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My Night at the
White House

My Night at the
White House


A gay couple -- and blue state Democrats, no less -- invited to the Bush White House for a Christmas party? Advocate managing editor John Jameson recounts his and his partner's evening with George and Laura and a few hundred of their family and friends.

"We're all going!" This is my mom on December 2, typing a message to me on her TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf), reversing her position from a week earlier, when she said she'd have to decline an invitation from first lady Laura Bush to attend a Christmas reception at the White House ("It's too last-minute, and I don't have anything to wear").

(We Jamesons are related to Laura by marriage. Her uncle married my aunt, and their kids, Mary and Robert, our first cousins, not only get invited to the White House every holiday season but also spend the night there, Robert in Lincoln's bedroom. But this was the first year the Jamesons had been included.)

"Wow, that's great!" I typed back. "Be sure to take lots of pictures and store up great stories." But I was thinking, So where exactly is my invite, and why does everyone in the family seem to assume that I and my partner either couldn't or wouldn't go? Yes, we're Democrats. Yes, we live in blue state California (the rest of my family live in redder-than-red Dallas). And yes, we're gay. But I can't imagine that Laura's blanket invite for the Jamesons wouldn't cover me.

The official 2007 White House Christmas Tree

After much stewing, fuming, and venting ("Am I wrong to be pissed off?" I asked Isaac, my partner of 28 years), I decided to call my brother Jay, to whom cousin Robert had conveyed the invitation.

"You're going to shoot me," Jay said after I asked whether Isaac and I had been included. "I told Robert not to bother sending you an invite because you hate Bush and would probably throw the invitation into the trash."

"Uh, yeah, that was the wrong response," I sputtered, explaining that while I may not agree with all of Bush's policies (OK, none of them), the White House is a national landmark, much larger than its current occupant, and in any case, I certainly don't hate Laura, and exactly how many invitations to the White House does one get in one's lifetime? "Do you think you could maybe call Robert back and try to unring that bell?" I asked, exasperated.

An hour later Isaac and I were on the invitation list.

"Gates open at 5:30!" the White House social secretary voice recording chirped, as if we would be attending some reunion concert. I had just given her (it?) my and Isaac's birth dates and social security numbers -- in other words, the contents of our entire lives -- in order to attend the December 11 Christmas reception, which was scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

However, come the day of the big event, the gates didn't really open until more like 5:50, and shivering in the cold D.C. night air was not something we Southern California boys are used to. Finally the long queue of guests began to move, and before long we were being ushered through an airport-type of security screening process, sans the shoe removal. (Surprisingly, cameras and cell phones were not confiscated.) Then through another set of doors, and we were there -- in the White House!

Upon our emergence in the ground floor corridor, coats were checked, and color-coded photo passes were distributed, one per couple or family (Isaac and I politely rebuffed an eager staff member's attempt to give us two). Red, white, or blue, these passes would be used later to determine the order in which guests would have their pictures taken with George and Laura in the Diplomatic Reception Room, something that promised to be the highlight of the evening.

Isaac (left) and John with Hillary

First stop, however, was a photo op with a portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton as first lady, hanging all alone in the corridor, segregated from those of other first ladies, I'm assuming because she is the most recent former FL. Then on to the cozy Vermeil Room, where several of the other first lady portraits reside, most notably those of Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lou Henry Hoover (who?), and most breathtaking of all, Jacqueline Kennedy, who, if you're to believe the proportions of the ethereal form presented on canvas, was apparently 12 feet tall and must have had difficulty navigating some of the White House's doorways. Still, it made quite an emotional impact.

After spending a few moments in the Library across the hall, we moved upstairs to the Entrance Hall, where a nattily dressed military orchestra played appropriately festive holiday music for the duration of the reception. Spotted among the guests: first daughter Jenna Bush, looking tall and thin and Klum-like in a short red cocktail dress and not at all resembling the round-faced cherub you see on TV talk shows, and a platinum-haired Janine Turner, having relocated from Northern Exposure to her ranch in the Lone Star State, this being a party of the Bushes' Texas friends and family.

It was in the adjacent Cross Hall that lines were forming for the George and Laura photo shoot. Everywhere was a military presence, in the form of White House staff, watching over guests like mother hens and trying to round them up when it came time for the Reds, Whites, or Blues to get in line, not an easy task given the large number of visitors -- around 500, by our estimates.

First, though, a detour to the State Dining Room, where a lavish buffet spilled over with a bounty of sumptuously prepared regional foods, from lox and potato latkes to tamales to corn pudding and mini lamb chops and fresh shrimp. The dessert tables tempted as well, the highlight being the cookies in the shape of the animals that populate the country's national parks, the theme of Christmas 2007 at the White House. Also tempting but off limits: the traditional gingerbread White House, coated with a layer of white chocolate for the first time ever and weighing in over 200 pounds. It was in the State Dining Room that another unique photo op presented itself: posing with a portrait of that original Log Cabin Republican himself, Abe Lincoln.

Two doors down was the Blue Room, whose crystal chandelier had to be temporarily stored away to make room for the official White House Christmas tree, an 18-foot Fraser fir, laden with oversize ornaments hand-painted with scenes representing the country's 391 national parks, memorials, seashores, historic sites, and monuments. One could have spent hours trying to take it all in.

Once fortified with food, we were primed to get in line for the ultimate souvenir: our picture with George and Laura. We were led back downstairs to the Map Room, where we were divested of handbags, cameras, and cell phones, and names and addresses were verified.

"What is your relationship to Isaac Fast?" I was asked by a uniformed member of the White House staff. I pondered this for a second before responding, "He's my life partner." This seemed a difficult concept for him to comprehend, so after a few moments' hesitation, he jotted down "Partner" on the card that contained our information. "Partner's fine," I said, assuming this was the way we would be introduced to the first couple.

A few minutes later we found ourselves in the Diplomatic Reception Room, and I experienced that "Oh, my God, it's them!" jolt upon seeing George and Laura in the flesh. George appeared heavily made-up, apparently having come directly to the reception from a CNN interview, and Laura looked smart, tailored, and attractive in a coral satin suit, the very picture of a first lady welcoming guests to Christmas at the White House.

John (left) and Isaac with the first couple

Of our family, Mom was first up. "Oh, Aunt Doris, you made it!" Laura said to Mom, embracing her and explaining to George who she is, since I'm sure American Sign is yet another language in which he lacks fluency. (Actually, if George figured out who half the people he was posing with were, I'd be surprised. But you have to hand it to George and Laura both: They spent the entire reception on their feet, posing for hundreds and hundreds of photos.)

Next up was my brother Mike, then it was Isaac's and my turn. "John Jameson and his friend Isaac" was how we were announced to the Bushes, our military escort obviously deciding a little improvisation was called for and implementing his own form of "don't ask, don't tell" right there in the White House.

"Oh, Johnny" -- everyone in my family still calls me that -- "I don't think I've seen you in at least 15 years," Laura said to me. (Actually it had been about nine years -- at our uncle's funeral in 1998 -- but I wasn't going to quibble about a detail like that. And for Laura, the past nine years probably have felt like at least 15.) Standing next to Laura, I made a point of introducing Isaac as my partner -- my only agenda for the evening -- and she shook his hand warmly. "Ah-zik, Ah-zik," George kept saying over and over, like a child sounding out a new word.

Laura graciously suggested that Mom and Mike return for a group shot, at which point George interjected, "Ah-zik, you don't have to be in this shot, unless you want to," clearly not quite comprehending that Isaac is indeed a member of our family. Isaac assured him that he wanted to be included, and so he was.

Laura then asked about the whereabouts of my other brother, Jay, who, I pointed out, was a bit farther back in line with his wife, Susie. So Laura suggested that the rest of us wait in the adjoining China Room, where we were able to peruse the official White House china of all the presidents, so that we could be brought back out for an even larger group photo -- a most generous gesture on her part.

"It was really nice to meet you," I said to the president, shaking his hand at the conclusion of our family photo session. And I meant it. (I thought about adding, "Laura's told me so much about you," but thought better of it). It may have seemed a lame comment, but there was no way I was going to say "You're doing a great job" or "We're all behind you." But it really was nice to meet the president. And our eyes did lock for a moment, though I think I was probably as inscrutable to him as he was to me. Still, it was a human moment, and I felt, ever so briefly, that perhaps there was even a connection, at least in this cocoon of a White House Christmas.

Or maybe it was just the wine.

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