Saturday, May 23, 2009

Researching the White House

Please welcome guest, Julie Hyzy, author of the White House Chef mystery series. The first in the series, State of the Onion, has been nominated for an Anthony award.
by Julie

I fell in love with the White House during my first visit there in 1985. Back then it was ridiculously easy to get a tour. All you had to do was line up outside the gate on the east side and wait for your turn. There were, of course, plenty of guards on hand to make sure no one touched a priceless artifact, or attempted to slide down banisters, but by and large, visitors were allowed to freely roam the public rooms.

Flash forward to 2006 as I began to research my White House Chef mystery series. All I can say is—thank goodness I’m a chatterbox! Yakking with one of my girlfriends one day, I mentioned my planned trip to Washington. She asked how I’d managed to arrange the White House visit now that the rules had changed. Whoa! What was wrong with me? After all the security changes across the country in the wake of 9/11, it had never occurred to me that I might have to jump through hoops in order to visit the president’s home. I had planned to show up at the gate—just like in 1985—and be allowed in. Boy, was I wrong.

Fortunately for me, the trip was still several months off, giving me plenty of time to contact my congresswoman, Judy Biggert, to request a tour. Her office needed a few things from me—my current name, maiden name, birth date, social security number, and custody of my first-born child. (Just kidding about that last one.) Once I was cleared, Congresswoman Biggert’s assistant (she was wonderful!) scheduled my tours of the White House and Congress.

Shortly thereafter, I received a package detailing my itinerary -- telling me exactly what time to report at the White House visitors’ gate, and listing all that I could, and could not, bring with me. I was required to produce a photo ID, of course. But other than the clothes I chose to wear that day, I wasn’t allowed to bring anything in. No camera, no paper, no pen, no pencil. Worst of all—no purse! I feel positively naked without a purse.

The big day finally arrived and I took the Metro from Malice Domestic (purse-less!) and stood outside the White House, awed by the beauty of the mansion, and startled by the sight of black-clad snipers pacing the rooftop. I checked in at the visitor’s gate and was ushered into a large—for lack of a better term—double-wide trailer. In it were all the metal-detecting devices I expected to encounter, and lots of uniformed officers. I kept eyeing the other women going through the scanners, thinking maybe I was the only one who had been advised to leave my cavernous security blanket at home—but nope. Not one person carried so much as a clutch. If it weren’t for pockets, I don’t know what I would have done. Once through security it was a short trip to the east entrance doors, where the tour began.

At that point, I was surprised to be almost as unsupervised as we had been in 1985. Secret service personnel were everywhere, cheerfully answering touristy questions, but allowing visitors to take the tour at their own pace. There were fewer rooms to visit, however. This time we were not allowed in the State Dining or Family Dining rooms, and we weren’t allowed past the velvet ropes on the lower level. Too bad. That’s where the main kitchen is located.

Still, it was a wonderful experience. History and majesty combine at the White House to make visits there memorable. I can’t wait to go back. And here’s the good news: I have a friend who may be able to arrange a return trip one of these days (fingers crossed!). If so, that tour will be different yet again. My friend hopes to get me special clearance to see all the White House kitchens and to be able to actually chitchat with the chefs personally. I’ve already provided my names, dates, and serial numbers. Now I’m just waiting for the call.

And this time, I’m hoping they’ll let me bring a purse.