The following column is reposted from the Sunday, Dec. 16 issue of The Courier-Times of New Castle, Indiana. Part II appears in tomorrow's issue and I will repost as well after it is printed.
By Donna Cronk
WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Tom and Sue Saunders of Lewisville planned a historic group Christmas tour of Washington, D.C. and key Virginia sites, Brian and I wanted to join the fun and included our pals, Tom and Char Kuhn.
Among the 120 Hoosiers who filled two charter buses earlier this month were a number of Henry County residents, ready for adventures that included visits to the homes of four U.S. presidents, including the White House; attending an evening production of A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre; a talk and book signing by Jackie Kennedy’s White House personal secretary; a tour inside Vice President Mike Pence’s ceremonial office – and – a surprise appearance by him.
Apparently December is a great time to visit these historical sites because there were no huge crowds nor long lines. But then, these cities know how to handle tourists, along with the fact that Tom and Sue have coordinated historical-themed tours for years and are adept at securing advance tickets as well as one-of-a-kind surprises.
The top surprise came after the group filed into the gorgeous Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the Vice President’s ceremonial office is located. It was the day of late President George H.W. Bush’s funeral in Houston and many or even most among us speculated that Pence was in Texas.
Shortly after spotting (and Brian speaking to) Indiana University graduate and billionaire Mark Cuban outside the building, we cleared security and walked down the hallway, passing such offices as the National Security Council. We were escorted into a conference room where we listened to Hoosiers with federal jobs talk about their work.
As one of them fielded a question from a Noblesville junior-high student, a collective murmur swept through our group. I looked up to see Pence strolling into the room. Many burst into applause and stood to greet the Vice President.
He seemed touched and delighted to recognize many familiar faces and appeared happy to share comments about his job. I had no notebook in which to cover his remarks. We had come from a White House tour where we were unable to take bags of any kind.
Pence spent a relaxed half an hour with his Hoosier guests, inviting folks to ask whatever they wanted about his job or family. He was asked about wife, Karen, and he said she is doing very well, as is the rest of his immediate family.
He said that daily, President Donald Trump gets up, asking him what they are going to accomplish that day. The Vice President was told by one in the group that she has campaigned for him in all his elections and wonders if there will be another chance to do so, alluding to the office of President. Pence didn’t commit, but said he’ll see what happens after the next six years.
Although I was there as a tourist, not as a news reporter, I felt unrestrained in moving about the room looking for photo opportunities and despite Secret Service there, was able to freely approach, shake hands with and speak to Pence.
Once he left, the group was able to continue this unique experience by visiting his ceremonial office, and get photos taken behind his desk upon which personal memorabilia was neatly arranged. We walked around the room and onto his private balcony with the White House within shouting distance, gaining an interesting perspective.
The People’s House at Christmas
Earlier in the day, we went through several security checks, just as we did at the Eisenhower Building, to make our way inside The White House to see the home of every U.S. President minus George Washington, adorned for the season. We walked among the forest of red-berried trees in a breezeway-type area adjoining the White House and examined the elaborately festooned 57 real evergreens that hail from throughout the nation.
Touring the White House’s first-floor public rooms is self-guided but, Secret Service personnel are stationed in each room, prepared to answer questions. Guests may take as long they wish examining the home and decor, as well as taking photos, but once they leave, they are unable to re-enter.
The China Room sported a special display of china, glassware and vermeil table settings selected from three state dinners hosted by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt in 1901; John Kennedy in 1961 and Donald Trump this year.
The East Room is the top entertainment space at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Room theme is the nation’s architecture and design as shown in mantelpieces and on the 14-foot Noble fir trees. The Green Room includes American-grown produce throughout its decor and features a portrait of Indiana’s only U.S. President, Benjamin Harrison.
The official White House Christmas tree, a soaring 18-feet-high Fraser fir, centers the Blue Room. This is the tree that received horse-drawn-carriage delivery to the First Family. Blue-velvet ribbons spell out each state and territory name, hand-blown glass ornaments cover the tree and gold accents everything, matching the room’s permanent furnishings.
The Red Room is decorated to highlight various ways that children may excel in their own ways. The decor includes influences of First Lady Melania Trump’s BE BEST initiative.
The State Dining Room sparkles with an abundance of national symbols as the theme. Guests are encouraged to look for such symbols as bald eagles, bison, roses and oak leaves. This is also where the annual gingerbread house is displayed – incorporating a cityscape of Washington, D.C. into its 225 pounds of gingerbread dough, 110 pounds of pastillage dough, 25 pounds of chocolate and 20 pounds of royal icing.
In the Grand Foyer and Cross Hall, an assortment of lit trees are adorned simply in white lights and red Christmas balls. Presidential and First Lady portraits abound in The People’s House, with a special place of prominence for the black-draped portrait of President George H.W. Bush, who was laid to rest in Houston the day we visited.‘
A Christmas Carol’ in Ford’s Theatre
If direct contact with a U.S. Vice President and a tour of the Presidential mansion are not enough for one day, there was more: taking in A Christmas Carol in Ford’s Theatre. The performance was brilliantly done, just as good in my humble opinion as the Broadway show we caught earlier this year (the Broadway show, by the way, was considerably pricier).
As we viewed the performance, which featured interesting special effects, including flying, I found myself looking often toward the presidential box, adorned as it was that fateful night of April 14, 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated there by actor John Wilkes Booth who then jumped onto the stage where a play was being performed.
Although I fought nodding off in the dark, warm theatre due to getting up before 5 a.m. that day and fitting in so much, I couldn’t get enough of the experience of being in that historic setting.
Up on the hill
Friday we headed to Capitol Hill where we toured our nation’s Capitol, then lunched at the Capitol Hill Club. Much of the group then went to Georgetown to visit some key Kennedy sites and shops.
Our foursome, however, decided this was our chance to experience the most-wanted-to-do list item on our friend Tom’s bucket list: a trip to the National Archives to view The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, among other priceless documents.
It proved an ideal afternoon to do so with no waiting in line. We spent the evening on a tour of top outdoor monuments along with the National Mall Christmas tree.
Off to Mount Vernon, by George
The next day we enjoyed our breakfast in The Mayflower Hotel, then boarded the bus for yet another treat: a trip to George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, in Virginia where we toured the home he and Martha shared, and our group got to lay a wreath at their tombs, evident on the property.
The house tour did not disappoint as we learned about the Washingtons’ lives on the estate, and heard interesting commentary such as that green was a popular color to paint rooms of the day as it represented wealth – a color still evidenced today in paper money.
Life with Jackie Kennedy
Then it was on to a buffet at the Mt. Vernon Inn where we were joined by author Mary Barelli Gallagher, who was a secretary to John Fitzgerald Kennedy and then the personal White House secretary to First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Donna Cronk photo // Indiana State Rep. and friend Tom Saunders, left, with Mary Gallagher at the Mount Vernon Inn where we had lunch and Mary, age 91, spoke and had a book signing. She was a personal secretary for first. JFK, then Jackie Kennedy in the White House. Her book is a fascinating insider's look inside that period of time with the family.
At age 91, she delivered an insightful speech about what it was like to work for the Kennedy family. Not only did she handle the family’s personal bookkeeping and correspondence but had such a close family-type working relationship that Caroline and her mother visited the Gallagher home where Caroline played with Gallagher’s sons. Kennedy pets were sent to stay at Gallagher’s home.
Gallagher also had copies of her book, “My Life with Jacqueline Kennedy,” originally published in 1969 and reprinted, available for purchase. Following her talk, she took questions. I asked her about that terrible day in Dallas when JFK was assassinated. The author took about 15 minutes to answer in detail.
She accompanied the Kennedys to Dallas that day and selected the gloves Jackie wore. She recalls seeing them later that day, blood-stained, lying across a newspaper with a now-chilling headline about how Dallas welcomes the president.
Gallagher was asked by a key hospital figure to stand by Jackie to offer support when the First Lady was told that the President had passed. She was there, in fact, when Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in. I later found a photo of her in the group present during that historic moment.
Just as she was counted on for honest opinions on how Jackie looked in her clothes, she says she compiled the book as a historical record depicting the First Lady as a real person, wife, mother and seeker of perfection in art and life. She is asked what Jackie was really like, and answers that she was a real human being with many facets to her life.
“My purpose in writing a book was for history,” Gallagher said. Many autographed copies of her book were sold to members of our group who got to meet and greet the author. I’m reading it now and can hardly put it down.