What’s the most incredible thing about living in the White House? Why, the royal treatment, of course!
Okay, so I needed to take a little break from studying Worker’s Compensation Law, right? It was a little before 11:00 p.m., I made myself a cup of coffee–it is exam time, after all, and I fully intended to get back to the books and outlines–and sat down to watch the local news and weather for a few minutes.
Here in Philadelphia, I like our local ABC affiliate, so channel six it was. Surprise, surprise, surprise, it was Barbara Walters and her hush-hush Most Fascinating Person of 2009 — First Lady Michelle Obama.
No big deal. You know me, I’m not so much into the personal criticisms of the president and his wife, as I prefer to criticize policy and ideology, making occasional exceptions for overt solipsism. Immediately I noticed that the First Lady looked nice. Not stunning, just nice. I’d never call Michelle Obama a looker, but of the times I’ve seen her on television and in photos, the Barbara Walters interview was perhaps the First Lady at her aesthetic best.
While I did not hear the question itself, when I tuned in it seemed as though Mrs. Obama was answering a question about her personal life, as she was talking about her packed schedule and how even a single, solitary hour during the course of an entire week to mindlessly surf through the television channels “feels like heaven.” As an extremely busy person myself, between family, work, school, America’s Right and our impending move … I could relate.
So, I took a sip of my coffee–still too hot–and decided to give the First Lady a chance, to maybe see how long it took before I shook my head or rolled my eyes. It didn’t take long. The next (and final) question from Barbara Walters:
BARBARA WALTERS: Do you ever walk through these rooms [in the White House] and pinch yourself and say “I’m here”?
I sat up in my chair. The more I learn about our nation’s founders and founding, the more I read the words of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the more I consider even John Adams’ brief time in a largely unfinished White House, the more fascinated I’ve become with the history of the American presidential home.
While I can’t say that I have presidential aspirations myself, I do remember back in January being asked by Joanna about the first thing I would do if I were ever elected president. Without hesitation, I told her that I would ask for experts well-versed in White House and presidential history to take me, room by room by room, and explain everything that happened in each. (That, and ask someone in the know if UFOs are real.)
To me, the White House is not only the office and home of the president of the United States, it is also a museum and, despite being built with slave labor, a tribute to America and American freedom. I recall reading last summer about how each first family has put their own stamp on the building–Jefferson built the colonnades, Harry Truman gutted the aging building and added a balcony, Jackie Kennedy changed the nature of the Lincoln Bedroom, just to name a few examples–and thinking about how I could never be so presumptuous as to change anything at all. The White House is the People’s House, after all — not mine.
So, when Michelle Obama was asked about how living and breathing and sleeping and walking and working and eating where so many great Americans had done the same before her, I listened.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Yeah, absolutely. There are moments when you are driving up to the White House at night, and the white lights are shining on this beautiful … this beautiful home. And you pull up to it and somebody opens the door and says: “Welcome home.”
Those are the times when you think: “Really. Wow. Okay. Here we go.”
Really? That’s what makes Michelle Obama pinch herself when it comes to living in the White House as First Lady? That’s what sticks out? So, to paraphrase, the most amazingly unbelievable part of living in a glorious sandstone monument to this free constitutional republic, this last great repository of freedom across the globe, is being treated like royalty?
Personally, I’d be rendered breathless when I looked up and saw, in some areas, the scorch marks still visible from 1814 when the British Army set the presidential mansion on fire, and when I considered that the entire building would have been scrapped by a lesser nation. Or perhaps my breathlessness would come while sitting in the East Room, the design and inspiration for which was from George Washington himself, in which while still unfinished the endlessly modest Abigail Adams used to hang laundry to dry. Or maybe, if asked what would make me pinch myself, it could be actually feeling the pallor of sorrow still hanging in the room where Abraham Lincoln’s son breathed his last on a Thursday, or running my fingers over the marble engraving of John Adams’ famous prayer, now hanging on a mantle in the main dining room.
Perhaps it was the fault of some lackluster editing on the part of ABC. I’d hate to think that, confronted with a question about a home with so much important American history, it is the butler-type service and the validated self-importance which sticks out in the mind of Michelle Obama. But, at this point, when it comes to ego it’s difficult to give her–or her husband, for that matter–the benefit of the doubt.
After all, these are the people who, confronted with an amazing and imaginative and symbolic gift from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife, reciprocated by giving a collection of non-European-compatible DVD movies and a $15 die-cast metal model of Marine One, straight from the White House gift shop, as if to say “look at us, we have our own helicopter.” These are the people who believed that their presence alone could bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago.
Maybe I’m being too hard on her. Maybe a great answer to Barbara Walters’ question, something perhaps about being able to retrace the steps of Dolley Madison as she saved priceless art and artifacts from British flames, is sitting on the cutting room floor somewhere at ABC. But I doubt it. Everything about the president and his wife suggest that they believe themselves to be bigger than the White House, and bigger even than the nation as a whole. Michelle Obama only last year first became proud of the country which has afforded her and her husband so much opportunity, and we see his and her attitudes toward this great nation as they travel the world and blame America first, not to mention how at home they continue to trample upon the ideas and ideals of those who lived before them in that glorious sandstone tribute to freedom.
Nearly every day here in Philadelphia, I walk past the site of the home in which Thomas Jefferson sat, in a third floor study, and penned the Declaration of Independence. At that time, the intersection of Seventh and Market Streets marked the farthest reaches of what would be America’s first capital city, and everything to the west had been described as “open country.” Even just walking by, staring at a 20th century replica, I find it difficult to not feel the history, to not consider and wonder what Jefferson might think if he were able to stare out a third-floor window at America today.
If I ever have the chance to visit the White House, nonetheless the incredible honor of residing there, what would make me pinch myself? For me, especially if I were living there, it would undoubtedly be the honor of treading where so many great men and women have lived and worked, it would be the humbling reality of sitting where decisions were made to send our nation’s sons and daughters to war, and it would be the opportunity to awaken each day to the tremendous privilege of living in and leading a nation like this one. I could care less about who opened my door or parked my car.