Party Talk (or What to Say to the President)

This season's 15 major White House Christmas parties took a full year to plan and organize.

At last, it's our turn. After shuffling through the long line, my wife and I stand squarely before the president of the United States and the first lady.

Sure, the handshake and greeting journalists get at the White House's Christmas party for the press corps lasts only nanoseconds, yet for most of us, it's the one meeting with the president each year that's guaranteed to be polite. So I quickly think up a snappy greeting for the occasion, but before I can speak, I'm preempted.

In a casual, yet sincere voice, my wife asks the leader of the free world, "You tired of this yet?"

"What?" he answers.

"Your cheeks must be tired from smiling all night!" she responds sympathetically.

"No! Not yet!" the cheerful first couple assure us in unison. "We are having fun!" they say believably as we stumble through the exit and another couple takes our place.

And there will be many more couples after that. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton shook 1,700 hands on press night alone - and that was only one of the 15 major White House parties this holiday season. While the atmosphere is festive and presidential smiles are bright, partygiving is serious business at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When tradition and White House hospitality are on the line, there are no shortcuts.

"The Clintons are incredibly generous with their party-throwing," says Letitia Baldridge, Jacqueline Kennedy's chief of staff.

"They have wonderful parties for Christmas and more people are allowed a chance to see the House," she says.

Despite reducing the number of parties this year by roughly a third, the Clinton White House is still one of the most prolific party hosts of any administration in history. Elaborate in detail, the gatherings are held for a range of different groups. At the Congressional Ball, every member of both houses of Congress is invited. Then there is a night for the press corps, a night for White House staff, and nights for different constituencies.

Starting early

Planning for this year's parties, which are paid for by the Democratic National Committee, began last January. The theme was picked, and groups from around the country were invited to make hundreds of tree ornaments for the occasion.

Planning continues throughout the spring as invitation lists are drawn up, menus for the epic table of finger foods created, and bands hoping to play are considered and chosen.

In June, White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier begins rolling dough and won't stop until well after Thanksgiving. By December he has cut, cooked, and frosted more than 80,000 cookies, pastries, and candies.

They are set out in the different parlors of the residence including the Green Room and Red Room where the normal furnishings are moved to make way for holiday decorations. This year, Christmas ornament guru Christopher Radko has supervised the creation of special holiday mantelpieces for both of the rooms.

The official White House tree always stands nearby in the Blue Room. This year it's an 18-foot Fraser fir from North Carolina, decorated with ornament-size versions of Santa's suit created by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Just beyond the tree, through the window, guests can see down the sweeping south lawn to the iron fence, where tourists' camera flashes illumine the cold air like December fireflies.

The 'personal touch'

Despite the extensive planning and the party-mill aspect of the gatherings, the personal touch is its hallmark. "It was beautiful," says Robert Ryan of Baltimore, who accompanied his daughter April to the reception held for the press corps and is still in awe he shook hands with the president. "I felt like I was the only one there," he says.

Considering the expanded Candlelight Tours, where anyone can walk through the White House while sipping hot cider and listening to choral music, more than 170,000 people will sample White House hospitality this season.

"A White House guest feels personally treated. They've worked on that for years," says historian and White House expert William Seale, who attended receptions during the Reagan years.

"Being entertained at the White House is not a flashy thing, it's very restrained, and very tailored to showing off the president," he adds, noting that many traditions hold for generations, including the style of the current invitations, which are similar to those President John Adams sent.

Parties past

The modern holiday tradition of throwing larger and more frequent parties at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was started by the Kennedys, and the first Christmas tree appeared at the White House way back in 1890, during Benjamin Harrison's administration.

The most notorious Christmas party on record occurred in the late 1920s at a party hosted by the Hoovers for a gathering of Girl Scouts. During the party, the West Wing caught fire, ravaging that part of the building. An usher had to throw a soaked rug over the president's desk to save it.

Despite the long hours and hard work it takes to put the parties on, the White House staff claim they, and the Clintons, look forward to the holidays every year.

"After everyone is gone, we'll sit around with eggnog and laugh about different things that happened at the party that night," confesses White House Social Secretary Capricia Marshall.

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