I have never really believed in the corporeal reality of the President. As a child, I knew that the President was real in theory, but it was an awfully abstract concept: a single person wielding the power to destroy the world in a small black briefcase carried by a beefy Secret Service agent was almost too much to buy. I have always felt a curious desire to personally view the President to assure myself this isn’t all some sort of bizarre collective ruse.
This is what happened today, at least at a distance, as I walked to the White House in lieu of anything better to do. I soon noticed that sweaty-looking security guards on bicycles had blocked off the motorway in front of the South Lawn and were dutifully herding tourists away from the fences that designated the safe-zone.
“What’s going on?” I asked a few people.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” the security guard said. Tourists wondered outloud. I typed “Where The Hell is the President” into my iPhone, pulled up the White House website, and discovered that Obama was due to fly back to the homestead from a jaunt to Baltimore around 4:30 PM. Intensive secrecy is, apparently, easily resolved by an iPhone.
I decided that now was my chance to resolve my life-long concerns about the physical reality of the President, as 4:30 wasn’t that far away and I really had nothing to do other than amble around in circles in front of iconic national monuments – bonus points if I avoided stepping on the lawns’ many hyperactive bees. I remained.
Watching people watch the White House is an interesting thing. There are foreigners, lots of them: people speaking in Korean, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesian, French, and Spanish, crowding around the White House and chattering to each other in excited tones about, well, whatever foreigners say about the White House. (I suspect quite a bit of it wasn’t anything good). It seems when you visit America, you need at least one picture of you making duck-face in front of the seat of world power to prove you were there.
There are the US natives, of course, who amble up to the White House with their ever-shrinking cameras, intent at taking a photo of their kid pretending to squash the Washington Monument with their hands , or of the whole family clutching each other in a somewhat forced fashion in front of the South Lawn.
The Americans stare at the White House with curiosity and with a bit of skepticism, for many: it is vacation season and certainly many people hailing from non-coastal enclaves have found themselves here, gazing at the abode of what talk-show pundits they like to listen to on their morning commute might deem a Den of Ultimate Satanic Power. The President was of course expected in a few minutes, rocking up with his briefcase and his helicopter and his very-newly passed socialist healthcare bill and his displeasingly exotic-sounding given name: what were these people thinking about this, anyway?
A fat, heavily sweating man in a trucker cap wandered by the shifting line of tourists with his equally fat children. He ignored the security line, and the guard blew on his whistle and turned him around.
“I sure wish I had a gun,” he said as he walked by me, to no one in particular.
I considered this for a moment, and then I considered ratting him out to the security guard, but by then he had waddled resolutely across the lawn and I was loathe to chase him – and I doubted he was actually headed to his pickup truck to retrieve his shotgun. I watched him go, and noticed a group of six African Muslim women wearing hijabs were a few feet away. The most disturbing commentary sometimes comes from the inside.
When exactly did it become acceptable to voice weaponized threats to the President in public, anyway? I had all kinds of horrible thoughts about Bush, but I never publicly expressed a latent desire to shoot him.
A group of youngish people had arrived and began setting up baseball diamonds. The lawn facing the White House was quickly converted into a softball practice area. People with mitts on and loosely-fitting jerseys began tossing balls to each other, as tourists waiting for the President side-stepped to avoid them. It was a very sedate scene. Maybe he wasn’t actually coming at all. Maybe all my issues with the corporeality of the President are entirely justified.
Sedate except for the constant sound of helicopters, which made all the gathered tourists snap their heads around swiftly like dogs watching a coven of squirrels when it got particularly close. Everyone who was standing outside the White House waiting for something happen was very confused about the helicopters, of which there appeared to be about three circumventing the area. Someone would shout “That’s it!”, point to the sky expectantly, and then look on in confusion as the helicopter sped away again.
“Is that it?” a little girl asked her mother, pointing at a plane preparing to land at Reagan.
“No, that’s an airplane,” her father said. “Did I just hear a helicopter?”
All this confusion was very much on purpose.
There is more than one Marine One, the POTUS’s personal helicopter. When the President arrives at the White House via helicopter, his helicopter is usually flanked by two others, which continously switch off throughout the flight so potential attackers will have absolutely no idea which the Commander in Chief is actually in. This is pleasingly referred to as the Presidential Shell Game.
Except the Presidential Shell Game was taking an awfully long time to arrive – at least 30 minutes behind schedule. Maybe they don’t arrive spot-on on time to throw off potential attackers, though I’d suspect that potential attackers would try to operate with a less fiendishly specific timeframe. Maybe they were just plain late. But it was in the 90’s outside, softballs kept whizzing past my head at uncomfortably close distances, and at least four children were whining in high, keening tones about how boring all this was. Even the gloomy, heavily-armed men on the roof of the White House had begun to pace. I decided that the issue of the President could be decided for later, and I began to walk away, continuing to keep an eye out for bees.
I got to the edge of the lawn and there it was: the Presidential Shell Game, three big helicopters coming in fast. I began to run back to the smallish area where one could actually look at the South Lawn.
The helicopters approached from roughly behind the Washington Memorial and then chugged directly over our upturned heads. Everyone began snapping pictures with their cellphones. I was reminded in the moment, somewhat bizarrely, of that scene in Apocalypse Now with “The End” and the napalm and the burning, except it was just Thursday afternoon in DC, and there were a bunch of people playing softball around.
The two flanking helicopters peeled off just as the three reached the White House, and the President’s helicopter proceeded to dance with the ground for a while. I saw what appeared to be Michelle Obama in a red dress waiting on the lawn, arms crossed. People began to descend from the helicopter, on the other side of our view, so we could only really see their lower halves. Their very lower-halves.
“Wow. I just saw some Presidential legs,” a guy with a softball mitt on said, in a bored voice. “Look at that.”
I saw two men with their blazers slung over their shoulders conversing as they left the helicopter. I’m going to operate under the assumption that they were Obama and Joe Biden. The question of Joe Biden’s reality is resolved for me, I should add: he’s actually been in the den of my boyfriend’s parents house. They had, for a time, one of his voice-mails, where he identified himself as “Joe” without the addition of a last name. A politicking Iowa friend reports that Biden, upon learning a young organizer was a mere 25, gently took her face in his hands and said: “No serious men until you’re 30.”
In other words, Joe Biden is about as close as I’ve ever come to awesome world-shifting political power. If Joe Biden indeed possesses it.
Obama? I can only say for sure that I have seen his legs, and maybe a blurry outline of his dress-shirt. I’m not sure that’s good enough. Maybe I need to go to a White House luncheon, and get my name in the paper as a crasher, in the tradition of the nouveau riche and trashy. Maybe I need to shake his hand. Maybe I need to get him to sign an autographed photo. What would I say to Barack Obama, anyway?
“Thanks for the healthcare. I’m really going to enjoy melanoma-ing with impunity.”
“I’ve got no interest in your birth certificate, though I’d love to know your favorite restaurant in Mombasa.”
“Have you ever punched a man in the face for calling you Barry? Did this happen in a bar?”
Maybe something about that article about his affinity for hogging joints – and don’t tell me you haven’t read it. That one has kept me up at night wondering. A Man of the People, indeed.
After I left the White House and had dinner with a friend, I decided to wander over to the Supreme Court, in the hope of seeing some protesters, and also to resolve the additional issue of the reality of the Supreme Court. (I have less problems with buildings).
In front of Congress, the US Army Band was playing soul staples, and really quite remarkably well. A small crowd had turned out to watch them. I had had no idea the US Military was so committed to matters of funk. I listened to them for a while and looked down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was mostly under construction. I thought: “You’d think they’d do a better job with the grass.”
I crossed behind Congress and walked into a screening of Anderson Cooper 360 with John King.
John King (who had earlier inaccurately predicted the Supreme Court verdict, and he wasn’t even looking all that embarrassed, or in fact as if he had ever contracted an emotion in his life) was reading off notes to a group of very relaxed looking producers, who had enough technology with them to successfully counter a North Korean missile. They were friendly, and told me CNN was hiring “all the time” when I said I was an underemployed journalist.
“You can walk behind the shot and make your TV debut,” a production assistant offered. I declined, but now I regret it.
The segment cut to a commercial break, and John King continued to look serious. A rather fey makeup assistant flitted up to him and busily dusted his face with makeup, then flitted away again, as John King’s face continued to show no expression. Now he was looking serious and talking about healthcare to Sanjay Gupta on a blue screen, many miles away. He used the phrase “hill of beans” twice in three sentences.
I believe that John King is real now, incidentally. How could he not be?
So, this is what Washington is like.