Once the entertainment and gift exchange were over, the evening had formally concluded. We milled around a bit in the East Room, and then out into the entry hall again. As we were mingling, I noticed that the doors to each room had a guard in front of them, to keep us confined to the entry hall.
Against the far wall of the hall were a half-dozen of the fancy dress military aides that had been shepherding us all evening. They seemed relaxed and pleasant, as always, and were simply watching us mingle and chat. Waiters continued to pass out glasses of champagne.
Ten minutes later, when I glanced over at the aides, they had all taken a step forward from the wall, and were continuing to watch us politely. Another five or ten minutes, and they had all taken another step forward. They were very gently nudging us out the door! I mentioned it to one of the aides, and he said (pleasantly), “you’re very observant, sir.” Nothing but class.
As things were winding down, Tim Shriver saw us again, and said they were heading over to the St. Regis Hotel for drinks, why don’t we come? Sure, why not!
We walked back out through the East entrance on the ground floor. On the way out, an aide was standing in the open door to the White House movie theater, a tiny thing with 50 traditional movie theater seats, and four special armchairs at the front.
Another aide manned a table full of rolled posters from the Special Olympics. There was something kind of incongruous about everyone in their finery carrying poster tubes out of the White House.
So we headed outside to walk a few blocks north to the St. Regis Hotel. The walk was surreal in and of itself. Here we were in a tux and an evening gown, in a group of ten or so, similarly dressed, strolling through the park on a warm summer’s evening. Susan’s shoes were not made for walking, and she ended up with a blister which persists still, now named The White House Blister.
At the St. Regis, the small bar was basically filled with guests from the dinner. Tables were pushed together in the center of the room, and everyone sat down wherever and just started chatting. Again, I was really surprised how friendly everyone was, and how much they seemed genuinely interested in who we were, why we were there, and so on. It really felt like being included in a family gathering.
In a corner of the bar were a couple who were clearly a little stunned that the room had suddenly filled up with people in black-tie evening wear, and they could see that a few of them were recognizable celebrities. I went over and chatted with them, and they were having a great time just watching the whole party. I pointed out Vanessa Williams to the woman, and she said how she really wanted to meet her. I suggested she simply walk up, tap her on the shoulder, and say, “Ms. Williams, I just wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for Special Olympics.” So that’s what she did. She seemed kind of surprised that it worked!
A few boisterous toasts were offered, to the athletes, to Tim Shriver, by the athletes, etc. In a lot of ways, it was no different than any other party in a bar. Except there was Maria Shriver, and there was Scott Hamilton, and there was Vanessa Williams. Bizarre, though by that time, it somehow just seemed like regular for the evening. Bizarre!
At one point, I stood up to get a drink, and Maria Shriver said to me, “Are you getting up? Can you get me a Coke?” Sure, Maria, I’ll get you a Coke, why not?
By midnight, we were pretty beat, and we had to admit that the evening had to end somehow. We took a taxi back to our hotel, still shaking our heads that something like this had really happened to us.
The next day we did a little sight-seeing on The Mall, flew back to Boston, and re-joined the real world.
There’s too much to squeeze into a linear narrative, so here are some odds and ends.
Susan has the full text of Eunice Shriver’s speech.
In retrospect, one of the odd things about the evening is how mundane my conversations were with these famous people. Here are essentially the entirety of my exchanges with a few people:
- Me to George Bush: “Can I take your picture?”
- George Bush to me: “Let’s eat!”
- Me to Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Let me take one of all three of you.”
- Maria Shriver to me: “Can you get me a coke?”
Of course there were also longer genuine conversations with many people. With the famous though, I only exchanged a few words. It seems the importance of the words were inversely proportional to the fame of the person!
Before we went, there was debate among the more radical of our friends about whether to attend. Some felt that we should not honor this President with our presence. We never considered not going. We were being asked to honor Eunice Shriver and the Special Olympics, and why wouldn’t we do that? Besides, it would be a heck of a party.
One friend said, “I wouldn’t go to the Bush White House if they were honoring me!” It turns out he is not alone. By coincidence, on the same day we were there, in the same East Room of the White House, Laura Bush was hosting the National Design Awards. Five honorees declined the honor and the invitation, sparking a debate among the design community about the proper political stance in a good/bad situation like this.
Since coming back, I’ve read a bit about the White House itself. As a mansion, working office, and public building, it is fascinating. Most people don’t know that most of it is only 60 years old. In 1949, a three-year major reconstruction began which gutted the entire building, and rebuilt it using modern materials and techniques, but made to look exactly as it had been.
Here is a collection of photos of the rebuilding. It’s astonishing to see the White House completed emptied of structure on the inside, a shell with a dirt floor and five stories of empty space. BTW: These are the best photos I could find of the renovation, but the site would win an award for worst photo presentations on the web.
Susan wrote her side of things: House Call, better than I could.
Here are some other stories about the event:
- Going the Distance, about Mrs. Shriver and the evening, from the Washington Post.
- Special Olympics and Eunice Kennedy Shriver Honored at White House, from the Special Olympics website.
- Tim Shriver Discusses His Mother, Eunice Shriver, and the Special Olympics, an interview with Tim Shriver from the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
There are dozens of little details I’ve left out here, and sadly, probably dozens more I’ve already forgotten.
It was a really special time, made all the more so by having my lovely and talented wife by my side. It’s amazing to be invited to the White House, and even more amazing to have been invited not because we are famous, rich, or powerful, but because she is really good at putting her thoughts into words.
As before, all the photos from the adventure are on Tabblo: