UPSTAIRS IN THE WEST WING OF THE WHITE HOUSE
By Ralph D. Thomas
Jimmie And Rosemary Mesis along with Ralph and Barbara Thomas
Inside The White House Gate. (Click Here For Larger Image)
There was a fall chill in the air on the evening of October 21st, when Jimmie And Rosemary Mesis of PI Magazine along with Ralph and Barbara Thomas of NAIS had an opportunity to take a very special tour of the West Wing of the White House. Realizing that most people never have the opportunity to tour the West Wing of The White House, I am happy to share with readers of PI Magazine and NAIS members a little about what it is like. In fact, it’s an honor and privilege to have had this experience and share it with you.
I would like to thank Israel Hernandez, Deputy Assistant To The President And Assistant To The Senior Advisor for giving us the tour. The staff at the White House is extremely dedicated and motivated people who, as you can imagine; are always very busy. These dedicated individuals work long and hard hours. They usually get to the White House at 7:00 AM and usually don’t leave until 10:00 PM or later. Most of these people work seven days a week. Despite the grueling hours, these people will almost always tell you that they wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone in the world. The American public owes a huge thanks to them. It’s certainly not the money. Every one of them could make more money in another line of work and none of them have any lack of talent. It’s a dedication you rarely see in any other form of employment. The unseen-by-the-public staff around the Presidency are the people that serve a function that makes the federal government and therefore the country run. Without them, it just would not function.
Israel Hernandez didn’t tell me this, but I know how it works. When one of these dedicated staff members takes the time to give someone a tour of the West Wing, what that usually means is they have to work an hour longer that evening with their busy schedule. More than that, they have to spend some of their time gathering the names and identifying information before hand which is submitted to the Secret Service for a background security check a week or so in advance. But people like Israel Hernandez are proud of the fact that they work at the White House and actually seem to enjoy giving people tours even if it does mean they might have to work until midnight instead of just 10 PM and be back in the morning at 7 AM.
If you thought airport security has been beefed up, the security in place at the White House in Washington is very tight. It’s been a while since I have been to Washington DC. I lived there many years ago when I was young. Gone are the days when you could drive right in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. That roadway is now blocked with concert barriers that extend several blocks on each side.
We walked up Pennsylvania Ave from several blocks away. We were about fifteen minutes early so we walked down past the NW gate that takes you to the West Wing to take in a view of the front of the White House. We were all very excited. Jimmie started taking photos. I was so excited; I couldn’t seem to get my digital camera adjusted right so I just put it away. Roe called Jimmie’s mom on her cell phone.
Roe: Hay mom, guess what?
MOM: What’s that?
ROE: I’m about to enter the White House and go through the West Wing.
MOM: No stop kidding around with me.
ROE: It’s true mom, we are going to be inside in about ten minutes. Here Ralph talk to Jimmies’ mom would you. She just doesn’t believe that we are going to the West Wing. She thinks I’m kidding her.
RALPH: Hello ma’am. Yes Ma’am Roe’s not kidding. We are about to go though this gate and walk into the West Wing.
MOM: Well, you never know. She kids me all the time. I didn’t know for sure.
JIMMIE: You guys get over here so I can take your picture.
RALPH: Ok it’s about time; we better walk back down to the NW gate. I was late one time years ago meeting a congressman in his office and I didn’t want to be going through that again. Come-on Jimmie put the camera away. Let’s go.
RALPH: Let’s see, ah here were ah, I don’t see him. Ah gees there is the agent in the guardhouse. He’s looking at me, what am I supposed to do wave?
BARBARA: Ralph I think you are supposed to hit that buzzer.
RALPH: Oh yea. There it is ok here it goes.
In order to enter the West Wing, your name and Social Security number must be supplied several weeks in advance. A Secret Service background check is done. Getting through the North West gate is a lot more involved than an airport security check. From the NW gate of the White House, you hit a buzzer. A polite armed and uniformed Secret Service Agent says setting inside a guardhouse with bulletproof glass hits a button on a microphone and you hear him loud and clear though the speaker. He says very politely,
Secret Service Agent: “Can I help you?”
Thomas: “Yes sir!”, I said, “We are here to see Israel Hernandez.”
Secret Service Agent: “Are you here for a tour?”
Thomas: “Yes sir!”
Secret Service Agent: “You need to call him and he will come down to get you”
I fumbled for my cell phone. I momentarily wondered if I had the cell phone number of Israel Hernandez with me. I wondered for a second if, in the excitement of actually going to the West Wing that I had forgotten both his phone number and my cell phone. My luck was with me. I had both. I once had an appointment with a United States Congressman in my early years and was late because I didn’t time the traffic right to get to his office. When I walked in, the Congressman looked at me directly in the eyes and said, “I was starting to wonder if you were a real person.” That meeting did not go well. Thank God I had both the cell phone number and my cell phone with me as there was a few seconds there in which I felt I was about to repeat the same mistake I had with the Congressman some years ago.
I dialed the number. As I was dialing, my mind raced again. What if he doesn’t answer his cell phone? What if he’s in a meeting? What if a crisis has just happened and he just says, I’m sorry I will have to call you back tomorrow. I mean I didn’t know, I have never done this before. I heard the phone ring only one time. A friendly and confident voice, the voice of Israel Hernandez answered. I told him we were at the NW gate and he said he would be right down.
As I hung up my cell phone, it occurred to me why they do it this way. I have read of many instances in which people walk up to the White House gate and say they have an appointment with so and so when in fact they do not. Somewhere along the line many years ago, someone figured out that the best way to handle these inquires was for the agent to politely tell the party that they needed to call the person on the phone. I mean, they either had the phone number or they didn’t. These are not published numbers so you either have them or you don’t. It’s not like you can go to a phone book or call directory assistance. Think about it. If they didn’t do it this way, a slew of fifty or so people could easily disrupt the staff at the White House by walking up and stating that they had an appointment. The agent would then have to call up the staff member. This consumes time. As you will soon learn, time inside the White House with staff members is a precious commodity.
The staff member you are to see must come down and authorize your entrance in person. Israel Hernandez made his appearance in a matter of a few minutes. However, once you are inside the first fence, there are still further security checkpoints. They seem to have this security down to a science. You are now inside a completely fenced in area with fence on all four sides. In front of you is a guardhouse with one door. You cannot just walk in from that point. You are trapped in this outside fence area right now. The gate you just entered is now locked and the door through the guardhouse has not been opened. You must now show a driver’s license photo ID which is then compared with the security investigation information that has already been done. You pass your photo ID through what is much like a bank teller window with a slide out tray. You can tell that this is no bank teller window as the glass is very thick and likely bullet proof.
After each of us fumbled around with our wallets and purses, all four of us pulled out our driver’s license and pushed it through the tray so the agent could examine them. I’m not sure what the agent was doing but he was working a computer. Perhaps they already had a photocopy of our license number. I was not sure and I knew that was not a circumstance that you ask questions about. I knew that this was the Secret Service and they don’t mess around. You know the things that go through your mind. Gosh, did I pay that ticket I got some years ago? Is that license I just handed him expired?
Jimmie Mesis jokingly said:
JIMMIE: “Hay Ralph, they are checking you out, you sure you don’t have stuff in your past that might be of a criminal nature that is unresolved?
RALPH: No not me Jimmie. If there is a problem it must be from you. When you were in cable piracy investigation, are you sure that somewhere some official piece of paper might have dropped the term investigation from the phrase piracy investigation? If that’s the case, you can just wait out here for Barbara, Roe and I because we are going through that gate! I don’t think that they let people in here who have a public record that says they are a pirate.
BARBARA: Shhhhhhhh! Behave yourself Ralph, everyone can hear you!
Once the Secret Service check is completed with the driver license, you are then given these white plastic cards that hang around your neck and permitted entrance into the security guardhouse. As you walk in, you scan the card given to you. I’m sure the card electronically identifies you and logs the exact time you are entering this gate. The guardhouse is a state of the art security checkpoint that scans all purses and any packages through a metal and bomb detector. The doors on the other side are still locked. You then empty your pockets of objects and go through the metal and bomb detectors. A further hand scan with metal detectors is done when needed. There are several armed and uniformed security service guards inside the guardhouse. Just getting on the other side of the guardhouse took a good half an hour and there were no lines. This was during a time when the President and First Lady were out of town and not in residence at the White House. I’m sure that, if they had been in residence, the security would have been even tighter.
Ralph And Barbara Thomas With Israel Hernandez With The
Famous White House North Front In The Background
The evening we went of this tour, there was construction going on with the major roadway and walkway that leads up to the West Wing. We were lucky in that we were able to walk up the familiar circular drive that actually leads to the main White House Mansion. As we walked up the drive, I couldn’t help but think about how this driveway is the same drive that every President since President Adams had used. It’s the same view that the national five o’clock national newsman report from. Where the drive meets a sidewalk that goes west, we took a right and then walked down the walkway that leads to the West Wing where the Oval Office is. The first room we entered was the pressroom where the daily press briefings are given which most Americans are familiar with. There is that familiar podium with the blue curtains behind it with the oval White House logo on it. At one time, this room was for the White House swimming pool. President Nixon had a floor built over the swimming pool. This room has been used at the White House Press room since that time. The first thing that strikes you about the Press Briefing Room is how small it is. There are only maybe a couple dozen chairs in it set out in a small theater style. These chairs look like the kind of chairs found in a movie theater without the drink holders. There is a gold nameplate on each chair for the reporter who sets in it. I noticed that the Helen Thomas chair is in the first row. I’m not sure how it works but it’s likely done on some seniority system.
Our friend Israel Hernandez let us linger in here a few minutes. In the back of the Press Room there is a jumble of television equipment and some very small cubicles for the press. You could tell the place is well used. I have been somewhat taken back by how many reporters have described this place. One recent book described this room as a dump. It’s far from a dump. I mean, no, it’s not like the oval office but it’s not a dumb either.
After being awe struck with the White House Press room, we walked back outside and continued our Westward walk with Israel Hernandez. We then walked in front of the main entrance to the West Wing (which was under a renovation project) and turned left at the end of the building. We were now between the West Wing and the Old Executive Office Building. The Old Executive Office Building had been the War Department and then several other major federal agencies. However, as the country grew up, the White House kept running out of space as the country got larger and larger. The West wing was, when first built, just one story. Today it is two stories. The Old Executive Office Building on the other side of the West Wing is now used to house part of the offices of the White House including the Vice President’s office.
As we walked between the Old Executive Office Building and the West Wing, memories of past events unfolded in my head. There were TV images of Richard Nixon walking up the steps of the Old Executive office building where I think the only President in modern times kept a hideaway office there. I could see images of Al Gore coming down those same steps on live TV after giving his televised speech inside where he finally admitted that it was time for him to go.
The West Wing of the White House is, contrary to what a lot of people think; relatively new. Prior to 1902, the office of the President and his staff were situated on the second floor of the White House. The first West Wing was built in 1902. The current oval office was not built until 1909. There was a fire in the West Wing in 1929. That fire gutted the place which was completely rebuilt.
Ralph Thomas And Jimmie Mesis In The Waiting Room Of The West Wing
Ralph Thomas With Israel Hernandez Deputy Assistant To The President
Just Inside The West Wing Of The White House
We entered the West Wing building through the West side entrance as the main entrance was under renovation. The magnitude of what you are about to see hits you as soon as you walk in the door. There are photos of the President and the seal of the President Of The United States on the walls. The first thing that hits you though is that this place is rather small when you consider that this is the office of the President Of The United States. There are actually only maybe 30 people who work here. The office of the President is much larger than that but the majority of the staff is either in the OEOB next door or another office building across the street. Although the President was out of town, you notice the security everywhere. There was a good three or four more security desks and checkpoints you go through. Armed uniformed security personal are everywhere. Israel Hernandez took us down a flight of stairs to the White House mess. This is the place he usually eats lunch. Mr. Hernandez didn’t say anything about it but I got this feeling he ate most of his dinners in the White House mess also. We saw several meeting rooms and offices and I noticed a door that said “White House Situation Room”. Mr. Hernandez simply mentioned that he could not take us inside, as that is where the world security situation is monitored. I noticed another door that didn’t have any name on it that had one of these code-entering systems to enter. I asked, “what’s this room” and all Hernandez said was that it was for military only. At some point around this time, we walked into a waiting room where people wait to see the President. At times in our past history, the press was permitted to linger in this room. I guess it became quite obvious at some point (A very long time ago!) someone figured out that members of the press were picking up conversations from people in the waiting room. This obviously became a major security problem as I’m sure confidential information and remarks about that type of thing is often talked about among the White House guests waiting to see the President. Members of the press are no longer permitted to linger around the waiting room. They have their own places that need to stay in.
The Roosevelt Room- Click Here To Take A Panoramic Online Tour From The White House Web Site
One of the first rooms we walked into was what is now called The Roosevelt Room. President Nixon named this room in honor of Theodore Roosevelt who was President when the West Wing was built and Franklin Roosevelt who expanded the West Wing. The location of this room in the West Wing is the location of the original Oval Office. Today, it’s a conference room with state of the art audiovisual equipment for formal presentations. A long conference table is in the center of the room.
I have to admit, your knees get kind of weak when you see this kind of stuff in person. The knees were about to get much weaker with awe. We walked through some more hallways, offices and small meeting rooms. It was maybe 8:30 PM. There were people all over. The place is very well kept. However, you can see signs that this place isn’t a normal office building. You can see it’s well used. In fact, almost every inch of space is well used. This place isn’t like what you see on the television show, The West Wing; at all. I’m sure that the staff would be more than happy to have all that office space that is shown in the television show.
Ralph And Barbara Thomas Meet With The Vice President
The next thing I knew, we were standing on the other side of the West Wing in front of the Rose Garden. We were standing on the covered walk way leading from the main mansion of the White House to the West Wing which is the walkway the President uses every morning when in residence to get from the main mansion to his office. You look to the left and you can see the Truman Balcony. You can look up and see the West second floor Windows that is the Presidential living quarters. You look to the right, and you can see the outer walls of the Oval Office. The first thing that stuck me is that the First Lady can likely look out the second floor windows and see the windows in the Oval office. It’s a shame that Mrs. Clinton obviously never bothered to look.
It was dark but in front of me stood the famous Rose Garden that Mrs. Kennedy developed. I mean this place is quite and wonderful. With the landscaping, you can tell it is designed for some privacy and security. You can tell that one could not, from the south fence of the White House several football fields away, look up into the Rose Garden. In the distance is a magnificent view of the Washington Monument. There is a covered porch that comes off the oval office that the President can use when needed. Remember your history? This is the place where JFK gave speeches outside. In fact, this is the place where Bill Clinton came and shock the hand of President Kennedy when he was a young man. This is the same place that Lyndon Johnson announced that J Edgar Hoover would remain the head of the FBI (and not retire) at the “President’s pleasure.” This is the same scene flashed around the world when Nixon said, “Let others wallow in Watergate, I have a job to do!” This is the same place Clinton made comments after the Senate vote of rather to impeach him took place. Yes, the same place Clinton stated after the 2000 election that, “the American people have spoken but it’s going to take a while for us to figure out what they said.” It’s the same place we seen President Bush walk through on his way back to the oval office on 9/11.
I stepped off the covered sidewalk that leads from the main White House mansion and the Oval Office. There was this little gravel path. I took it all in darting my eyes both left and then right making sure I didn’t miss anything. All of a sudden I heard a voice and it was Barbara’s:
Barbara: Ralph that’s enough!
Ralph: I haven’t said anything.
Barbara: Ralph you walked right past the sign that said do not pass this location.
Ralph: Whoops, sorry!
I looked back and I was maybe half a foot or so beyond the sign so I quickly stepped back where I was supposed to be.
The Cabinet Room In The West Wing. Click Here To Take A Panoramic Online Tour From The White House Web Site
After looking around in awe in the Rose Garden, we walked back into the building, made some turns and were then standing in front of the Cabinet Room. Israel Hernandez explained to us that the table was donated by President Nixon. There are rather large leather chairs around this table with nameplates on the back of them. I noticed that the President’s Chair had a back that was just a little taller than the rest of them. It’s amazing the history that has gone on in here. In this room JFK had meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s the same room every President since Teddy Roosevelt has held meetings with the cabinet. You don’t walk in these rooms as they are roped off but you can stand at the door and look around to gulk. As I turned around to move out of the way for the next person to see into the room, my knees went weak again! Standing behind me was Attorney General John Ashcroft. We were eyeball to eyeball. I reached out my hand. He reached out his. For a few seconds, I didn’t know what to say and then finally said, “Sir, It’s an honor to shake your hand and let me say thank you.” He said he was pleased to meet me and I quickly moved out of his way as he had what appeared to be some personal friends or relatives that he was showing the West Wing to this night. I certainly didn’t want to block the view of the cabinet room to the Attorney General of the United States and his friends or family members.
Some in the press try to produce negative spin of Attorney General John Ashcroft. They subliminally make fun of his religious believes and his higher moral perceptive. He doesn’t want half naked statutes of ladies as a symbol of the Department Of Justice even if they are in a traditional way representative of the justice system. A majority of the American public doesn’t like that neither. I admire this man! I mean, who else in the several hundred years of our history has had the courage to stand up and say this isn’t right? No one! No it’s not politically correct. Yes I have to agree with the attorney general’s office. There is certainly a time and a place for half naked women. That might be at the swimming pool and the beach but not at the Justice Department. I mean, after all; the main offices are in Washington DC not Los Vegas. I wish that the wimps in the news media would stop whining about it.
Others in the news media try to harp on the fact that the Attorney General is trying to take freedom away from Americans. They fail to understand that what the attorney general is trying to do is protect freedom, not take it away from people. Sometimes people forget we are fighting a war. Although things can appear to be business as usual, the Justice Department needs the powers to fight terrorism.
The Oval Office In The White House.
Click Here To Take A Panormaic Tour Online From The White House Web Site
The next room we had the opportunity to view was the actual oval office. After just running into the Attorney General Of The United States, it took me a few seconds to gain my composure before I could focus again but after a few seconds, it finally sunk in that I was staring at that same desk that JFK used. It’s that same desk that has this door in the middle of it that his son used to play under. We have all seen pictures of that desk hundreds of times as many different Presidents have used it. The room is bright. You could feel goose pimples coming up as you looked around. I was staring at the most powerful office in the world. “Gee wiz,” you think to yourself. “This is the oval office.” You could see the pictures of the President’s family behind his desk. You look the other way and see the famous painting of George Washington that has been hanging over the fireplace for so long. You notice the comfortable couches. You notice the stripped chairs you always see on TV when heads of state come into the Oval Office. There they are! The same two chairs! Bush sets in one and people like Tony Blair set in the other when the press comes in for a few minutes.
Ralph And Barbara Thomas On The White House Front Lawn
I have observed this room on television hundreds of times. When I was a kid, I remember setting in front of a black and white television set when President Eisenhower gave his farewell speech a short time before JFK took office. His words stick in my mind today. “Beware of the military industrial complex.” Black and White television pictures of President Kennedy informing the American Public that nuclear missiles were being build in Cuba flash threw my mind as well as images of JFK Junior opening the bottom panel of the front of the desk and popping his head out with a big smile. As I stood there, more images engraved in my mind came to the surface. In fact, decades of images raced through my conscious as I gulked. President Johnson’s televised address in which he stated, “I will not seek and will not accept another term as your President.” Nixon’s speech, “therefore effective tomorrow at noon, I will resign the office of the Presidency.” With those words, he was gone and Ford was President the very next day.
We all have a personal connection with this office that I was staring at. Perhaps the most vivid is President Bush’s address to the nation on the night of 9/11 when he personally calmed down the nation’s nerves. I was so upset at the time; I cannot recall any of the President’s exact words from that speech but whatever it was that he said, I was able to sleep that night. He calmed me down through the television set.
These were all marked moments in American history. I tried not to think much about the fact that Bill Clinton disgraced this office with his affair with Monica Lewinski and then turned around and lied about it on national TV. I never could quite understand it. If he was going to do that, he could have, at the very least; had the decency to do it away from the Oval Office. But I got to tell you, as I looked around the room; I’m once again proud to be an American and proud of the American people for electing such a God fearing and moral man that currently sets behind the desk.
Unlike Presidents like President Johnson, there are no televisions in the oval office. I have always judged the man’s ego that sets behind the desk that I was staring at by this fact. If they have televisions, especially enough of them to watch all major networks, you can be assured that they are somewhat obsessed with what the news media is saying about them. I know enough about President Bush to tell you that he’s actually kind of a modest but quite caring person. The fact is, our President is just a regular guy. I know from the early days of his campaign to this office that he would give speeches all day long and most of the night. But when he was done with each speech, he always tried to make sure that everyone in the room shook his hand. I have heard that by the time he finally got into a hotel room for rest, the President would have to soak his hands in ice because they were swollen. I mean God, most of these people at these campaign rallies were…well…. very compassionate about the candidate. Almost all of the people at them were going to vote for him anyway. He certainly didn’t need to do it for the television cameras. But Bush insisted on shaking every hand anyway. That’s because he cares about people and Bush is compassionate about it. They used compassionate conservative to describe Bush. When it comes to the President, I like to drop the word conservative from it. He’s just plan old people compassionate. I can tell you that there aren’t any punches being pulled with that word either. They are not putting on a show. The thing about President Bush and the people around him is what you see is what you get and I love that. It’s quite a change in the land of DC.
I can remember the news media flack a few years ago. Arie Fleshier made the remark once that, “the President doesn’t watch television.” That remark was taken out of context. You know the press. They want to try and turn everyone into an issue with people and paint the word stupidity on their forehead. Problem is, none of the people that have ever sat in this office are stupid. I guess I could say a lot of things that would be negative about some of our Presidents but none of the words I would put down could include the word stupid. I mean, come on. Yea America has some people who are stupid but none of them are going to get anywhere close to setting in the Oval Office.
In reality, the press knows this and the American public knows this. Americans just don’t elect stupid people to this office and when the press try to subliminally say that we do, it’s an insult to both the American people and the office itself. The press secretary was responding to a specific question about the oval office. What the press secretary was referring to was that the President doesn’t watch television in the oval office, not that he didn’t watch television at all. But you know how it goes. Some reporters take words and twist them like a sharp knife to make a trap for fools. The next thing you know, it was all over the talk news shows about how the President doesn’t watch television. Come on guys! Give me a break! The President is just not overly obsessed with what is being said about him on the six o’clock news. I know that, in the past; we have had some people setting in this office that had what you would call giant egos. I can tell you it’s refreshing to note that the man that sets in this office today isn’t like that.
The four of us took our time looking around from the roped off door looking with amazement into the oval office. We moved on to some other offices and were getting close to the door we came in when Israel Hernandez said, “Would you like to see Karl Rove’s office?” I was dieing to see both Karl Rove’s office and Israel’s office. I promptly said yes! I mean hay; this dedicated guy has been here since 7 AM and will be here for hours after we leave. My guess was that he’ll have to work at least an hour longer this night because he took time from his work to give us a tour. He likely hasn’t had a day off for weeks. Those of you who know me know I can be overbearing at times and pushy at times when I have to but I wasn’t going to push Israel Hernandez. I mean he was nice enough to take an hour to show us what we had just seen. I would have left it at that. But Israel Hernandez asked me and I’m sure my eyes light up when I promptly said yes! He made us feel very welcomed and very special. I knew this was not part of the normal tour and likely even John Ashcroft wasn’t taking his people upstairs. But Israel Hernandez knew I was a student of Karl Rove so he wanted to take the time to show us the second floor of the West Wing.
He opened a door that said something like, Do Not Enter. We followed Israel Hernandez up a narrow flight of stairs. In a matter of seconds, we were on the second floor. I got’a tell you, it seems really small. I mean you consider you are standing in one of the world power centers. Jimmie Mesis asked if the President ever comes upstairs. Israel Hernandez said yes he does come up.
We walked into the office of senior advisor BJ Goergen and had the privilege of meeting her for a few minutes. Mr. Hernandez’s office was behind hers. Israel’s office is very small. We were then able to walk into Karl Rove’s office. This is the office that Hillary Clinton once used. I started scanning the walls. I knew that Karl Rove’s favorite President (other than the guy who is his current boss of course) is William McKinley. There it was on the back wall. When Mr. Rove sets down, he can look up and see his picture of President McKinley. Compared to the people that occupy them, you are struck with both the smallness and nothing out of the ordinary look to these offices. I mean Mr. Rove is a history buff and he’s got historical objects on his walls but you can tell that this office is a working office of a very very busy person. Rove’s desk is one of those open desks with no drawers in it. Personal pictures of his family line the shelves behind his desk. There are books. I knew that there would be. Mr. Rove likely has read every book ever published on presidential politics. He’s a walking encyclopedia on the subject. I mean this is a man who one could name any President in the history of America and Karl can tell you his complete background, how that President got elected, what that President did while in office and what happened after that President’s administration. The book shelve is small and the books in it likely came from Rove’s home library which is huge. This office isn’t elaborate at all and I cannot overstate it enough that the size of the office certainly doesn’t fit the man. I thought about listing some of the titles I noticed but hay! These people deserve some privacy. If I did that, someone would likely try to read something into it that really isn’t there. The man likes books on American History and politics. If one has been published, it would be a good bet that Mr. Rove has it and has read it.
As Israel Hernandez escorted us out of the West Wing, there was the feeling that somehow my life had changed from actually seeing the place with my own eyes. We chatted about Texas since Israel Hernandez is from a small town there. I mentioned that we would be in town until Saturday. He said, “Oh you are going to be around Washington for a few days! Would you like to come back Friday and watch the President’s helicopter land on the South Lawn?” You got’ a remember that these people work here. I don’t. I mean, I would do just about anything to have the opportunity to come back! I promptly said yes. Unfortunately, Jimmie And Roe Mesis had to get back to New Jersey as they were in the process of moving so they didn’t get to go back. Israel called me Thursday night and told me that President Bush was coming back to the White House on Friday after a long trip but there would be no public landing on the South lawn. The President was, of course; both tired and in a hurry. He was coming back to the White House to give his Saturday radio address. He would fly in, give his radio address and then fly to Camp David. The only likely reason he was coming back to the White House is likely because President Bush is quite considerate of other people. He didn’t want to have to have his people move all this equipment up to Camp David. So instead of flying directly to Camp David, he flew in, gave his radio address and then was off again.
Israel Hernandez invited us to the West Wing on that Friday anyway. This time, when I hit the buzzer on the wall of the NW gate, I told the Secret Service agent we had an appointment with Israel Hernandez. We were handed more white plastic tags to wear around our necks. But this time, these tags had the words “appointment” on them. This time, we were down for that appointment and had already been cleared via their security check. We went through the same security steps again to get passed the guardhouse but this time, we went in the front door to the West Wing. This is the same door used by people who have an appointment with the President. We walked down a long and wide hallway and entered a setting room. We were greeted by a friendly and outgoing Presidential appointments secretary. She welcomed us and offered coffee or other beverages. I was too excited to drink anything and told her no thank you. The room has a high ceiling and is, well; like just about everything else around the White House; quite impressive. We sat down on a leather coach. There were other people in the waiting room. I started to walk over to the other people setting in the fish room and introduce myself. Then, I remembered the story of how they had to move the press people from lingering around this room some years ago. I decided that the dignified thing to do was to mind my own business with Barbara and I think she was relieved. Unlike many waiting rooms, this one had all of today’s newspapers one could read while waiting. In a few minutes, Israel Hernandez entered the room. That friendly, glad to see you, welcome to the White House smile of his filled his face.
He took us on a tour of the Old Executive Office Building. This building is really something. He took us upstairs to see the ceremonial office of the Vice President. This is a long room that is one of the most stunning office rooms I have ever had the opportunity to see anywhere. He pointed out the offices that Nixon had used as a hideaway office. We talked with Kathy from the White House travel office. We went inside the Airlift Command Center which contains a staff of Air Force Officers in charge of air flight for the President. It was quite an experience. In lots of ways, the Old Executive Office Building is much grander than the West Wing of the actual White House. First, it’s much bigger. The hallways are much wider and grandeur. You feel more like you are in the US Capitol building than anything that would be connected with the White House. I got’a tell you, I fell in love with this building.
On our way back to the West Wing, I noticed that the place was buzzing with arriving staff members. These were obviously people who had been part of the staff on the President’s trip. They looked tired. I had the opportunity to speak with some of them. All of them were extremely friendly, bright and outgoing. All of them radiated this welcome to the White House smile with the expressions on their face and their body language. It was amazing. All of these people had smiles on their face. They had spent the better part of the last two days flying on Air Force One. They set in the conventional airline seats and that’s where they sleep. We followed Mr. Hernandez up the narrow flight of stairs once again that leads to his office, the office of Karl Rove and the office of senior advisor BJ Goergen. Today’s major newspapers were around and the television sets where on. The President was a few minutes away from landing on the South Lawn. BJ greeted us again with her warm smile and gave me a hug making me feel very special. I heard the roar of the helicopter. It was the President landing. Setting in the second floor of the West Wing, I could feel the pressure building. The President and first lady were now, only if briefly; in residence. BJ was checking things. I heard someone say something about a list of things that’s supposed to be in “his’ car. They were going through a routine, I guess with checklists. I could see Karl Rove’s office. There were newspapers on a long table waiting, I guess for him to read.
The world is generally a much smaller place than we really think it is. Israel Hernandez is from Eagle Pass, Texas. Barbara Thomas is from Dublin, Texas. The high schools these two graduated from play each other in football games. Come to find out that BJ Goergen is from Round Rock, Texas. That’s the place Barbara and I call home.
As much as I wanted to kind of hang around, these people where busy. It was time for us to go. As we walked back down the small stairwell that leads to this part of the upstairs in the West Wing, I noticed that there were a lot more people around. Security seemed tighter now. I noticed that they were already changing the pictures that hung on the wall showing recent activity of the President. Israel Hernandez escorted as out the gate we has come in. When you walk out, you scan your white card over an electronic card reader. This scan checks you out with time and date just like it did when you go in.
I admit that I have been kind of a homespun student on the Presidency for years. There are volumes and volumes of books about each man who sets in the chair in the oval office. Over a number of decades of reading them and through the college of hard knocks, I have come to realize that some of these books belong in the fiction section of the bookstore, not the nonfiction section. However, other than the fine historical works published by the White House Historical Association, there is really very little in print about the West Wing and White House. What is even harder to find are books about the people who work around the President that most of the world don’t know about. Although our visit was brief and could certainly not be considered a “day in the life” of a staff member, there is something about getting that first hand experience that all those hundreds of books I have read over a forty year period do not provide you. It’s a very special place. I place where people work, not because they have to have a job. The people that work here are all highly talented and highly motivated. The President’s staff is the finest group of people I have ever had the opportunity to encounter in my short time on this earth. I, of course; cannot speak from first hand experience of other administrations. But this one has what can be described as the best and the brightest. There are a number of personal experiences that have been literally life changing in my life. You know, things that you experience that actually change your thinking on things. I would say that the assassination of President Kennedy, Watergate, Monica Lewinski and 9/11 are four of the major ones. They all impacted my life in mostly a negative way. This experience has been totally positive and I have to place it in the same life changing category. As I reflect on this experience, I have to tell you that I will sleep easier at night. The country is in good hands.
The next day, we took a cab through the center of DC to get to the airport. There were protests. I had seen many in this city before. These protests were large. We got in traffic. We had departed early enough so I wasn’t worried about missing the plane. I have no idea what these Americans where for or against but I was glad to see them. This is America. I might not have agreed with what the protest was about but I could not help but think about freedom. The freedom to do this. The freedom to express yourself. If these people would have tried to do what they were now doing in some countries, they might have been arrested, jailed or even shot. But this is America. I only hope that this meager effort to share the experience will bring to others a perspective one cannot usually see.
If you would like to find out more about the White House, you can take virtual tours off of the following very excellent web sites:
Copyright: 2003, Ralph Thomas, All Rights reserved
Photos By Jimmie Mesis. Copyright: 2003, Jimmie Mesis, All Rights reserved.
Photos Of The Oval Office, Roosevelt Room And Cabinet Room Are Photos From The White House And No Copyright Is Claimed.