The other day, I toured the west wing.  Not the tv show set (if that’s even still possible), but the building where a huge amount of power sits. The White House.

And it was underwhelming.

It’s 3 stories high.  There’s just a handful of offices. They’ve spent a bit of money on the decor, but anyone can do that. There is impressive security, but the guards keep pretty quiet.

It’s an office building with a lot of artifacts. “The president chose to put inventions on the shelves to highlight our country’s ability to innovate.”  “Nixon just up and bought the cabinet room’s table with his own money.” “These are Norman Rockwell paintings.” “The Chinese gave us these vases in exchange for pigeons.”

Valerie Jarrett came and spoke to a crowd at Stanford a while ago. She said that every day as she drives onto the grounds, she stops and pinches herself. The privilege of getting to work at the White House!

And yet I was somehow nonchalant.  “The beer summit happened over there.” It was at a rickety looking patio table across a small bit of lawn.

It’s because that’s all it is.  A building.  And that’s ok.  It’s not supposed to be any more than that.  It houses the office of the president, providing a secure place to do business and make policy.

The impressive parts are the people. Somehow, amazingly, a person collects an organization that persuades enough of the country to get together and choose them for the position of president. The fact that a building exists somewhere is unremarkable (its age, however, is). Since it was a Sunday and an empty house (except for tourists like us), I did not feel very wowed.

The best part of seeing the place actually was just to get a sense of the environment in which those people work. You can imagine what it means for them physically to walk 10 feet down that hall to that conference room. To figure out which way is north and how all these iconic rooms are actually laid out on that plot of land in DC means you can understand all the photos better.

Two experiences related to this one:

It’s all about the people:
One was the day before, at the National Portrait Gallery, where the story of the USA is told through the people that built and inhabited it. Everyone experiences the country as a person, not as a battle or an artifact in a natural history museum, or a building. To see all of the people that lived their lives in this country was much more compelling than other museums with an American-history focus.

The building doesn’t matter at all (aka it’s still all about the people):
At a songwriters workshop several summers ago at Berklee School of Music, the students in the workshop all lived together in a dorm. It wasn’t the worst of dorms, but it wasn’t stellar either. The practice rooms in the basement showed signs of extensive use and were not in tip top shape. But with all of the people around who were interested in writing music, you couldn’t help but want to play with them and write some your own. Those ugly basement practice rooms were little festivals of artistry.

Explore posts in the same categories: Daily Life, Government/Politics

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