It wasn’t as dramatic as when the Salahis crashed the White House in ’09 and it didn’t result in me meeting the president or getting a reality TV program, but my time in the White House did provide quite a rush. Mrs. Chatterbox and I wanted to take our son CJ to Washington DC while he was young enough to appreciate the experience but not too old to be embarrassed hanging out with his parents. Airfare wars were prompting low prices and Mrs. Chatterbox found a hotel in DC that would honor our Entertainment Card. We made a hasty decision to go, threw clothes into a suitcase and flew off to our nation’s capital.
Back then it was possible to get tickets for White House tours from your senator or congressperson, but these had already been handed out by the time I called. So on a drizzly July morning the day after our arrival in DC I stood on the Ellipse outside of the White House, waiting at six a.m. with a thousand other tourists to procure tickets while my family slept comfortably at the hotel. They only handed out two hundred tickets, I’d learned, but I waited anyway. The drizzle turned into a light rain and people scattered like a lunatic was firing at us with an AK-47. Being from Oregon, the rain meant nothing to me. I stayed in line, and managed to get three tickets to enter the White House.
Mrs. Chatterbox and CJ arrived to claim their tickets just as we were being allowed inside. As it turned out, it wasn’t much of a tour, a few rooms on the main floor mostly but, as a painter, it was the portraits I was anxious to see. As we inched along behind a velvet cord I looked around for the portrait of Gerald Ford, painted by an artist I’ve long admired, Everett Raymond Kinstler. I managed to spot it on a wall near a corner, hidden behind a giant vase filled with flowers.
A colossal guard eyed me suspiciously as I signaled to him. Mrs. Chatterbox put her arm around CJ to keep him from being scooped up by the Secret Service when we were hauled away. I’ve given her reason to be cautious when accompanying me in public places. (Check out Gate Crashing.)
The guard approached. “What do you want?” he asked gruffly.
He was the size of a grizzly bear. I tried to show no fear. “I’ve come a long way to see the portrait of Gerald Ford,” I said. “Would you mind moving those flowers so I can see the painting?”
“You an admirer of President Ford?”
“Actually, I’m a fan of the artist who painted his portrait,” I said.
Until that moment the guard didn’t look capable of smiling, but instantly his world-weary face lit up. He lifted the velvet cord. “Follow me.”
My wife and son were slack jawed at the sight of me stooping beneath the cord and following him across the enormous East Room to the portrait of Gerald Ford. The massive guard afforded me a proper look at the painting by snatching up the enormous urn of flowers like it was a single rose in a bud vase. “This is a fine picture, all right, but do you want to see something even better, something nobody has seen yet?”
He returned the urn to its pedestal and repeated, “Follow me.”
I shadowed him through several corridors, past the soulful portrait of JFK , along with many others. We passed the entrance to the China Room where the famous portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy was holding court. We finally ended up in a room where, leaning against a wall, was a magnificent portrait of President Reagan.
“You might have seen the portrait of President Reagan unveiled here a few months ago.”
In fact, I’d read an article about it in the paper.
“Turns out Mrs. Reagan hated it. Said it wasn’t her “Ronnie” at all. She had Mr. Kinstler paint this one and it’s going to be hung next week. What do you think of it?”
This was one of the few times in my life when I was rendered speechless. But I owed him a few words for making this moment possible. “It’s fantastic,” I said. “It captures Mr. Reagan masterfully.” I shivered. “It feels like he’s standing here.”
“Yeah, that Kinstler fellow really caught the twinkle in Reagan’s eye.”
He let me study the painting for a few minutes and then we headed back to the East Room. Along the way he gave me a personal tour of the rooms we passed along the way, pointing out interesting items that had caught his eye while working at the White House. When we caught up with Mrs. Chatterbox and CJ, they were listening to a lecture on how Dolly Madison had cut George Washington’s portrait from its frame to save it when the British set the White House on fire.
I shook the guard’s hand. “You’ve made coming here an experience I’ll never forget.”
He turned to go, but stopped long enough to say, “That’s how it should be. After all, it is your house.”