Posted by: bobroth | February 4, 2010

My visit to the West Wing (the building)

Uplifting and a let-down (Part II)

Four things that stand out from my tour of the West Wing of the White House on Tuesday night.

1. The Oval Office. It blew me away to actually stand in the doorway of THE OVAL OFFICE. The Center of Power for the Free World (as I was repeatedly reminded growing up). Blew me away but also, on some level, it was kind of a major let-down, because it seemed so ordinary, so normal. I mean it is the Oval Office. Wars are declared there, crises averted there… big-time action movies are made there (not there but similar to there) and potboiler books written about there. But the room is not very big, or grand, or imposing. In fact (and I hope I am not being sacrilegious here) it was just kinda there—moderately sized with a very old, wooden, intricately carved, historic desk (it has a name: “The Resolute Desk”), two yellow sofas facing each other with a coffee table in between topped by a glass bowl of tasty looking red-green apples, some chairs that probably could use reupholstering or freshening up, and cool paintings on the walls and busts of famous people on shelves.

I kept staring, amazed to see in real life what I had seen as a kid in Life magazine photos or on the tube. I also kept waiting to feel something really, really special. Peering through the doorway, I wanted to feel that I was peering into the inner sanctum of some rarified political/spiritual space. Really, I wanted to feel that. Didn’t happen. I just looked at the room, and thought, wow, this is THE OVAL OFFICE… It sure is small and well, regular.

2. The Cabinet Room. You know those scenes of the big long boardroom table in the White House with the President sitting at the center, surrounded by the vice president and all his top Cabinet members? A very imposing gathering of the nation’s most venerable think tankers. Yes, well, this room, in real life, is also surprisingly small. Nonetheless, like the Oval Office, I kept staring and staring and staring and did not want to leave, imagining all the presidents since way back when, sitting in this room. I also really liked the bust of a young, slim Benjamin Franklin by the fireplace at the far end of the room.

3. Rose Garden. It was biting cold out, so standing for even a few minutes on the Rose Garden grounds behind the West Wing was not a picnic. Plus, the Rose Garden lawn looked more like an ice-skating rink. I have seen the sight a million times since John F. Kennedy: the President strides out through the glass doors of his Oval Office towards the Rose Garden. He moves swiftly along a covered walk and down a few steps, and pulls up behind a lectern. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a head-of-state or the vice president or special guests (like Super Bowl champs). The President makes a pronouncement and then (maybe) takes some questions from the press. You have seen that scene, too? The Rose Garden. The White House. History-in-the-making. Well, again, smallish, ordinary. But it sure plays well on TV.

(I don’t know why I am hammering away at this point of small, ordinary, regular. I am not trying to be dour or negative; I am just trying to convey how I felt. I was surprised by my sentiments. It must be like when I was a little kid and everything looked so oversized, superhuman, larger than life—like when I had box seats at a S.F. Giants baseball game and I could see close-up the 22-year-old third basemen for the SF Giants, Jimmy Davenport. The 10-year-old version of me saw Jimmy as huge, godlike. Now 22-year-olds, well, you know who you are. You are like the rest of us. Just younger. Must be the same thing for the White House. I once saw it huge and grand. But now, not so much. Just real life. Better that way, I am sure.)

4. Press Room. Ahhh, my guys, members of the so-called “fourth estate.” The press— watched and listened to by billions of people worldwide—and hated and reviled by so many!  I have worked with the press for decades; some are my best friends. I was so happy poking around this room. But again (are you getting bored hearing this), it was shockingly small, even cramped, by today’s media event standards. It is a very narrow, almost squat room… The presidential lectern stands on an 8-inch high riser with the presidential seal as a backdrop. There is only enough room to squeeze in seven rows of chairs, six chairs to a row, with a truckload of cameras and video equipment for the TV networks jammed in the back. I did have a lot of fun in this room. I have participated in about a zillion (more or less) news conferences in my day, so I felt very much at home… Truth-be-told, in another imaginary life, I would get antsy sitting in Cabinet meetings, and feel too formal and restrained sitting with the head-of-state in the Oval Office… But oh, those press guys in the press room… Bring’em on!)

Three more final thoughts

1. I was very, very, very happy to have had this experience. I am a devout American democracy guy, so getting to see those rooms in the White House was like a spiritual experience… At times disappointing, but nonetheless spiritual.

2. That said, I am not convinced that Washington, D.C., houses the real bastions of power. Yes in a democracy, it is the people who rule. (Let’s not get into that discussion right now.) But there are majorly serious restrictions as to what our representatives can and cannot do. And those restrictions, I believe, come from Wall Street and from the multinational pharmaceutical, insurance, weapons, energy, and agrochemical industries. That is where the money is (the mother’s milk of politics, as they say) and that is where the control resides.

3. I love Washington. I was born here and I have lived here, off and on, for decades. I feel strong and happy and supported when I am here. But I feel that to make a real difference, to enact substantial change, it has to start in New York…

Heading back home on Friday …

Thanks for listening,



  1. “…I feel that to make a real difference, to enact substantial change, it has to start in New York.” I feel that NYC is going to be the stronghold. After all, it is the city that never sleeps.

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