I left the air-conditioned comfort of the elegant Willard Hotel – the long-established “Residence of the Presidents” – a little after 5:00 pm. I immediately felt like I had just been immersed into a hot and muggy sauna. Welcome to Washington, DC! It was a sweltering 94 degrees with the humidity at 51%. I immediately shed and carried my gray suit jacket I had put on for a reception at the White House with President and Mrs. Trump.
Presidential Sites Summit: I was privileged to attend a four-day conference in late August – the 2018 Presidential Sites Summit – sponsored by the White House Historical Association that brought together close to 500 presidential historians, archivists, curators, educators, and managers from across the country who manage more than 100 presidential libraries, museums, homes, birthplaces, monuments, and shrines.
Secret Service Screening: After waiting for about twenty minutes, the Secret Service opened the gates and with my conference name badge as identification, I was permitted to walk onto the White House grounds. I produced my driver’s license at two different security stations where the Secret Service validated that I was on the list of pre-screened and approved attendees. I also went through an electronic screening process before I entered the cool east wing of the residence. I put my jacket back on over my white shirt and blue tie.
Earlier White House Tours: Two days earlier, I had gone through the same entry and security process before going on a public and self-guided tour of the White House (Green Room, Blue Room, Red Room, State Dining Room, and East Room). Before then, it had been 45 years since I had been in the White House when I was a congressional intern during the historic summer of 1973 (Senate Watergate Committee hearings that I got to sit in on).
Warm Welcome: As I entered, I was greeted by White House staff who offered me a glass of champagne. I proceeded down the hallway, and smartly dressed and uniformly friendly military aides directed the way and answered questions. I walked up the marble steps to first floor and the State Dining Room where staff had laid out a dazzling display appetizers and desserts.
Buffet Line: Because I had been close to the front of the line to enter, I saw the food displayed before anyone began going through the buffet line. A staff member told me I was free to begin eating at any time. I picked up a white china plate, fork, and white cloth napkin and began selecting food. Should I take one of the many separate small plates with a shrimp appetizer on it and juggle multiple plates? A staff member helpfully volunteered that I could slide the shrimp onto my main plate if I wanted. I did and she promptly took the smaller plate.
My Table Companion: As I looked around, there were a few tables against the wall at the end of the buffet line. A woman who was ahead of me was just setting down her plate and she graciously asked me to join her. We introduced ourselves. She was Susan Swain, president and co-CEO of C-SPAN, who had earlier moderated a session at the conference on “Presidential History and Memory: Negotiating Narratives across Time and Space.” She has been with C-SPAN since 1982, and is the author of two presidential history books (“Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on our Sixteenth President” – with Brian Lamb, and “First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women”). Even with her renown, she was genuine, down-to-earth, warm, friendly, kind, and a charming conversationalist. As we chatted, three others eventually joined our table. We got up to select our desserts from the buffet line.
Heading to the East Room: After a while, we noted a large screen monitor nearby that showed crowds gathering in the nearby East Room in anticipation of the arrival of the President and First Lady. As we made our way down the now crowded hallway between the State Dining Room and the East Room, Susan paused to point out to me Chief of Staff John Kelly. I snapped a photo of him engaged in conversation with others.
Meeting Vice-President Pence: When we were almost to the East Room, I noticed Vice-President Mike Pence standing near the doorway talking with people gathered around him. Some were having their pictures taken with him and his wife, Karen. I asked Susan if she would take my picture with the Vice-President and handed her my phone. I waited a few minutes before I stood face to face with Mr. Pence. As I shook his hand, I introduced myself as a presidential historian and handed him my business card with my PresidentialHistory.com handle. He took my card, held it in both hands and carefully read it. He said he was very interested due to the great website name. He promised he would look at my website later. As he pocketed my business card, he then turned and introduced me to his wife, referring to her as Karen. I shook her hand and greeted her. She was gracious with a welcoming smile. While I had prepared myself for what to say to the President and First Lady should the opportunity arise, I had not similarly prepared myself for what to say to the Vice-President as I had no idea he would be at the reception.
Pictures with Pence: I then stood next to the Vice-President as Susan snapped pictures. I shook both their hands again, noting it was nice to meet them. As I retrieved my phone from Susan and thanked her, I asked if she wanted her picture taken with the Vice-President, but she politely declined noting that she had been in these settings many times.
Rigged Reception: As I entered the crowded East Room, the first thing I noticed was at least a half-dozen men wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats. This surprised me since the historians I had talked with over the last three days at the Presidential Sites Summit were universally not fans of President Trump. I also noticed that many of the people in the room didn’t appear to be from the conference. While everyone was dressed in business attire, many just looked more sophisticated than the conference attendees, and interacted with their companions as long-time friends, something not seen in the more reserved interactions of most of the conference attendees who didn’t know one another as well. It appears the President had packed the house with his supporters, perhaps worried at the response he might receive from historians who are committed to facts.
Finding a Place to Stand: I made my way to the front of the room where people were already standing five or so deep from the low front rope separating the audience from the podium on a low stage. Being tall, I could see the podium and microphone from which the President would soon speak. Next to me was a woman I had met earlier at the conference and we chatted some as the crowds quickly filled in behind us pushing us closer to those in front of us. But I didn’t recognize many of the conference attendees with the lanyard identifications.
Spotting Administration Officials: As I looked around and waited, I saw Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development a few feet away. I thought about meeting him but didn’t want to lose my place. I also saw Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President and Mr. Trump’s third and final campaign manager. I snapped a picture of her. I’m sure there must have been other members of the administration present who were not later introduced.
President Tweets as We Wait: As we waited, the President tweeted. At 6:43 pm, he tweeted the following: “CNN is being torn apart from within based on their being caught in a major lie and refusing to admit the mistake. Sloppy @carlbernstein, a man who lives in the past and thinks like a degenerate fool, making up story after story, is being laughed at all over the country! Fake News.” So many of the president’s tweets seem descriptive of himself.
The Trumps Enter: Sixteen minutes later, at 6:59 pm, a voice announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.” Trump entered from the right along with First Lady, Melania. There were lusty cheers and loud clapping, not what I would expect from a group of historians, who generally have serious concerns about the president’s conduct and disdain for facts. The President had packed the room with his supporters who yelled and whooped at his entrance. I snapped a few pictures and then about twenty or thirty seconds after Melania Trump began her opening remarks and welcoming speech, I switched to video, holding my phone high above my head and the people in front of me for the next 17 minutes. I kept switching between hands and as my arms got tired and each time I switched hands I seemed to bump someone nearby. We were packed in very tightly. No one seemed to mind though. Click here for a nice video from the First Lady’s office of her opening comments and the evening. Look carefully and you’ll see me in the video a couple of times!
All the President’s Men (and Women): At the beginning of the President’s speech, he announced and brought to the stage to stand behind him a number of dignitaries including Vice-President Pence, Dr. Ben Carson (HUD Secretary), Elaine Chao (Transportation Secretary), Betsy DeVos (Education Secretary), Mick Mulvaney (OMB Director), Steve Mnuchin (Treasury Secretary), and Robert Lighthizer (Trade Representative).
The Script and the Spontaneous: Click here to watch President Trump’s speech. Most of the speech consisted of words he read from a prepared scrip his staff had prepared, but at times he deviated from it to boast of his accomplishments. Because I want to get this blog posted quickly, I haven’t had time to analyze the speech further.
Oval Office Tour Announced: Toward the conclusion of the President’s remarks, he announced that he was opening up the West Wing and Oval Office for a tour for those in attendance. I later talked with a military aide near the Oval Office who told me in his three years at the White House, he had never seen a president ever permit a tour of the Oval Office for such a large group.
Positioning Myself: At the end of the President’s speech, the crowd began to leave the East Room. However, I noticed the President had begun to shake hands of those standing up front against the rope barrier, starting on the left side. I was closer to the right side of the room (as one faced the front). As the crowds thinned, I slowly moved forward, hoping to get close enough to the front to shake the president’s hand when he passed by. I finally reached the point where I was almost against the front rope, and clearly close enough to shake his hand.
Close but Not Close Enough: For weeks, I had contemplated what I would say to the president should the opportunity arise. As he made his way along the front row shaking hands, I debated with myself whether I would be able to say anything to him. I wasn’t in the front row exactly. I was a foot or so away from the front rope and up against the right-side rope where dignitaries were standing. But I was still close enough to reach out my hand, but not close enough to say anything that could be heard in the noisy room.
What I Would Have Said to the President: Many of you provided suggestions on what I should say to the President should I have the opportunity. Here’s what I finally settled on that morning, but of course, wasn’t able to speak these words to him: “Mr. President, I’m praying for wisdom for you to do the right thing everyday, and to embrace truth and humility. History will have the last word on your legacy, and God himself will be the final judge of your deeds. Let me know if you ever want to talk.” I later included these words in a tweet to the president.
Shaking Hands with the President and First Lady: As the President shook the hand of the person next to me and slightly in front of me, I stuck out my hand as he approached and shook his hand – the first time I’ve ever shaken the hand of a president. I waited a minute and the First Lady similarly passed by and I shook her hand. She greeted everyone with a warm smile. Both had firm handshakes, and not surprisingly, the president’s hand was fleshier than the First Lady’s slender hand, which made her handshake seem more firm than his. I was the last hand he shook in the general roped off section before he moved to the narrow five-foot space with dignitaries where he similarly shook hands with those in front by the rope. In total, he shook hands at the reception with perhaps 25 to 30 people out of a packed room of maybe 400 people.
Meeting John Tyler’s Grandson: One of the dignitaries at the reception and very close to me was the 93 year-old grandson of our 10th President John Tyler who served from 1841 to 1845 (yes, grandson, not great grandson!). Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. was in a wheelchair almost next to me. As the crowds thinned out, I introduced myself and shook his hand, surprisingly firm for almost a century of wear. Later that evening, back in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, I saw him and his daughter, Susan Tyler, again and had my picture taken with them and we were joined by Jenny Harville, the great grand-daughter of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge.
Oval Office Tour: I left the East Room and returned to the State Dining Room looking for acquaintances, but all I saw were long lines around the center table with food. I went downstairs to join the tour of the Oval Office. In the West Wing corridor leading to the Oval Office, the Secret Service had set up a long table in the middle. They announced that no cameras would be permitted in the Oval Office so everyone was required to put their cell phone on the table. I was handed a yellow post-it note on which to write my name and put it on my phone. It was an interesting sight to see a table crowded with scores of cell phones. The line moved slowly. I peered into the Cabinet Room and Roosevelt Room before reaching the Oval Office. The Oval Office, like the State Dining Room and East Room seemed much smaller than my impression from pictures I’ve seen. On this unique peek into the center of presidential power, I wanted so much to take pictures! As I exited the Oval Office into the Rose Garden, a military band was playing on the lawn.
Selling Cell Phones? I chatted with a military aide on the way back from the Rose Garden into the building about the direction to go to pick up my cell phone, and that I hoped it was still there. She joked that it was and that she was disappointed they wouldn’t let her sell any of the phones on eBay! I retrieved my cell phone from the still crowded table.
Meeting Transportation Secretary: As I was walking back, I spotted Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, standing in the hallway talking with someone. I turned to an acquaintance I was in line with and who I had met the night before at the program held at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. I asked if she would take my picture with the Secretary. When the Secretary was free, I introduced myself, gave her my business card, and then had my picture taken with her.
Parting Gift from the White House: As I was about to leave the White House, a staff member was handing out a White House medallion as a gift for those attending. Somewhat ironically, it includes the famous quote from a letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, about the newly constructed President’s House (as the White House was originally called): “I Pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and All that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.” It’s a quote that is also carved into the mantel in the State Dining Room.
Whirlwind: It was an amazing couple of hours. Once back in my room, it was hard to stop thinking about the whirlwind of my encounter with history. Of course, we are living in the midst of historical presidential times now that far exceed the scandal of Watergate or anything else this nation has experienced before. None of us living through Watergate knew how thing would turn out, and none of us know today how things will turn out with the current presidency.
Note: While this blog post is much longer than most of my posts, it seems to me that the events of August 29, 2018 warrant a more extended description.