Backstory: Eggnog, Mr. President?

During the holiday season, George W. Bush is not only commander in chief, he is entertainer in chief. Before escaping to Camp David for Christmas later this week, President and Mrs. Bush will have welcomed 9,500 guests to the White House for 26 parties spread over 21 days.

The events vary in tone and size. For intimacy and prestige, it's hard to top the small dinner for Bush family members and close friends. Legislators are feted at a black tie congressional ball. Gatherings are held for White House staff, Secret Service, and generous political supporters.

As if to test their holiday spirit, the president and Mrs. Bush also host a party for the press. It's not just a gathering for the White House regulars who have presidential nicknames. No, for last Thursday's holiday reception, the White House sent invitations engraved in candy-cane red to 625 journalists. Roughly half of those invited labor in the land of print. The rest work in the better-coiffed (and better paid) world of broadcast news. At least in terms of party invitations, newspapers remain uneclipsed by broadcast networks, a refreshing change from real life in the nation's capital.

When several hundred print journalists get invited to the same White House Christmas party, delusions of social grandeur fade quickly for those of us who are included. Of course, the size of the invitation list makes not getting an invitation harder to explain. The list includes everyone from those who cover the president to Washington bureau chiefs (my ticket in) to, this year, a radio talk-show host from Fargo, N.D.

Each member of the press can bring along one guest. Most reporters come with a child or spouse, although those with better developed political skills invite a boss. For the Bushes, the bottom line is that 1,250 journalists and friends end up traipsing through the Executive Mansion.

On a late afternoon, one of my college-aged sons and I trudge the two blocks from the Monitor's Washington bureau across an ice-slicked Lafayette Park to the East Entrance of the White House. Once inside the wreath-festooned doors, our first stop is the bright red presidential movie theater, where tuxedoed staffers have set up a coat check operation.

The centerpiece of the reception is a brief chat with the president in a receiving line during which a White House photographer takes a commemorative picture. The whole process is choreographed by a host of bright, fit, unfailingly polite military aides. No danger they will be confused with journalists. Step 1 for them is to assign guests to one of three color-coded groups - like a nursery school play group. My son and I arrived early so we are assigned to the red team, which meets with the president first.

While waiting for Bush to emerge from the residence, we circle the nearly empty second floor, decorated to illustrate the theme "All things bright and beautiful." The phrase is apt for how the White House looks this time of year. A 20-piece Marine orchestra, in dress uniforms, plays carols in the front hall. Some 18 Christmas trees, 580 feet of garland with silver and gold crystals, pink and orange French tulips in vermeil containers, and countless boxwood wreaths with gold ribbons all are tastefully deployed.

In the East Room and State Dining Room on either end of the main floor, large buffets are set up where the new White House chef, Cris Comerford, shows off her farfalle pasta with Maine lobster, Maryland crab cakes with lime-ancho remoulade, and some of the 10,000 chocolate truffles her team whipped up this party season.

Soon a Marine social aide shepherds us to the ground floor, where the trip to see the president begins. The line to see the president snakes through the map room, where Franklin Roosevelt tracked the progress of World War II. Military aides relieve guests of their cameras and handbags. The line control reminds you of a queue for a ride at Disney World - only much faster.

Then we enter the Diplomatic Reception Room, where the President and Mrs. Bush stand beneath a picture of George Washington. The First Lady is in a black-and-white cocktail skirt suit made by Oscar de la Renta. The president is dressed in one of his trademark blue suits, a blue shirt, and a festive red tie. The difference between how he looks in a suit and how I do underscores the benefits of regular exercise.

At this point, we're thinking about what to say to the president. My 21-year-old son, Matt, is not a conservative Republican. Any anxiety I might have, however, quickly vanishes when I realize that Bush is unlikely to remember any of the 1,250 people here tonight. Certainly not two white guys in dark suits named Cook. Moments later, a military aide calls out our names and our 20 seconds with the Bushes begin. Mrs. Bush is kind but reserved. The president is welcoming and playful. He tells my linebacker-sized son, "Plant yourself over here next to me. I'd be honored." I take my place next to Mrs. Bush. The picture is taken. We exchange Christmas greetings.

"He is a people guy," Matt says afterward. He finds the brief encounter infused with such friendliness - even banter - that he has to remind himself he was talking to the president and not continue to shoot the breeze.

The brief moments with the president offer some humanizing context, clearly one reason this White House - and others before it - entertain the press. Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to invite reporters to social events. Before that, "reporters were always there to cover, not to be on the guest list," says Donald Ritchie, associate historian of the US Senate.

Presidents vary, of course, in their enthusiasm for such encounters. Richard Nixon skipped a Christmas party during Watergate, while Gerald Ford was something of a bon vivant: He even liked to dance with guests.

All this chumminess, however, makes some media watchdogs uncomfortable. Bob Steele, a journalism ethicist at the Poynter Institute, says the press "should not be accepting special favors that are offered to us because we are journalists."

Before you worry too much about the press falling under the influence of White House egg nog, though, consider this: The very night of the White House press party, The New York Times was readying its story revealing that Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans - a report that would rock the Washington establishment for days.

After meeting with the president, guests move upstairs to schmooze. White House aides mingle with the media in the State Dining Room. Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, chats with a reporter in the East Room.

Later, as we head out the door and back across the tundra of Lafayette Park, my son revels in his moment in the inner sanctum. And in getting a new outfit from dad for the occasion.

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