Terrorism dims spirit of holiday in Washington

Security concerns, respect for victims inhibit party-giving

November 29, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush will be the host of holiday celebrations, but skip the over-the-top party season favored by his recent predecessors.

Vice President Dick Cheney will throw a few bashes, but cancel if the Secret Service decides to send him to an undisclosed secure location.

Tourists will see the White House decorations on television, but never in person.

The public will be allowed to attend the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, but only after passing through metal detectors.

The first holiday season for the Bush administration will be a celebration under siege. Official Washington will hold parties behind closed doors, on the other side of security cordons or against the chilling backdrop of terrorism.

As the military wages a bloody war in Afghanistan and the country continues to mourn the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration is setting the tone by promoting a festive holiday season with a veneer of solemnity.

"I don't think it will be a party every other night like it used to be," says Marlene Malek, a friend of the Bushes who recalls attending two solid weeks of White House holiday parties during the elder Bush's presidency. "Before it was just kind of a whirlwind - they'd have parties with all different kinds of people. Now that's just too dangerous to do."

`Sort of sad and quiet'

The cancellation of White House tours is the most striking example of the altered holiday.

"It's sort of sad and quiet around here without tourists," first lady Laura Bush told ABC in an interview this week.

Though the celebrations are likely to seem restrained compared with past years', the city's in-crowd will still receive coveted invitations to the Bush holiday fetes. Members of Congress and their families, White House staff and the press will be invited to open houses, White House spokespeople say, as will military and law enforcement officials.

This year, the White House party schedule is meant to be about more than punch and presidential handshakes. White House officials say the festivities are designed to project an image of life-as-usual, to urge Americans to shop and fly and pump money into the slumping economy.

Yesterday, Laura Bush posed with the White House Christmas tree, which arrived as it does every year in a horse-drawn wagon. Then she went to New York City to help Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani light the soaring tree in Rockefeller Center - plugging holiday travel to New York City in remarks to the crowd. On the National Mall, the vice president's wife, Lynne Cheney, rode in a cherry picker to the top of the 40-foot National Christmas Tree and hung its uppermost ornament - a sparkly red-white-and-blue star.

"There's an effort to have some kind of normalcy," says Noelia Rodriguez, Laura Bush's press secretary. "That's a key part of the spirit of the season, to continue living the American lifestyle."

Security checkpoints

But amid these White House-sponsored festivities, the rank-and-file public has been left on the sidelines. White House holiday tours are canceled because of safety concerns. Only VIP guests, not thousands of less well-connected Americans, will get to glimpse Laura Bush's interior decorating theme, "Home for the Holidays," which features models of the family homes of 18 presidents. She will conduct televised tours of the White House next week.

The public will gain a little more access thanks to a decision this week. The Secret Service opened the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, reversing a decision to allow only invited guests. But organizers worry that the precautions at the ceremony, which takes place Dec. 6 on the Ellipse near the White House, could prove daunting.

"This year is the same as last year and the year before - the only difference is you'll have to expect security checkpoints," says Roland McElroy, head of the nonprofit group that organizes the tree lighting. But he worries the tighter security could scare off crowds. "The other side is supposed to be hiding in caves," he frets, "not us."

Across the city, the politically connected will continue to gather for holiday networking, but with a nod to Sept. 11. Guests who have received invitations to the high-profile party thrown by Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said this year's bash will be dedicated to the memory of Barbara Olson, the GOP lawyer killed when hijackers crashed her flight into the Pentagon.

White House invitations will be as coveted as always, but such somber times make status anxiety more awkward to express. Few would expect a replay of the griping during the Reagan administration, when journalists suspected the White House had created A-list and B-list media parties after organizers spread the big media bash over two nights.

The holidays are often times that presidents use for public relations and symbolic purpose. In 1941, barely two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill lit the National Christmas Tree from the South Portico. The president, preparing the country for the long war ahead, then called for a day of prayer in a national radio broadcast. Churchill addressed Americans as "fellow workers in the cause of freedom."

Now, many Washingtonians are equating celebration of the season with a sense of patriotic duty.

"Celebrating sends a message for the nation," says McElroy, from the National Christmas Tree organization. "If we don't gather to do this, then what kind of message are we sending to the rest of the world?"

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