Marathon of Mirth

Had enough Christmas parties yet? Bush has to host 26 of them.

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Who wouldn’t want to say humbug?

No matter how much you may enjoy your office holiday party, there’s always someone you’d like to avoid running into at the punch bowl: Bob from the seventh floor who won’t shut up about his Big Bertha Fusion golf club, or Felicia in accounting who wants to know where your expense reports are.

Imagine hosting a party for only the people you’ve always wanted to avoid. The president and the first lady will hold two such events next Thursday as they welcome the press corps into their home. They are less the hosts of these parties than their victims. The first couple will not sip at eggnog or nibble on tiny lamb chops in the state dining room. They will stand in one spot in the Blue Room, next to a Christmas tree, as hundreds of correspondents, sound people, and photographers line up to have individual photographs taken with the first couple.

During the holidays, the president is a virtual prisoner in the White House. He and his wife will perform this grueling act of cheer at 26 holiday parties between Dec. 4 and Dec. 20. There’s one for the diplomatic corps, members of Congress, the Secret Service, and top military brass. Invites also go out to political donors and allies across the country. The last evening is reserved for the White House staff—the plumbers, electricians, cooks, and butlers who hang the president’s towels when he leaves them on the bed and polish his floor. For most of that period, the Bushes will have “two-a-days,” hosting one party from 4 to 6 p.m. and a second from 7 to 9.

This year’s theme (because Jackie Kennedy insisted there must be one) sounds secular—”All Things Bright and Beautiful“—but it comes from a religious hymn. The Bush White House isn’t hiding the baby Jesus. There He is among the wise men and barnyard creatures in the 18th-century Italian crèche. Mrs. Bush calls the 18-and-a-half-foot Fraser fir from Laurel Springs, N.C., a Christmas, not a “holiday,” tree.

It takes three days to fill the public rooms with decorations. The White House florist directs a team of volunteers to drape the fireplaces with boxwood garlands, stand topiaries of lemon leaves and tangerines in the state dining room, and arrange dozens of paperwhite narcissus, amaryllis, and wreaths of pears. Few tabletops are left alone. On one sits a gingerbread White House, a tradition started by Richard Nixon, and on another squat topiaries of the White House pets, a tradition that one hopes will begin and end with Bush. The press release promoting the decor reads like Southern Living: “The color schemes of tangerine, lime green and hot pink boldly accent the traditional touches of the holiday decorations.”

The 9,500 guests will consume roughly the same menu of ham, turkey, lamb, cheeses, and gnocchi from an enormous candlelit table in the State Dining Room. The first lady’s office reports that when the last guest collects his coat, 30,000 Christmas cookies, 10,000 petit fours, 1,100 truffles, and 2,100 pounds of sweet potatoes will have disappeared. At the Hanukkah party tonight for Jewish religious and community leaders and Jewish members of the staff, there were also the traditional latkes, or potato pancakes, and a kosher buffet. The spiked eggnog is the only thing available for anyone who needs a bracer before standing in line.

The parties run with the precision and efficiency of a military parade, while making an effort to have you feel like you’re the only guest invited for the night. Smiling, uniformed military personnel appear at every turn, directing you to the coat check or staircase or bend in the hallway. They’re glowing and you almost forget that they’d pin you like a bug if you tried to scramble upstairs to the residence.

White House staffers moan about having to attend so many of these events every year, but both Republicans and Democrats start to sound like children when they look back on the party season. Bruce Reed, who served as Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser before rising to become a blogger on Slate, describes it this way: “With the giant, over-decorated tree in the Blue Room, the pastry chef’s marzipan model of the White House in the dining room, the boughs and lights twinkling in the East Room, and a Marine band playing Christmas songs on the grand piano in the foyer, visiting the White House is as magical as climbing aboard the Polar Express.”

Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan describes her first impression with the same misty nostalgia: “I was new at the White House. I walked over from the EOB, entered the White House and thought it was like walking into Santa’s playhouse—trees, garlands, sparkling stars. Everything shined and there were red velvet bows. It was a wonderland. It had everything but elves and then I saw the NSC staff in their little beards.”

Click here to find out who gets invited—and who doesn’t.