The phone call came out of the blue: Would I be interested in having lunch with Laura Bush in the White House residence?
Um, yeah. My instructions were to meet the first lady's press aides on the driveway in front of the briefing room, 11:30 a.m. sharp, Sept. 17. All told, about 20 female White House reporters were invited. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Ambassador Karen Hughes, two of President Bush's longtime aides from Texas, would join us.
Suddenly, we were Ladies Who Lunch, not Ladies Who Wolf Down Sandwiches at Our Desks. Columnist Helen Thomas, another invitee who has covered the White House since the Kennedy administration, confirmed my suspicion that this was indeed an unusual event. She could not recall another one quite like it.
We were told the luncheon would be on the record. Then, it shifted to "on background," a journalistic term that means quotes can be used, but with attribution agreed upon in advance. But the usual "senior administration official" would not do for Mrs. Bush, since she is not one. After some deliberation, we agreed to call her a "source close to the president."
But alas, once we had gathered upstairs in the living room called the Yellow Oval, the first lady told us the lunch would be "social and off the record, so we can be free to say what we really want to say."
"I wanted to ask everyone here for the fun of it," Mrs. Bush said.
After an on-the-record discussion on education and international public diplomacy, we filed into the cozy private dining room where the Bushes usually have breakfast. That's when we went off the record, but I do have clearance to discuss the menu, the accoutrements, and the White House curator's after-lunch tour.
As expected, everything was just so – the gold-accented decorative dinner plates, the hand-calligraphed place markers, the bouquets bursting with roses and accented with crab apples. The menu was light, but sumptuous: a tangy salad of citrus fillets, hearts of palm, and chicory and butter lettuce; a creative mélange of pancetta-wrapped sea bass, balsamic bordelaise, and ricotta and spinach ravioli with artichokes; and for dessert, "Chocolate Chat." Not a "chocolate cat" – as my daughter the French student wondered when I showed her the printed menu – but a chocolate microphone and spiral-bound reporter's notebook.
After lunch, curator Bill Allman took us on a tour of the White House's most famous bedrooms – the Lincoln and the Queen's, which are still used by guests. What is now called the Lincoln Bedroom was used as a cabinet room and office by President Lincoln, but now contains a big, ornate bed bought by Lincoln's wife. The bed was originally used in the room where we had lunch, but was moved into Lincoln's old office after President Truman's reconstruction of the White House. No doubt, the most prized artifact in there is a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, the only one of five that Lincoln signed and dated.
The fact that the big rosewood bed has survived is a matter of some gratitude for Mr. Allman. In the 19th century, he explained, it was normal for an incoming president to have a garage sale. "Congress said, 'Here's money to move in, and if that's not enough, sell off the old stuff and buy what you want,'" Allman said. "So every four or eight years, there would be a public auction of what they called 'decayed property' or anything they felt no longer fashionable and stylish."
The last big sale was in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt renovated the White House. "Now, everything in the house belongs to our office to care for permanently," said Allman. To this day, furnishings that once belonged to the White House are being returned.