White House welcome

Bush: On his first full day in office, the new president opens his new home to thousands of visitors.

January 22, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush swung open the doors of his new home, the White House, yesterday to entertain about 3,000 members of the public, a mix of mostly Republicans and a few Democrats who may have thought Bush stole the November election but shook his hand anyway.

The post-inaugural open house is a presidential tradition dating to 1829, when President Andrew Jackson invited "ordinary people" to tour the White House. That day turned ugly when rambunctious Jackson supporters broke some of the president's crystal glasses, tore down curtains and forced Jackson to spend the night in a hotel.

Yesterday's event was decidedly more civil, as Bush greeted supporters such as Houston resident Erika Emery, 6, who said she really likes the president and has named her stuffed bear "W" and her stuffed eagle - who came on the White House tour - "Bushy" in his honor.

Erika went to the White House with her sister, parents and grandparents, all of whom received tickets to the open house through a friend who works on the president's staff.

Some tickets were distributed to people with connections to the administration or the Republican Party, but about 2,200 were available to "ordinary citizens" - if "ordinary" can be used to describe people who waited in line all night in the snow for a ticket.

"We froze to death to get these tickets," said Bob Erickson, a Washington resident who arrived at the White House visitors center, three blocks from the mansion, at 2:45 a.m. Ticket in hand, he was waiting to enter the East Gate about 3 p.m. Erickson, an employee with the Internal Revenue Service, said he had a message to deliver to Bush:

"I'm gonna say, `Congratulations, but please make taxes simpler. Lower them, fine, but just make them simpler.'"

Visitors were guided through areas such as the state dining room and East Room, but saw none of the West Wing or Oval Office, which have been redecorated since former President Clinton's departure Saturday. Bush and his wife, Laura, greeted guests in a reception line, which moved relatively quickly - enough time for a brief hello and handshake, visitors said.

"I just want to remind everybody that this is not our house," Bush said. "It is the people's house."

Only the first 300 guests, most of whom were given tickets through connections, got to meet Bush and the first lady personally. Most of the others received a tour not unlike that offered by the National Park Service year round, though usually not on Sunday.

Aides said yesterday - which Bush proclaimed a "national day of prayer and thanksgiving" in an order signed Saturday - was the president's last opportunity to enjoy inaugural pomp before the policy grind begins.

Bush is expected to move on several campaign promises this week, presenting his $1.6 trillion tax-cut proposal to the Senate and proposing an education package to Congress that would include holding schools more accountable and expanding school voucher programs.

The president also will likely delve into the prickly subject of campaign finance reform. His popular rival from the Republican primary, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, may introduce his bill to limit campaign contributions as early as today. Bush and McCain have a private meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

Morning service

Fresh from his frenetic and emotional inauguration, Bush said jokingly yesterday morning that he slept "pretty well" in his new bedroom but was drained from his total 10 minutes of dancing at balls across Washington on Saturday night. After awakening yesterday, Bush greeted his parents in the White House's Queen's Bedroom and had coffee with them.

Bush also attended a morning prayer service yesterday at the National Cathedral, where the president heard the Rev. Franklin Graham say that the service "demonstrates our recognition and need for help from the Almighty."

"We affirm that we are indeed a free and independent people, but in a far more profound sense, we are a people that are dependent on almighty God," Graham said.

Clear skies and placid streets made yesterday a serene contrast to Saturday, when rain, and then ice and snow, noisy protests and swelling crowds, made Washington difficult to navigate.

The crowd of hundreds that stood outside early yesterday morning to snag some of the tickets for the presidential open house got a small break. The National Park Service opened its doors a half-hour early - at 7 a.m. - because staff felt sorry for those in the line outside.

"From a humanitarian standpoint, we had to," said Rachel K. Frantum, manager of Presidential Park, which includes the White House grounds.

Awed by visit

Jim Trakas, a Republican in the Ohio Legislature, brought his girlfriend, Valerie Esley, to the open house yesterday. She was awed before stepping inside.

"I don't know what to expect," said the financial and management consultant from Cleveland. "I'm excited just looking at it. It's the real thing. You see it on TV. You see it in books. I'm sure it's elegant. And regal."

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