Due to the sequester, or the self-imposed automatic budget cuts that took effect in Washington in March 2013, the Obama Administration announced that as of March 9, public tours of the White House are indefinitely cancelled until further notice. In this story, a father finds himself in the middle of three generations as we learn the role that the said public tours have taken in his family.
“You Never Know With These Things”
Back in the Reagan years my dad took me to tour the White House. I was young, about ten.
“I went in the 50’s, and it’s proper you go now in the 80’s,” he said. “The White House is a thing of pride. Pray we’ll get in or you might never see it. You never know with these things.” His generation was obsessed with imminent doom. Maybe it was the Cold War.
He repeated this gloom every night for the two months prior to our visit. “You never know with these things, so pray hard tonight,” he’d say.
At that time touring was a first-come first-serve basis. Although he scared me every night into thinking we wouldn’t get in, he scheduled three days in the city for the sole purpose of touring it. I hardly remember the tour itself, but I still feel the fear I had of not seeing it, and the disappointment it would bring me if we got rejected at the door. I remember linking it at the time to Dorothy getting a big no at the door of Oz.
“Thousands go in, thousands stay out. Pray we’ll see it this time,” he would say. Every time the House came out on TV it looked more mysterious.
I remember the car ride down for its brevity and excitement. We lived in Harrisburg, PA about three hours north of DC. We stayed the night in a hotel and saw it the next morning. I don’t remember much, but I have pictures of us standing outside, in line.
I’m 40 now and have a daughter, Amelia. My dad’s still around. Over the years he has asked me when am I taking the girl. “It’s a family tradition, and the thing might close down. You never know with these things,” he says.
Back after 9/11 it did close down. But I didn’t have a Amelia yet so he didn’t get on me for not acting. But as soon as she was born in 2005 and was then able to walk, he’s been on it, mostly because he wants to take her. He wants a picture.
The process is more complicated now. I finally put in a request in December 2012 with our congressman here in California to make room for us over there at the House. They have you send your personal information for background checks, and you need to start the process well in advance. This was my Christmas gift to my dad, an envelope with a note. In the note I wrote, “Thousands go in, thousands stay out. We’re going in.”
We finally got notice in late January about our clearance to go and our touring dates—in late March. It couldn’t come at a more perfect time, right by Spring break, so I purchased us some tickets–my wife, myself, Amelia and dad.
As you can imagine, for the last two months since the holidays my dad has been telling my daughter to ‘pray we’ll get in,’ or that otherwise she might never see it. You never know with these things, he tells her, and she comes to me to ask what I think. I joke along and tell her it’s going to be close and that she should pray.
My daughter has since prayed nightly about it, and every time Obama comes on TV she gets excited.
“Are we going to meet the President?” she asks me frequently. She also wants to meet his daughters.
But today at work I found out the tours have been cancelled by the White House. They released a letter stating, “Due to staffing reductions resulting from sequestration, we regret to inform you that White House Tours will be canceled effective Saturday, March 9, 2013 until further notice. Unfortunately, we will not be able to reschedule affected tours.”
Our vacation was for late March. I remembered that fear, the rejection at the door, and recognized the accomplice I’d been in creating the same fantasies and fears in Amelia. I wasn’t sure if my dad knew about the news or not by the time I got home. I found him sitting at the dinner table with my daughter. I realized that her feet were flat on the ground and not dangling.
There was little doubt left in me after Amelia asked, “Grandpa says we’ve been sequestered. What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure what he means,” I said. I looked at my dad, and he had a heavy face, as if the news had been hanging on his cheek bones all afternoon. His Cold War had come. “What else did he say?”
“He says our chances of seeing the White House are going down. I said he has to pray or he might not see it.”
“Tell the girl,” my dad said. I sat down. We were now three generations covering three sides of the table, all with our feet grounded and with their four eyes coming back at me.
“Amelia, what your grandpa is talking about is that the White House has put a pause to the visits for now. We are not going to be able to see the inside of the House, or be able to meet the President. But I haven’t cancelled our plane tickets, and we are still going to be there. That’s not changing. The truth is, grandpa was right, I guess. You never know with these things.” I looked at him. In his stare I saw that time had caught up with his games, and his unrealized doom was misplaced suddenly in an unexpected century. “We will go,” I said, more to him than to her.
“It’s okay,” Amelia said. “I was scared I wouldn’t see it so I saw it on the computer. I showed it to grandpa.”
“She took me on a virtual tour of the White House,” my dad said. “We saw everything. She told me she stopped praying long ago.”
“Is that right Amelia? Didn’t you want to see it in person?”
“You never know with these things, daddy. Why wait?”
Published March 12, 2013. White House image (without the “X”) courtesy of Francisco Diez