Even over here in darkened Europe, the news that because of the fiscal sequester Obama has had to stop tours of the White House for the curious rabble has come as a surprise. But are you diminished? How good were these things anyway? What have you actually lost? And how would I rate the tour?
As foreign palaces are concerned, the White House tour is a massive disappointment. For a start the whole place is far, far smaller than one might imagine, more the Presidential Bed and Breakfast, than a palace of emperors. Secondly the whole thing was entirely rebuilt in the 1950’s and it shows.
Now the small size might be expected. When it was built America was not a power, and the home of its early Presidents being laid out like a plantation owners home is not out of place. Its only when you get in that the incongruities become apparent
What struck me were the odd proportions. It is clearly a home based on American Georgian but the rooms are strange. Sort of squashed and small. The ceilings are not as high as one might expect. The furniture is squat and far more French Empire in style than Chippendale.
But first you need to get in. Well, gone are the days of the early Presidents when the average Joe would simply wander in off the street and expect to give the Pres the benefit of his opinions. Nowadays one needs to apply to one’s Congressman and just hope that your name comes up. There is a need to submit photo ID, blood type and shoe size. OK I made the last two up but even Americans bridle at the intrusion required given the limited return. If you are foreign then you need to apply through your Embassy. No guarantees. Real open and friendly like. Spur of the moment has been banished.
Way back in the halcyon days of the 80’s, I simply joined a queue and stood sweating in Washington’s summer heat waiting my turn to join a tour. Unlike today not much was being asked by way of security. Then we were marched, at a pace, though a paltry number of rooms none of which were particularly lavishly furnished. Carpets were rolled back to expose flooring and anything remotely breakable or valuable moved well out of reach. There were a few rather standard looking portraits of Presidents past. We saw a Blue room, a Red room, a Beige room, and a couple of large generic reception rooms where you peered in over a rope. There was a peculiarly shaped low ceilinged hall at the end of which, next to staircase, was a small cabinet boasting a selection of unappealing plates that the guide simply gushed over. Look, darlings, Sevres or Meissen it wasn’t. Overall there is a decided lack of bling.
Even then we were whisked through at a pace. No one was encouraged to stand and stare or drink in the history. You’ll be through in about twenty minutes flat. It simply does not stand comparison of other countries palaces, like say the Elysee or Buck House
Now I cannot gainsay the feelings of patriotism that Americans gain from the White House but on the international spectrum its somewhat wanting. Maybe they will take this break to revamp the experience.
In a city as gloriously rich in places like the Air & Space museum and the Smithsonian, or a trip round the Capital there are so many better ways to spend a morning.
Copyright David Macadam 2013