The first lady stood in the White House dining room, poised to reveal the most closely held "state secret" of the season: the theme of this year's Christmas decorations.
But her audience of reporters - the most she's seen at the annual unveiling - expressed only polite interest. As soon as she was done explaining the motif ("holiday treasures") and praising the White House pastry chef for his gingerbread-house prowess, the questions set in:
Will this be your last Christmas in the White House?
Have you had time to prepare for your move to New York?
Have you gone furniture shopping?
Do you think you'll be in the new house before the new year?
Mix 500 pounds of sugar, 300 pounds of chocolate, and a ton of politics, and it's another spectacular Christmas at the White House.
Of course, nothing can top last year for the politics. With a president impeached for the first time since 1868, the place felt more like a funeral parlor than a mansion aglow with yuletide cheer. A meager offering of cookies for the press - instead of the traditional piles of jumbo shrimp and racks of baby lamb - confirmed the mood as somber.
This year, the atmosphere is vastly improved, but the media are abuzz with questions about Hillary Rodham Clinton's imminent move to New York and the couple's long-distance marriage.
For the past several days, the White House has been stomping out rumors of new marital problems raised in the tabloid press. The president and his wife "seem genuinely happy," said the first lady's spokeswoman, Marsha Berry.
As for the questions about her move, Mrs. Clinton threw a few morsels to the news-starved crowd:
She's pulling furniture out of storage, and considering what to recover and reupholster (no furniture shopping yet; she wants to use what she has); she's hoping to begin the move by the end of the month, as soon as the Secret Service gives the OK; she and the president will spend Christmas together at the White House this year - but not a word about next year.
The president himself said Wednesday that the long-distance marriage "will come out just fine.... It's not the best arrangement in the world, but it's something that we can live with for a year."
For this Christmas, sumptuous decorations abound for the Clintons - and the thousands of congressional, media, staff, celebrity, and public guests invited to their holiday receptions.
It took 66 volunteers a day and a half to dress the residence with deep red and gold fruit garlands and other creations for which planning began in February.
The confectionary highlight is a gingerbread-house complex grouping the White House, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson Memorial, all held together with 40 to 50 pounds of chocolate. As in real life, a blinking red light tops the pencil-shaped monument to warn low-flying planes.
The theme of "treasures" reflects the first lady's interest in restoring - through a public and private partnership - endangered historic buildings. Models of buildings and monuments in her project decorate the tree in the East Wing lobby.
But the tradition of a thematic tree, begun in the 1960s, and all the other gorgeousness, couldn't distract journalists from politics. When told that the Blue Room tree also featured balls from the 50 states, one reporter wanted to know where the New York ball was.
"Prominently displayed somewhere," replied Capricia Marshall, the White House social secretary.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society