Presidents: The White House
Visited in 2008.
This was written in 2008.
The greatest experiment in democracy has had 42 leaders: men of wealth, poverty, intellect, ambition, humility, egotism and charm.
For all their differences, 41 of those leaders shared a home. The White House serves as a museum, and an office, and a banquet hall. But it is undeniably a home. There have been births, deaths, weddings, romances, affairs, friends visiting from out of town and in one instance, a senior prom. Even as history plays out in the rooms all around them, even as they're making that history, the presidents are still people living lives like yours or mine. Only with better food, and servants.
Visiting the White House today, you see what is now the public side: the parlors and dining rooms and reception areas. The family quarters are off-limits, and they should be; when you're a guest in someone's home, you can't just poke around the bedrooms (and in this case, if you tried, five guys in suits would materialize and shove their knees clear through your kidneys in about a third of a second). But what an experience! The Red Room, the Green Room, the Blue Room ... each packed with two centuries of stories. To think of the dignitaries, geniuses, crooks and world-beaters (and members of the Philadelphia Phillies) that met in those rooms to rub elbows with the American presidents, at functions from state dinners down to friendly card games, is astonishing. On Tuesday, for the first time I got to enjoy the view of Lafayette Park from the south; Lincoln might have peered out at the Andrew Jackson statue each morning as he set about the business of reforging the nation. You can stand just feet away from the spot where Harry Truman was urgently sworn in, taking over for the White House's most tenured resident. I stood on the spot where President Bush will welcome the next occupants of the mansion in January in the peaceful transition that is still the envy of so many other nations. There's an intersection of public and private life in the White House that's almost impossible to comprehend.
On almost every wall, there's a portrait of one of the presidents. I've seen copies of the paintings before, in the Smithsonian or hanging in the private homes. But in the White House, I think they have an added meaning. Whether good or bad, each man has become part of the decor in the one home owned by every American. The resident of that home is surrounded every day by images of greatness and weakness; of men who conquered circumstance and men who were overwhelmed by it; of concrete reminders that presidents have the power to become a part of history, and that the American experiment will live on long after their portait is hung.