I left New York City, which was absolutely jam packed with tourists walking fifteen abreast past souvenir stands near Times Square, looking at exactly nothing but neon, and took the Metroliner down to my home town of Washington, D.C. a few days ago. My wife met me there so we could go to Christmas Dinner at the White House with Mr. and Mrs. Bush and about a hundred of their long time friends. Most of the people there were Texans who had known the President for decades, but there were some others like Josh Bolten, the chief of staff, and Michael Steele, lieutenant governor of Maryland, who just lost an agonizingly close race to now Senator-elect Cardin.
My wife and I wandered around the East Room for a long time before the dinner, making small talk, but my mind was racing back to the tumultuous press conferences I used to see there when I worked for Richard Nixon, to social events there with Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ford, and most especially, to that excruciating day in August of 1974 when Mr. Nixon bid us farewell and I was in shock all day.
The White House looked beautiful for the holidays, with wreaths and floral work and lights and trees. Mr. Bush looked surprisingly well, all things considered, but he was clearly a changed man even from when I had been there for the holidays two years ago. A challenged, thoughtful man.
At the dinner, we all sat in the State Dining Room, under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The woman next to me said she wondered how many painful Christmas times Lincoln had gone through during the Civil War. A sobering reminder of what it means to be President.
What really got me going though, what really started the mind racing was that on the other side I was sitting next to a startlingly beautiful African-American woman, a psychologist named Dr. Swann, who is the wife of the great athlete Lynn Swann. I asked her about her childhood in Chambersburg and, as I often do, I asked my dinner partner what her father did. She looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “That’s complicated. I was one of eight children raised by a single mother.” She paused for a moment and then added, with a huge smile, “And now here I am at the White House.”
This is America. This is the way America works.
A few minutes later, the Air Force singing group, the Singing Sergeants, came in and sang about six Christmas songs and then one Hanukah song. I had never heard it before, but it brought tears to my eyes.
What a country, what a magnificent, glorious country this is where the songs of Jews, despised and hunted and murdered for thousands of years, still intended for mass murder by some, are sung at the home of the head of state. Dr. Swann and I looked at each other. Josh Bolten and I looked at each other. The miracle that is America, being played out right before our eyes and ears.
After the dinner, my wife and I walked past the brilliantly lit White House. There was not one other person on the street in front of this home of the Chief Magistrate of the greatest invention of all time, the United States of America, but the house shone, glowed, floated in front of us, an apparition of freedom in a painful world, a sight for the sore eyes of mankind. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And, of course, Happy Hanukah.