In yet another sign of America’s decline, I attended a holiday party at the White House last week where I got to meet President Obama, or “Barry” as I call him, and his dazzling 7-foot-4 wife, Michelle, who up close somehow manages to project both gracious femininity and the capacity to snap a grown-ass man in two.
As tempting as it is to say I was invited by the administration as a reward for helping Barry broker the Iran nuke deal, that would be a lie. I went as the guest of my longtime friend Peter Nicholas, a White House correspondent with The Wall Street Journal. Peter and I have had our differences through the years, like when we traveled to Iceland together in February 2002 and he falsely accused me of shortchanging him 5,000 krona (about $50) during a botched purchase of woolens. But now, thanks to Peter, I’ve met the president, if only for about six seconds, so I suppose it’s time to let it go.
And what a six seconds it was. During that compressed, super-charged span, I:
- Made Syracuse the butt of a private joke with the president. Just relax. All of us in Central New York need to put on our Big Boy pants here. When you’re meeting the president, you use what you got.
- Got the president to laugh at my Syracuse joke in a surprisingly loud and realistic-sounding way.
- Elicited a pithy rejoinder from the president, who happens to be the most powerful man on Earth, not counting Web design.
- Experienced a slight backpedaling by the president on his initial response, and thus gained insight into the mind of an ever-calculating political genius who has dedicated his life to offending the fewest number of people possible.
Oh, and the food was awesome.
Just so you have some context, this was the annual holiday party for the White House print/online reporters, each of whom gets to bring one guest. In a sense, the party is really more of a two-and-a-half-hour cease fire. The First Couple occupies the unenviable position of having to appear delighted to welcome, feed and entertain the very people who get paid to torment them on a daily basis. The journalists, on the other hand, do their best to rein in their anger and cynicism at Obama for not delivering on his promise of transparency in government. Weary of the White House’s meager diet of self-serving press releases and outright bullshit, the press corps on this night eats its fill of taxpayer-funded rack of lamb and mini-latkes, and for a few hours life is good.
“Everyone here’s a dick, but they’re funny,” chirped Julie Mason, a rising star at Sirius radio, fondly referencing her media colleagues.
As it turns out, they don’t let just anyone in here. To gain access to the White House, I first had to clear a Secret Service background check, presumably to make sure I am capable of performing fake sign language interpretation in the presence of world leaders. Thus approved, I met Peter at his office Thursday evening, and we walked the few blocks to the White House with two other reporters.
With the South Portico looming ahead, we fell into line. We needed about 20 shivery minutes to make it to the security tent, where our government IDs were checked against a list of official invites. A short distance later, the process was repeated at another enclosure. We tramped up a short flight of outdoor stairs to a third checkpoint and then up a ramp to a metal detector. We were expelled back into the cold, but this time we were inside the compound. Like, really.
We passed a rack of bikes on the right and entered the White House from the east. Young, beautiful people, many of them Marines, greeted us with a mix of warmth and watchfulness. Peter showed me a small library that was filled with what I believe were books. I really didn’t care. All I could think was, “I’m at the freakin’ White House!” Pretty good for a guy whose biggest career highlight prior to this was getting to use the phrase “Chihuahua penis” in the Syracuse New Times.
Then: a fashion catastrophe.
At the coat check, Peter removed his bulky down jacket and was horrified to discover he had forgotten to wear his suit coat underneath. There he was in the Center Hall, wearing only a white shirt and tie and, thank goodness, pants.
“I can’t go in,” he said. “I feel naked.”
This wasn’t good. If Peter couldn’t go to the party, my six seconds with the president might be in jeopardy. Happily, we were at the White House where Big Problems–keeping the government open, for example–fester, but small problems can be easily remedied. Peter spotted a Wall Street Journal colleague, Jared Favole, who is roughly Peter’s size and who had an extra sport coat stashed at the White House Press Office. A White House press aide helped retrieve the coat, and our evening was saved. In other news, the projected federal deficit in 2014 is $744 billion.
We made our way upstairs to the party on the State Floor. A Marine Corps band was playing Christmas songs. A small forest of Christmas trees twinkled. The roughly 300 scribes and guests were fed and watered at two buffet spreads freighted by such delights as quiche, smoked salmon, raw seafood, the mini-latkes and rack of lamb and fresh green beans. One buffet table was set up in the East Room, a cavernous function hall also used for major press conferences. The other was positioned in the State Dining Room, which also included a detailed gingerbread replica of the White House.
I grabbed a glass of champagne in the East Room, slurped a non-sequestered oyster and tried to act like I’d been here before. Everything was delicious, although I did find the carved turkey a bit dry.
I meandered through the Red Room, Green Room, Blue Room and Jazzberry Jam Room, hobnobbing with media elites and scattered White House staffers, and admiring the presidential portraiture. But it was the president downstairs in the receiving line that interested me most.
We’d all been given a card: red, white or blue. I had a white card. When white was called, I went back downstairs with Peter and got in a line that wove past a dessert table. Peter was handed another card, this one describing who we were, which he was to hand to the president’s innermost aides. We progressed into the historic Map Room, where FDR followed the progress of World War II. A Marine guard respectfully informed me that I would be leaving my copy of the New Times on a table.
We passed into a short passageway where a statuesque Female Military Person politely informed us that no personal photography was allowed. We moved behind a towering photography screen and then out from behind the screen, and damn if it wasn’t the president of the United States and Michelle Obama standing right there, being photographed with the people who had been in line front of us. At this point, I felt my rubber underpants filling up.
Those who have been through this mill before say there’s no way to prepare for meeting the president and first lady for the first time, and they’re right. The moment is on you like a barreling freight train and gone just as fast. There’s a lot to take in. The Obamas are large, vital-looking people who somehow don’t seem quite like you and me. When they hit you with their ray-gun smiles, it’s a little like having a cop shine a light in your eyes and ask you how much you’ve had to drink, not that I’d know. You’re looking at the light, not at whether the cop has a fleck of parsley on his teeth.
Speaking of teeth, the Obamas have a lot of them, and they’re large, too. And Michelle has a lot of hair, and that pulsing red energy field, which is actually her dress, and he’s shaking my hand, no, really, and – SHIT! – why didn’t I practice the handshake and, his hands are big, too.
The whole experience is like an episode from Star Trek where you beam down to a strange planet and are greeted by visually stunning, ultra-composed Super Aliens whose main message, delivered in a James Earl Jones-like bass, is:
Welcome to our home. We are so delighted that you have come to visit us. We like you very much. In just a few moments, you will be leaving or we will destroy you without a trace. Farewell, my good friends. It was truly a pleasure meeting you.
But that’s just the vibe. The actual interchange was far more satisfying.
“Syracuse New Times,” I said, stepping forward. “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. President.”
I shook hands with her, too. I think.
Then I moved into position for the photo next to Obama. I had no idea where the camera was, which was disconcerting and helps explain why in the photo I am wearing a loopy grin more often associated with the Syracuse Chiefs mascot Scooch.
“Why Hawaii and not Syracuse for your vacation?” I asked the leader of the free world.
Then a cool thing happened. He laughed. Not in a fake way, but in a legit, deep, comprehending way. He somehow executed this laugh-behavior without compromising his perfect posture.
“Gee, I wonder,” he deadpanned.
The flash popped.
Then he threw us a bone.
“It’s nice in the summer,” he allowed.
A Marine guard stepped forward to escort me and Peter away. Session over.
The rest of the party? Well, it was a little anticlimactic. I mean, how many times can you see the Green Room? But there you have it. I met the president and first lady. I have only one question:
Keep the Veep?
Did I mention I also attended a party at the vice president’s home and got to meet him?
What a contrast of taxpayer-funded bashes. Obviously, one earns major cred for cracking a White House social event, but when it’s time to party like a rock star with a high-ranking official of the executive branch, well-connected Washingtonians know the deal: Joe Biden’s your man.
Unlike the Obamas, Biden and his wife, Jill, live in a real house at the Naval Observatory, not in a museum. Because vice presidents under the Constitution have no legal responsibility other than to “try not to look totally psyched” when the president isn’t feeling well, their holiday parties are usually more fun. That was clearly the case here.
Celebrity sightings didn’t abound at Biden’s 9,000-square-foot manse, but there were more big names there than at the White House party. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was in the house, as were former Fed chief Alan Greenspan and his TV reporter wife Andrea Mitchell. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer managed to tear himself from the Situation Room to suss out the scene at Casa de Second Banana. Several hundred people were packed mostly into two large rooms, so mingling was mandatory. U.S. Navy band Country Current kept the mood lively.
“Jeff Kramer, Syracuse New Times,” I said as I positioned myself for my official photo with Joe and Jill.
“You’re kidding,” replied Biden, whose Syracuse connections run deep. He draped his right arm over my left shoulder. Little did I know that the chatty veep was about to hand me a scoop.
Our photo was snapped. Others waited in line behind me, but Biden didn’t seem to care. He turned toward me, an overture to gab.
“It seems to me that you have the better job,” I said.
“I do have the better job,” he beamed. “The better house, too.”
“Can you run for this again?” I asked.
“I can!” he enthused. “I’m going to talk to Hillary about that.”
That, my friends, is what’s known in the nation’s capital as breaking news.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a seismic jolt to the 2016 presidential campaign, Vice President Joe Biden hinted strongly that he won’t run for president and will instead explore the possibility of serving as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
The stunning announcement, made to a Syracuse humor columnist at the Bidens’ annual holiday party, lays the groundwork for what would be the first 16-year vice-presidency in American history.
Observers were divided as to whether the comments speak to Biden’s declining mental state or, conversely, indicate a shrewd pol at the top of his game hellbent on extending his high-profile dream job.
Personally, I suspect the latter. Whereas the president the night before affected the slightly animatronic demeanor of a shipwrecked captain in Pirates of the Caribbean, Biden worked the room like an exuberant fraternity president pulling every trick in the book to delay graduating.
The best part about the guy–and the scariest part in contemplating him as an actual president–is that he sometimes falls short in the self-control department. Lately, he has been transitioning from verbal to visual gaffes, a trend that continued here. A photo of him at this party clasping his hands around an attractive female reporter in an area that is Definitely Not Her Shoulder has gone global: CLICK HERE
Still, it’s impossible not to be charmed by this impetuous graduate of Syracuse University Law School. Later, he mingled with guests (the Obamas don’t at their party) and I found myself blocking his path.
“I’m in the way,” I demurred.
“You’re not in the way,” the vice president said. “I never mess with guys your size.”
I wasn’t sure how to hit that one back over the net.
“I used to be bigger,” I finally ventured, “but now I do everything Michelle tells me to.”
“So do I,” Biden insta-quipped. Then he flashed that huge smile, pumped my hand to signal we were done and moved on to someone else.
Merry Christmas, Joe. Somehow I suspect that won’t be a problem.
You’d think the Obama Administration has more important concerns than blocking the Syracuse New Times from running a photo of me with the president at the White House.
But the photo is for “personal use only.”
“This was a private event, and the photos are not intended for publication,” stated an email signed “The White House Photo Office.”
Alas, to see the photo, you’ll have to go to my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/jeff.kramer.583. There you’ll also find a photo of me with Joe and Jill Biden at their holiday party (see above).
Not on Facebook? Send me—your personal friend, Jeff—a personal email at firstname.lastname@example.org to request the photos. I’ll personally email them to you personally because, hey, that’s what friends do.
For all you lawyers, here’s the very merry legal disclaimer with the photo:
This photograph is provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. This photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be published, disseminated or broadcast without the written permission of the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.