Thoughts from a Second Trip to the White House
About a week ago, I received an email from my editor at BlogHer: could I go to the White House for a meeting on Tuesday? I checked my calendar, sent in my security details, and spent the weekend reading up on the issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act. I had another big project I was putting to bed at the same time, so perhaps my attention was focused on finishing that, but I didn’t feel nervous at all.
I woke up with my stomach flip flopping around. Tums-munching-yoga-can’t-help-this flipping around. I put my other project to bed around 10 pm that night, and without a distraction, the flip flopping only increased until it felt like I had a trout at the end of the line inside my stomach, dying frantically on a pier.
On Tuesday, I woke up, the fish still strongly fighting his swim to the bright white light. (I have to assume that while humans walk into the light when they die, that fish either swim or flop there.) I went to yoga, came home to have a yogurt, read some last documents I wanted to get through, and then headed downtown. If you recall last time, I had to pee quite badly AND was nerve-wrackingly late. This time I left an insane amount of time to get down there so when I hit Meridian Hill and saw that I had almost two hours until the meeting, I said to myself, “this is what it feels like to not be strangled by your clock.” It was a strange, wonderful feeling. I wish I were better about time and could experience that more often.
I hung out at Josh’s office for a bit and then he drove me over to the White House, by which I mean he dropped me off by the park and I felt like a little kid getting out of her dad’s car on the way to the party.
As I went through security and grabbed my visitor badge and headed past the guard into the West Wing, I kept saying to myself, “these people are just people. They are human, just like me. This is their job, I do my job. But at the end of the day, they are all simply jobs and we are all simply people.” It’s a nice little mantra. The reality is that while I’m a Juddhist in practice (you know, a Jewish Buddhist), I am a Quaker in mentality. I don’t believe in elevating people in importance any more than I believe in demeaning people (aren’t they just two sides of the same coin). Though sometimes I forget that and get all ga-ga, like… you know… being around people in the White House.
I sat in the waiting room with the ten other women and thought to myself, “this building is just a building. It is no different sitting in your home or sitting in the dentist’s office or sitting in the West Wing. They are all simply buildings made of the same materials such as concrete and brick and mortar.”
This mantra didn’t really work.
Actually, do you know who it was nicest to see there? Sarah, who works in the Office of Digital Strategy. It was more meaningful to me, personally, to see her. I believe that if Dorothy had the chance to go back to Oz, she’d want to see the Scarecrow ten times more than she’d want to see the Great and Powerful Oz. I mean, yeah, the wizard was cool (okay, so he turned out to be not so powerful, but you know what I mean), but the Scarecrow had been with her on the journey. And last year at the Women’s Summit, Sarah was the person who was with us the entire day, who communicated with us beforehand and afterward.
So one of my favourite parts of the day was talking with Sarah before the meeting. I told her that the Wolvog had played President Obama in the school play last month, a parade of famous Americans spanning about 400 years of history all coming together for a ball at the White House (please don’t ask how Betsy Ross and Michelle Kwan could both be at the White House as the same time). I discovered the night before that he had outgrown his button-down shirt, so the Wolvog’s Barack Obama was casual in a navy blue polo shirt. The ChickieNob wanted the part of Michelle Obama, but it went to another girl, a fact that she will be thankful for years from now when she realizes how creepy that would be to be married to her brother in the school play.
And then it was time to go inside the Roosevelt Room.
I loved seeing the East Wing last time, but maybe it was more special to be in the West Wing because it’s generally not accessible to the public. Or because it’s a space of action; where policy is discussed and created vs. the other side of the building which leans heavier towards entertaining. My heart was pounding entering the Roosevelt Room, a room that comes with an enormous history in tow. It was the former presidential office. Think of the meetings that have happened in that place.
Our name cards were already set up around the table, and my seat was directly in front of the door which was directly across from the Oval Office. Meaning, the brown door opened into the hallway and on the opposite wall of the hallway was the white door of the Oval Office. I was about twenty feet away from the Oval Office the whole time. Heady!
But think about all the people who have sat in those chairs. All the presidents. All the staff members. All the visiting heads of state from various countries. Think about what has taken place in that room, the enormous moments. I know I said it’s just a building, just like every other building, but it was as if my inner teenager was holding her hand over my inner Quaker’s mouth, silencing her for the moment.
Being in that room was like stepping into the Sistine Chapel. I was obviously in the Vatican to see the chapel, knew I would encounter it at some point as I walked through the building, but when I stepped inside and tilted my head back to stare at the ceiling, I was dumbfounded that I was in that space, seeing it with my own eyes. That I was across the world, standing under the hand of G-d. And that was what it was like to sit down in the Roosevelt Room. I knew that was where we were ending up for the meeting, was well aware that I would encounter it while in the West Wing, but I sat down dumbfounded, not believing I was seeing that space with my own eyes.
That sliver of door frame behind me? That’s the brown door through which you can get to the Oval Office.
The topic for the roundtable discussion was the Affordable Care Act, a topic near and dear to my heart both as a health writer (I think after writing Navigating the Land of If and a bunch of articles, I qualify as a health writer, right?) and as an average US citizen.
We watched an episode of House last week (we’re on the second season!) where House told a patient without insurance that he was dying, but he wasn’t going to put down the diagnosis in his file because it would be a pre-existing condition stopping him from ever getting insurance. The boy ran out of the examination room to go get insurance before returning for the diagnosis and treatment (though, House, that trickster, lied to him because he wanted him to get insurance. The boy only had a cold). My thought as I watched that episode: Americans no longer have to live like this.
We no longer have to freak out that our insurance is going to drop us or refuse to cover something because it’s a pre-existing condition. In the future, we’ll no longer experience discrimination in the form of gender rating, the practice of charging women more than men for the exact same insurance when they have similar profiles. We have free preventative care. It’s an amazing leap forward from what we had before.
And it’s a law, not a pu-pu platter, which means that even if you don’t like everything within the law, we can’t pick and choose what we want out of it. It saddens me when people throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. 45 million American women had access to preventative care last year. That is a major accomplishment. How many problems were found in their beginning stages so they could be treated with less expensive and invasiveness? Some people are so focused on protesting the coverage of contraception that they fail to notice the coverage of breastfeeding support which all comes with the law (“employers to provide reasonable break time and a private, non-bathroom place for nursing mothers to express breast milk during the workday, for one year after the child’s birth. The new requirements became effective when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law on March 23, 2010”).
There are really really good things coming from this law including access to health-saving measures such as mammograms, and frankly, I’m worried about the upcoming election and the possibility of losing the gains that were made. I don’t think many of us can stand to lose the gains that have come with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I know that I can’t.
Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle and Deputy Assistant to the President for Health Policy Jeanne Lambrew hold a roundtable discussion on the Affordable Care Act and how health reform is benefiting women with representatives from leading women’s online publications in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 20, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)
On a totally vain side note, that’s me in the bottom left corner. You can see me ardently taking notes. With my orange iPad out to record the meeting. Hey, I said it was a totally vain aside.
I unpacked more of the logistics of the meeting over on BlogHer. I hope you’ll go over there and tell your story.
When the meeting was over, Jesse walked us through the West Wing, so we could see the offices (though the door to the Oval Office was closed) and photographs. We walked outside, past the cherry blossoms on the lawn.
Then we stepped into the press briefing room. We were snapping pictures when someone said we shouldn’t take pictures. So I slipped my camera back into my purse with an apology. Then he said, “you shouldn’t take pictures until we turn on these lights!” He lit up the stage, the reporters waiting in the room totally bored as we all went up to the podium and snapped each other’s picture. Jesse was patient and amused, as if this was the best part of the job: seeing what a mushy, happy mess we became as ordinary citizens entering this extraordinary space.
Now you see me…
Now you don’t…
And then it was time to go. We had to wait by the White House gates for an additional few minutes while the Irish motorcade went through. And then they opened the gate and we passed back into the normal world with all the other people milling on the sidewalk, part of school trips and tourist groups. A few of us stood around talking for another few minutes. A little boy climbing on the gate was yelled at by a guard, and the four of us all had the same parental protective reaction, especially once we saw the tears starting to well up in his eyes. He was excited. Listen, while I may have enough self-control to not climb the gates, internally, I was climbing the gates while I was inside the White House. I was giddy to be standing inside history.
I crossed the park and decided to walk all the way back to Josh’s office because the sun had come out and it was now a balmy 75 degrees with a light breeze carrying the scent of the ubiquitous, Washingtonian cherry blossoms. I almost never go downtown when the cherry blossoms are in season; it’s too crowded and they’re just a bunch of flowers, right? But then I found myself down there, seeing these gifts that came from across the ocean, and I wondered why I let myself miss this year after year. This is the Washington I love, the white marble buildings; the fact that any one of us can end up in the White House — either behind the Oval Office desk or as a visitor in the Roosevelt Room; the motorcades; the cherry blossoms. And I walked the many blocks to Josh’s office deeply in love with my city. I literally just fell in love again with my city.