Two or three months ago I received a call from a friend asking if I would like to attend the White House Hannukah reception. It sounded swell, but I forgot about it until I received an envelope with the White House as the return address. Thinking it was junk mail, I almost threw it out, until I noticed that my name and address on the envelope were handwritten. Inside was the invitation to the White House Hannukah reception held yesterday evening.
We arrived as instructed a half hour early and stood in line outside the White House to go through security at the East entrance. Immediately ahead of us in line were the principal of a Jewish day school in Hollywood, Florida and his wife. Immediately behind us in line were the prominent Washington attorney Ben Ginsberg and his lovely wife Joanne. (Ginsberg is mentioned in today’s interesting Washington Post profile of Karl Rove’s Plamegate attorney: “The liberal on Karl Rove’s case.”)
Upon admission to the White House we were given a card with our names and address and directed where to stand in line to have a photograph taken with the president and Mrs. Bush. That took a load off our minds! We’d been worrying that issue to death over the past few weeks.
We stood in a long line that snaked through two rooms before we entered the room in which President and Mrs. Bush were having photographs taken. While waiting in the outer hallway outside the first of these rooms, Karl Rove was greeting visitors and shaking hands. He seemed untroubled and ebullient. I introduced myself and told him I was awaiting further instructions from him for the Rathergate counterattack. He laughed and said we needed to establish more direct communication. (Please don’t tell Mary Mapes.)
Even walking down the first floor hallway was an emotional experience. It is lined with magnificent, striking portraits of presidents including Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, of several first ladies including Hillary Clinton (it is a beautiful portrait), and a large bust of Abraham Lincoln. One could easily deduce that not all those in attendance were Republicans; I saw one woman standing next to the portrait of Hillary Clinton to have her photograph taken.
After about 15 minutes in line we finally entered the room where President and Mrs. Bush were patiently standing for photographs with each of the approximately 150 couples (my wild guess) in attendance. They were smiling and at ease. Guests were escorted to President and Mrs. Bush by Marines in dress uniforms, and each couple was in turn announced by the Marine to the president. The Marine asked questions to determine if we observed Jewish law regarding touching between the sexes and instructed us where to stand (me next to Mrs. Bush, Mrs. Trunk next to the president).
Both President and Mrs. Bush greeted us like old friends. We both expressed our admiration and thanked him for his service. Mrs. Trunk told him he was her hero. “Thank you for saying that,” he said. Mrs. Bush and I exchanged remarks about our mutual friend Rudy Boschwitz.
We then went upstairs to the reception. At the top of the stairs the Marine band (I think) was playing. In another alcove, West Point cadets were singing Hannukah songs. The atmosphere was festive and happy.
At either end of the second floor were rooms where food was set out buffet-style. It was a meat dinner, fully kosher and prepared under rabbinical supervision. We were told that the fully kosher meal was a White House first, at least insofar as the Hannukah reception goes.
We ran into my friend Rabbi Joshua Borenstein, finance director of Torah Academy in St. Louis Park, just outside Minneapolis. Joshua conveyed great emotion in noting the hospitality and respect accorded to observant guests, of whom there were many. Joshua had also attended a one-hour off-the-record meeting held by President Bush in the Roosevelt Room with fourteen Jewish educators from around the country that afternoon. Among the issues discussed were Israel, Iran, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Joshua also conveyed great emotion in giving us the sense of the president’s assurances at the meeting.
Also in attendance at the reception were Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who graciously posed with guests asking to take photographs with him, and former Claremont Instititute Publius Fellow Tevi Troy, now deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy.
We visited each of the open rooms in the East Wing on the first and second floors at least twice each and then lingered in the second floor hallway, chatting with Joshua and his friends from around the country. We wanted to take it all in and remember every detail; we didn’t want to leave. As we walked past the band and down the stairs, the band was playing “I Could Have Danced All Night.” I felt like I had never understood that song until that moment.
JOHN adds: Great report, Scott. All I can say is, it’s a good thing you didn’t throw that invitation away. I’m not sure Sally would ever have forgiven you!
PAUL adds: I must have thrown my invitation away.