White House tour unlocks the secrets of the West Wing [Commentary]

I am here to report that the White House Oval Office is not an abstraction. It's a real place. And that President Obama keeps a bowl of fresh apples on the coffee table for guests to partake of. By the way, the room is not nearly as spacious or as grandiose as I had originally thought. And the hallways at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are narrow enough to leave visitors, this one included, with a touch of claustrophobia.

How can you trust me of all people? Allow me to boast for a minute. I was part of a private tour of the West Wing of the executive mansion. We were invited by one of the English teachers at the high school where I work, whose husband works there. He's living proof that good things can happen when you work hard on a presidential campaign!.

For the record, it was President Taft who set up an oval office in the old Executive Office Building next door, while Teddy Roosevelt's original "temporary" office was getting a facelift. Before that, most presidents used what is today the Lincoln bedroom as their formal work space. It was FDR who later enlarged the West Wing and moved the Oval Office to its present spot, making it easier for him to get in and out of his wheelchair. While presidents can decorate the iconic room to their liking, the Oval Office has changed little since 1934.

There are some things in life that fall way under your radar. Seeing the West Wing was one of them. You're conditioned not to waste time penciling them in on your bucket list.

During our tour, from the entrance, we were privileged to glimpse the blacked out windows to the situation room. Remember that photo of Obama and all his aides, eyes riveted on the TV screen as the Navy Seals stormed Osama bin Laden's compound? They were huddled there, our tour guide said. "It was built after the Bay of Pigs," he explained, so that "JFK could have 24-hour communication with the Defense Department, CIA" and other intel agencies.

Next up, a look into the White House mess, which is overseen by the Navy. Its rich mahogany wood paneling and fresh flowers on each table belie its yucky name. "You have to be a certain rank to eat there," the guide said, "like an officer or a cabinet member. Someone like me can call and order carry out from the window."  I asked if he saw Obama much. "I work on the second floor," he offered. "The president's movements are pretty quick."

As fascinating as seeing the Oval Office was, getting into the press briefing room was also a thrill. As a reporter, my interest grew as we saw the chairs populated by members of the media who work there on a daily basis. I asked where Helen Thomas, the late grand dame of the White House press corps, sat. I lowered myself into her movie-theater-style seat. Not so comfy, I thought, obviously because she was always springing to her feet shouting another question. We were permitted to get close to the stage where the press secretary speaks, but not to snoop around behind the podium. The room's named for James S. Brady, Reagan's press secretary who was critically injured during the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan's life. I thought about the day I ran into Brady at Gayer's Saddlery on Main Street. Riding horses, Brady told me, was an important part of his therapy. 

Outside, on the northwest side of the grounds, we spied a series of white tents. Known as "Pebble Beach," it's a base for TV reporters and their equipment. From that angle, they do their stand-up reports using the North Portico as a familiar backdrop.

When the one-hour tour was over, I walked through Lafayette Park, past a protester holding a sign that read "Ban All Nuclear Weapons Or Have a Nice Doomsday." I thought about how the Oval Office was where LBJ crafted his Great Society and where Nixon held meetings to try and stonewall the Watergate caper.  

 And how a 21-year-old intern named Lewinsky had a close encounter with the leader of the free world.

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