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Archive for March, 2016

In the dark with the swirling snow, I couldn’t tell you where we were or what door we entered, but the light in the hallway was shockingly bright and the hall was lined with men talking into their sleeves, watching everyone. No smiling. Very serious. Very efficient. Coats were hung, purses and cell phones left behind. No cameras allowed. (None of us were happy about that.) Efficiently we were taken by elevator to the upper floor that led to the viewers boxes and escorted to our seats. The First Lady’s box holds 24 seats. The rest of the large circular balcony holds more seats for others with invitations from their Congressional representatives. It was packed and buzzing in a rare “we’re expecting the President” manner.

The House chamber is divided down the middle, Republicans to the President’s left and Democrats to his right. As Congressional leaders made their way inside, we could look down, recognizing our own representatives plus those big names we see on the Sunday morning talk shows.  Kyrsten Sinema, one of our AZ Congresswomen who also serves on Gina’s Team’s  Leadership Council, saw me and waved from the floor. Was I really in the First Lady’s box or was I dreaming?

The Supreme Court justices entered, very solemn and dignified, dressed in their black court robes. They don’t smile, neither do they ever stand or applaud for anything the president says.  I think it’s some kind of protocol. The same with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in full uniform with all the glory of their decorations. No smiling, standing or applauding.

In our box, we were buzzing too. I was sitting next to Mark Luttrell, Republican Mayor of Shelby Country Tennessee (see, they are bipartisan) and a former BOP warden. Mark has a pretty progressive reputation in the world of corrections and I was picking his brain. Right in front of me was Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. I talked to him about computer labs in prisons and he was very supportive of the idea although it horrifies traditionalist. Everyone in the box had a story and a vested interest in the President’s speech, but two of my favorites were Earl Smith and Edith Childs. They were just darling human beings. You can read about all of the guests on the WH blog:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/01/10/meet-guests-first-ladys-2016-state-union-box

When Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden entered the box, we knew it was time. Then the House sergeant at arms announced those eight famous words, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” The President entered the chamber and began the walk towards the podium  shaking hands all along the way.

In our box suddenly four white square padded cushions appeared and were passed down the four steps. It’s not a huge box and no space goes unoccupied. These are for staffers. Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 8.45.00 PMBelieve it or not, Valerie Jarrett, Special Advisor to the President, sat down on the step at the end of our aisle right next to Mark Luttrell which allowed us the opportunity to talk. Mrs. Jarrett is considered one of the most important people in the White House and there she was, sitting with perfect posture on a cushion in the aisle of our box. I asked her how she could define her time working in the White House. She smiled a lovely smile. “It’s the most important and exciting thing of my  entire life,” she paused, “except for the birth of my daughter. Nothing can compare to that.”

While we chatted and watched the President make his way to the podium, everyone was clapping and smiling, while those close to the center aisle were maneuvering to shake his hand. It was very collegial and they seemed like they actually liked each other. It looked. . . hopeful.

Then the President started talking and it was hard to ignore the conduct of the Congress. As much as we hear how divided our congress is, when you are looking down at it physically and symbolically, it’s stunning. There’s an invisible line right down the middle of that historic, important chamber.

As he often does, the President started out with humor and then got down to the issues. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sotu (You can see the entire address here.)  He would say something and the right side of the chamber (Dems) would stand up and loudly applaud; the left side (Reps) of the chamber was silent.  When he asked these questions below they sounded like questions I’ve heard all my friends express, conservative or progressive, yet half the room cheered while the other half was looking at their email or Facebook.

  • First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? (Applause & silence.)
  • Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? (Applause & silence.)
  • Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? (Applause & silence.)
  • And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst? (Applause & silence.)

Yes, I said Facebook. Remember I mentioned we all had to leave our phones behind? Not our representatives. They all had their cellphones and iPads;  we watched them from above as they checked email, caught up on Facebook or their social media of choice. Obviously I’m old school. My parents would have killed me (figuratively speaking), if I’d gone to hear a president speak (any president) and not minded my manners and paid attention. Here were our elected officials from our Senate and House of Representatives, and many were simply rude. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe that’s OK in this world of technology, but I hope not. They say politics is an ugly business and it keeps getting worse. Does it have to be? Is this who we are as human beings, as Americans? Our elected officials are the role models for our children and I don’t think we’d let our children behave that way.

Never has an hour rushed by so quickly. The President’s final words were “Thank you, God bless you. God bless the United States of America” and it was over. We were already standing to applaud and as we stood, the cushions disappeared, the aisle cleared and our security detail was waiting for us. Mrs. Jarrett had slipped out, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden then led the way for the rest of us. There were twenty three Americans in that box who will never forget that evening. And there was still more to come. . .Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 8.44.31 PM

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Earlier that morning our meetings were in the West Wing of the White House, where the Oval Office IMG_3943is. This time we arrived at the East Wing. All of the First Lady’s guests arrived simultaneously, and of course, we had to clear security. I guess the only people who don’t have to go through the security process are the President and his family. Imagine, in Lincoln’s day anybody could just walked right in to see the president.

The WH is organized! Hosts to welcome us. Guides to lead us through the special tour. We entered near the Family Theater, established when FDR was President. Imagine the First Family trying to sneak out to the mall for a IMG_4044movie. The Secret Service would go crazy. This room serves a very practical purpose. The big overstuffed chairs are not only comfy, they are moveable so when there’s a big party like a state dinner, it’s magically transformed into a coat room.

We toured the Library, the Vermeil Room, the China Room (remember Michael Douglas called it the Dish Room when he was president:)), and the Diplomatic Room that has the most beautiful sunflower carpet. Since that was Gina’s favorite flower, Dianne and I thought that was a special omen.

IMG_3982When the time had come to go to the main floor, the wide marble stairs looked forbidding to me. Back in those familiar dark ages, I was a jogger, three miles a day for years. Now I’m paying the price with knees that cannot handle stairs easily. No worries. We were whisked behind some walls to the President’s private elevator (also there since FDR) and for that brief elevator ride, I thanked my painful knees for getting to see something very special. FYI, it’s quite small and only holds four people at a time.

The main floor is where the action is. There’s the Red Room, the Green Room and the Blue Room IMG_4006besides the Ballroom and the State Dining Room. Thanks to another first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, those rooms were decorated more in keeping with the period.

Each of these rooms is memorable, but the Blue Room has the distinction of facing out onto the famous balcony and the Washington Monument. The view is breathtaking, exactly like in the movies. Just as I walked over to the windows to look out, it started snowing. The flakes  swirling around in the perimeter lights of the White House made me feel like I was in a magical movie too.

As we wandered through these historic rooms, I heard the WH dogs barking in the distance and the sound of a piano playing favorite tunes by some of the great American composers. As we leIMG_4011ft the State IMG_4016Dining Room for the reception area, there was a magnificent antique piano being played by a very attractive Marine. And in the main hall was a delicious buffet of hors d’oeuvres with cocktails, all accented by magnificent flowers. Had I mentioned my nausea?  I looked over the gorgeous food and reluctantly ordered a ginger ale. My one time at the WH and I was too sick to enjoy it. PoohAndDoublePooh! Thank goodness, Dianne enjoyed it for both of us.

Nevertheless, the food was secondary to the people. We met Governors, Mayors and scientists. We met ordinary people just like us who were there because they represented something extraordinary. We met Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Chen; imagine her responsibility.

We met Valerie Jarrett, the Senior Advisor to the President. Like Mrs. Chen, she was gracious and charming without a hint of ego and self-importance.  As we were chatting, we found ourselves being lined up for a photo shoot with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden. Another Oh My Goodness moment. And yes, Mrs. Obama is beautiful and very, very tall. Dr. Biden is also lovely; she’s my height. Both of them had had very full days yet were gracious and generous with their time.

What did I say to Mrs. Obama? I asked her to visit a women’s prison. I told her how important her IMG_4021husband’s prison visit had been and how much it would mean to women inmates all over the country if she could make such a visit. I also told Mrs. Chen how significant that visit would be. So who knows? After all this, I definitely believe in miracles.

Finally, it was again time to divide our group. Our guests would be staying at the WH to watch the SOTU in the Family Theater. The twenty three guests of Mrs. Obama headed for our coats and the motorcade that would take us to the Capitol for President Obama’s last State of the Union Address. We needed those coats as the snow swirled IMG_4046around. It was freezing, but we didn’t have to wait long. The vans were waiting with security in place. With the police escort and sirens blaring, we headed out onto the road that took us directly to the Capitol. Yes, I admit it. Riding in a motorcade between the White House and the Nation’s Capitol was incredibly exciting and over much too soon. And then we were there. . .

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