The day I went to the White House for the first time

When championship teams venture to the White House to meet the president, they always show clips on “SportsCenter” of the prez shaking hands with the captains, holding up a cheesy jersey, smiling happily and making a good-natured comment or joke. It’s always the same clip, isn’t it? Only the players and jerseys seem to change.

Well, I attended one of these gigs. President Bush welcomed seven NCAA championship teams to the White House, the room was filled with several hundred people … and I was there. In the East Wing of the White House. Jotting down notes like crazy.

So how did I get there? I was still in the military and my boss spent about a week trying to sneak me on the media list, a complicated process which even included the White House running a security check on me. Thank God, they never found out about that drifter I killed back in ’75. LOL

Once I passed the background check, they directed me to the White House press entrance at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Getting there, you notice five things right away:

The streets surrounding the building are blocked off by police barricades; once you come within a block, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing another policeman. There’s a serious, weighty vibe in the air, as well there should be. Even at the press entrance, even after you’ve passed a security clearance, you still have to walk through three different gates and pass through an elaborate metal detector. People aren’t messing around at the White House.

When you finally get a good look at the White House, there’s obviously only one initial reaction: “Hey, it’s the place where Monica Lewinsky broke out her presidential kneepads!” Proud day for this country. Good times.

Like just about everything else, I discovered that the actual building isn’t nearly as big as I was led to believe. It’s like when you see a famous actor in person, and they’re always 5-foot-7 or shorter (unless they’re Liam Neeson, Will Smith or Jeff Goldblum), and it’s just utterly dumbfounding. That’s what looking at the White House is like. From the outside, it seems like your average gigantic house on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, Conn.

The decorated people walking around the premises (mostly from the Air Force and Marines) have tons of colored flag-thingies on their jackets. What are those called? I can’t remember. But you know what I mean. You’ve never seen more colored flag-thingies on one jacket in your life.

Around 3, we were finally shepherded into the East Wing of the first floor of the White House, so everyone could position themselves for the 3:30 ceremony (originally this was supposed to take place outside, but bad weather intervened). Now we’re getting somewhere. When you walk through the front door of the White House, with a band (from the University of Maryland) playing fight songs in the background, with those famous portraits of various presidents in the main lobby (including the classic of JFK glancing down), with that “Hey, I’m in the White House!” feeling trickling through your veins, it’s a pretty electric experience. I felt like Kevin Kline heading into the White House at the beginning of “Dave.”

Inside the assigned room on the East Wing — a giant, museum-like, ballroom-sized room filled with classic paintings — 350-400 people were packed like sardines, included assorted media, invited guests, parents, relatives and members of seven different NCAA championship teams (only the captains were allowed up front).

Too bad Clinton still wasn’t president for this one reaction? Wouldn’t that have been FEEEEEE-nomenal? Imagine Clinton sidling up to the Stanford volleyball captains with that grin that said, And what hotel are YOU staying at? Was there anything funnier in the history of politics than Bill Clinton trying to rein himself in around an attractive female? Man, I miss that guy.

Anyway, standing on the makeshift stage, the captains were holding those requisite team jerseys that said “BUSH 1” on the back (apparently they have to turn these jerseys in the previous day to the Secret Service, who screen and inspect them for God knows what). And everyone was standing around, and waiting, and waiting, and about 25 minutes passed, and you could actually feel the tension building. It was palpable. It almost felt like those glorious moments right before the lights dim in a stadium and a rock band comes out. Finally, the P.A. announcer said: “Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States.”

And then … there he was: The leader of the free world. What a life. Every time he walks into a room, people applaud like crazy and fawn all over him … then he goes to his next venue, and it happens all over again. How can you top that after you leave the office? You can’t. I’d end up hiring a 40-person posse to follow me around and lavish me with applause at all times. But that’s just me.

Like most celebrities, Bush seemed much smaller in person — maybe about 5-foot-9 soaking wet, much frailer than you would think. He seemed like a nice enough guy, definitely someone who would kick back with you at a wedding and give you his last cigar. He just wasn’t that presidential.

For instance, Clinton apparently could command a room just by walking into it; Bush wasn’t like that at all. I’ve been in the same room with two people who were literally larger than life — Will Smith and Michael Jordan (although Moochie Norris comes pretty damn close) — and the Dubya Experience wasn’t remotely like that. He just seemed like a genuinely warm, genuinely nice guy. Maybe that’s a good thing.

After the applause subsided, ESPN’s Chris Fowler introduced the teams on hand before finally turning things over to Bush. The Prez cracked a quick joke about the extended intro (“I like a good, short introduction”) as everyone over-laughed because, well, he’s the President. Then he started talking extemporaneously, which is always scary because, well, he’s George W. Bush. That has been one of the more interesting subplots of 9/11, the fact that we can’t make fun of Bush’s public speaking anymore — we just have to stand there, smile through thinly clenched teeth and hope he makes it through the speech. Usually, he does. And on this day, he did.

It actually wasn’t a bad little speech. Bush brought up the “Champion” theme and tied it to America’s responsibilities as the leader of the free world, dropping nuggets like, “We defend freedom, we continue to defend freedom” and “You have a responsibility as a champion to set an example for others.” Bush has uttered these same words a million different ways over the past six months, but still, we ate it up. Something about hearing it in person makes it feel 10 times more powerful.

Expect a few cheesy scenes when the president greets a championship team.

After finishing his speech, the Prez called the captains up; they made small-talk with him, did the jersey exchange and posed for photos. Maybe the highlight was seeing one of football captains — wearing a Masters-green three-piece suit right out of the Big Boi collection, dreadlocks flowing off the back of his head — handing the President a football jersey. That killed me for some reason.

And then it was over. The President gathered up the jerseys, thanked everyone for coming and walked back across the room to thunderous applause. The whole thing lasted less than 20 minutes. With the schedule Bush carries, he’ll probably forget it even happened within two weeks.

But hey … I won’t forget. I went to the White House.

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