2009: The Year Of My Christmas Miracle At The White House

Dec 23, 2017

There are some invitations to Christmas parties and holiday gatherings where you can thank the person inviting you and send your regrets for not being able to attend.

You might feel bad about it, but there's only so much time and so many places you can be.

In November 2009, I received one where "regrets" was not an option.

An invitation to the White House holiday party for print reporters.

Yes, of course, I went; but I had a nightmarish time getting there, an all-day slog through three airports, that had me arriving just in the nick of time to be let into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Every year in December, the president, whoever that happens to be at the time, holds dozens of holiday receptions – not only for the press but for special constituencies, the denizens of Capitol Hill, and the like.

For the press, they are usually broken down into separate events for the print and online media and the broadcast media.

I was working at the Enquirer in Nov. 2009, as their politics reporter. Barack Obama was well into his first term in the White House; and I had spent a lot of time and energy covering his election, especially here in the key state of Ohio.

I have a vague recollection of getting an email from the White House press office that month, something about a holiday party in mid-December and asking if I would be interested in attending.

For some reason, I forgot about it and didn't respond; I suppose there was part of me that was still this skinny little kid from the east side of Dayton who couldn't imagine being invited to the White House, so I didn't take it seriously.

Then, after Thanksgiving, towards the end of November, the phone rang on my desk and it was a woman in the White House press office.

Mr. Wilkinson, we sent you an email invitation a couple of weeks ago to the White House holiday party. We haven't heard back from you. We'd love it if you can come. If you can, we will put a formal invitation from the President and First Lady in the mail.

I told her, yes, indeed, I wanted to go; and apologized profusely for not responding sooner.

Let me check with my editor and I will call you right back, I said.

I ran into the office of Julie Engebrecht, the local news editor at the time; and told her the story. I told her I'd be glad to pay my own way.

Peter Urban of Gannett News Service (l.) and Howard Wilkinson with Michelle Obama and President Obama at the White House, Dec. 2009
Credit The White House

Of course you are going, Julie said, and, no, you are not paying your own way.

We talked about it a little while and decided that I would stay in Washington for a couple of days after the White House party, to spend some time with the Ohio and Kentucky delegations on Capitol Hill, maybe get a few stories out of that.

Julie came out to the newsroom and went to Robin Buchanan, the news assistant who was a whiz at making travel arrangements for staff members. She told Robin to get me a flight to Reagan National for Dec. 14; and a hotel room near the White House for three nights.  

Robin, who is the best, got me a morning flight out of CVG and a room at a very nice hotel in Franklin Square about five or six blocks north of the White House. I wanted to get in early, so I would have plenty of time to catch my breath and change into my fancy duds before I had to show up at the east gate of the White House by 6 p.m.

Then there was the matter of the "fancy duds." Tuxedos and formal wear were not required, but I needed a very nice suit; and, at that point, I had none.

So I went to the downtown Macy's and, in men's wear, explained to the saleswoman, a very nice woman named Misty, that I was going to the White House and needed a nice, black suit.
 

The White House? Oh my! We have to get to work!

Misty started taking measurements, up one side of me and down the other. We tried on a black suit with black pants (she did the chalk marks on both for the tailoring; she picked out a nice white dress shirt and a very fancy maroon necktie. And, of course, a pair of gleaming black shoes.

After a few days for tailoring, I came back and tried it on. I looked like a million bucks, if I do say so myself. Talk about casting pearls before swine – this suit was totally out of character for a chronically disheveled guy like me.

Misty proclaimed it, Perfect!

Finally, the day arrived – Monday, Dec. 14, 2009.

I was up and at 'em early, packed a suitcase and carefully placed my brand-new fancy suit in a garment bag, slung my laptop over my shoulder and headed for CVG.

This was the same day that President Obama had summoned the heads of the nation's biggest banks to the White House for what was described as a "frank and candid" discussion. Obama was not happy with the bankers for a number of reasons, including the fact that, despite a $700 billion bank bailout package, small businesses all over the U.S. were finding it hard to get bank loans and credit.

Our holiday party would follow the summit meeting.

I went to the ticket kiosk, printed out my boarding pass and went to the desk to check my baggage.

There, I was told that my flight to Reagan National had been cancelled.

Cancelled?

I asked when the next flight was – not until late afternoon, I was told.

That's no good. I had to be in line outside the east gate of the White House by 6 p.m., dressed in my fancy duds and clutching my ID and engraved invite.

After some considerable wrangling, the ticket agent made a proposal – We will put you on a flight to Nashville. We will book you on a flight from Nashville to Reagan.

That was the good news. Then came the bad news: You will have to pick up your luggage, go back through ticketing, baggage check and security and you will have all of 25 minutes to do this before the plane takes off for Reagan.

I took the deal.

I boarded the plane bound for Nashville. It was a smooth landing and I was itching to get off and do my rapid-fire plane switch.

Then, the plane rumbled to be a complete stop on the runway, far, far away from the gate. The captain came on the PA.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm very sorry about this, but the steering mechanism on this plane has failed. It is not working. We are stuck here until a truck can get out here and tow us to the gate.

The minutes ticked by. My anxiety level was through the roof. Each minute that passed made it more and more unlikely that I would make the flight to Reagan National.

Fortunately, the tow truck showed up before expected and took us to the gate.

I rushed to baggage claim, picked up my stuff and then went back to the ticket counter. There, I was told that the flight to Reagan National was cancelled.

Why? Because one of the worst cases of freezing fog in anyone's memory had settled over the airport on the banks of the Potomac River and no flights were going in or out until it lifted.

At the counter, they were telling me they couldn't get me a flight until after 6 p.m. – past the deadline for my showing up at the White House.

This would not do. I immediately called Robin back at the office.

She sprang into action.

Within minutes, she was on the phone with an airline rep, forcefully but politely explaining that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend a party with the POTUS and FLOTUS at the White House!

"We were all frustrated,'' Robin wrote me recently in an email about that day. She said she could hear the airline employee "tapping away at her computer, searching the flight screen for an empty seat."

She "imagined how annoying it must have been that I brought up your meeting the President so many times it sounded like scratched vinyl causing the needle to jump back to the same spot repeatedly."

Robin was relentless. She stayed on the line with several different people, including a supervisor, until I was finally booked onto a flight into Reagan National on another airline, once the fog delay was lifted.

The only problem was that take-off was in four hours and that would just barely give me time to get to my hotel, change clothes and run down to the White House.

"It was a home run on my end although I believe it was just the beginning for your journey,'' Robin wrote.

Robin, had it not been for your perseverance, there would have been no journey.

Anyway, I had four hours to kill in the Nashville airport.

I was still a smoker in those days (I quit in January 2015), and the experience was leaving me with frayed nerves. There were only two places to smoke in the Nashville airport – two cigar stores that had back rooms where, if you paid $4, you could go back and smoke. I paid my four bucks and had my hand stamped so I could go in and out. I probably went through nearly a pack of cigarettes while I waited.

Finally, the time came and I was in the air, bound for Reagan National.

By 4:30 p.m., I was at the baggage carrousel, picking up my suitcase and garment bag; and rushed out to the ground transportation. Luckily, I got a cab in a couple of minutes.

I told the cabby I was in a rush; I had to be at the White House in a little more than an hour. That probably didn't impress him much; I'm sure he'd taken many a traveler to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But he was brilliant navigating D.C. traffic and got me to the hotel in about 20 minutes.

I checked in, rushed upstairs into my room. Got in a quick shower and started climbing into my fancy duds.

After pausing momentarily to admire my fine-looking self in the full-length mirror (I rarely get such opportunities, given my usual wardrobe), I took off on a brisk walk, and partial trot, down to the East Gate of the White House, where there was a line already forming.

I was close to the front of the line. I knew this was going to be a security nightmare getting inside because of an incident that happened at a White House State Dinner a few weeks before.

On Nov. 24, 2008, a couple named Michaele and Tareq Sahali had crashed a White House State Dinner for the Indian Prime Minister. They got through two security checkpoints (including one that require photo ID), entered the White House and met the president. All without an invitation.

This caused a security firestorm in the White House; and the Secret Service and security investigations galore.

All of which meant that I and the other guests at the print media holiday party had to pass through no less than four security checks before we even entered the East Wing of the White House.

Once inside, it was a glorious sight. '

Howard Wilkinson in the Blue Room at the White House, Dec. 2009
Credit Provided

The White House is beautiful at any time. During the holidays, it is simply breathtaking. The giant, brilliantly decorated tree in the Blue Room; garlands and decorations on all the marble stairways.

It was like walking into a dream world.

Most of the party took place on the first floor of the White House, where the State Dining Room and the famous East Room are located. The upstairs – the family's living quarters – were off limits, of course.

Everywhere there were stations set up with white-jacketed stewards serving up delicious finger food. And there were bars galore, serving wine and beer. A blues band was playing in the East Room.

I preferred beer. A steward in the East Room explained to me that they only two brands of beer in the Obama White House – Samuel Adams Light and a local brew, Old Dominion Lager.

Why just two?, I asked. Because those are the President's two favorites.

I ordered up an Old Dominion and began schmoozing around with some of the people there I knew.

I was able to invite a plus-one to the event, which I never got around to doing. But Peter Urban, a reporter who was filling in at Gannett News Service for Malia Rulon, who was on maternity leave, and covering Capitol Hill for the Enquirer and other Ohio Gannett papers, had sort of invited himself and was there for the party. It was fine by me.

When we entered, each guest was given a card with a letter on it – A, B, C, or D. That signified which group you were in to go down to the ground floor to have your photo take with President Obama and the First Lady.

I lucked out – I was in the A group.

At the appointed time, I went down to the ground floor and was met by a formidable but pleasant Marine Sergeant standing behind a velvet rope blocking off the hallway.

The president is not here yet, she said. Please come back in about 20 minutes.

So I trudged back up the marble staircase and went to the East Room, ordered up another Old Dominion; and started chatting up some of my fellow reporters.

After 20 minutes, I went back downstairs. I was met with the same response. The President is not here yet. Come back in 20 minutes.

I did as I was told. Another Old Dominion, had some tasty hors d'oeuvres and repeated the process again. For a third time, I was rebuffed.

But the fourth time was the charm and the Marine sergeant allowed us into the line to meet the president and the First Lady in the Diplomatic Reception Room, which is at the south entrance of the White House.

Urban and I stayed in a line which snaked its way through the East Wing (past an open broom closet, full of buckets and mops) and into the Map Room, where, during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt spent much time pouring over maps to track the progress of Allied troops.

Finally, we entered the Diplomatic Reception Room. I looked at Obama – his suit was identical to mine! Right down to the necktie! Had Misty dressed him too?

When it came time for our photograph, Urban stood next to Michelle Obama and I stood next to the president. We chatted briefly; I told him he should come to Cincinnati in May for Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game. Willie Mays, Billie Jean King and Harry Belafonte were to be honored.

Yes, that's interesting; I'll have to look into that…maybe we can do that, the president said.

Of course, he didn't show up in May.

But we took our picture. And, of course, I had my eyes closed when the Marine photographer took the shot.

We were hustled out of the room; I thanked Mrs. Obama for the invitation and the hospitality. They could not have been more friendly. But they had a lot of photos to take and hands to shake.

Sometime between 9:30 and 10 p.m., the Marines in their dress uniforms and the stewards started gently shooing us out the door.

I walked about the first floor, admiring the beauty of the place; and finally walked out into the cold winter's night for the walk back to my hotel.

I felt a tad tipsy – I'm not sure if it was the Old Dominion or just an after effect from the experience.

But I was one happy fella.

A few days later, I returned to Cincinnati and walked into the Enquirer.

The 2009 White House Christmas Ornament
Credit Howard Wilkinson

I had a gift for Robin – an official 2009 White House Christmas ornament. She says she still has it.

It was the least I could do.

After all, without her, this Christmas miracle might never have happened.