in 30-degree weather with two children under 5 may have seemed like an ordeal at the time; now, like the pain of childbirth, it's a cherished memory. Veterans of the Easter Egg Roll learn not to worry about finding eggs—success is not losing any children.
As in any hostage situation, the wait in line is a revealing test of character. It's like a Type-A Disney World, an endless queue of toddlers enjoying quality time with Mommy's or Daddy's Blackberry. We once stood next to a high-ranking official who had sent a deputy to stand in line for her for an hour, then fumed when she and her son had to wait another hour after they arrived. "They don't understand how important I am," she complained.
Beyond the guards, more lines loom—for the egg hunt, the egg roll, and any goodies the candy companies have to offer. The White House gives out 10,000 souvenir painted wooden eggs, which fetch about $10 on eBay.
Perhaps it was only matter of time before the culture war between red and blue found its way into the hunt for yellow, green, purple, and orange. Yet gay groups may be disappointed to discover that the event is so chaotic, the president sometimes doesn't even come out to see his shadow.