Slate's Politics: Holiday Parties at the White House

'Tis the season for holiday festivities in our nation's capital. Madeleine Brand talks with Slate political correspondent John Dickerson about the annual White House holiday parties, and how much of President Bush's attention they'll occupy between now and Christmas, and beyond. The president will host a total of 26 parties at the executive mansion.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

If you're hosting a holiday party this month, you know it can be a demanding and thankless task. Well, imagine if you had to host 26 holiday parties with more than 9,000 guests. That's how many parties the White House is throwing this year. John Dickerson is chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate, and he's written an article that looks behind the scenes at this massive holiday cheer factory.

And, John, 26 holiday parties. That's more than one a day, isn't it?

JOHN DICKERSON (Slate): That's right. On some days, they call them two-a-days. There's one party from 4 to 6, then they get a little bit of a break, and then there's another one from 7 to 9. They've developed a very precise operation at the White House where they get you in, you do your cheery business and then they get you out quickly.

BRAND: What's your cheery business?

DICKERSON: Well, you have two options at a White House holiday party. This is at the press party. The other parties are for the diplomatic corps, for the Secret Service, for White House staffers, for the electricians, the plumbers. You can spend your time eating and mingling or you can wait in line for a picture with the president and those are your two options and you have to make your decision quickly because the line forms for the president, and if it gets too long, you could be left out of the photo session.

BRAND: And is that the most desirable part of the party, to get your photo taken with the president?

DICKERSON: It depends. Most people who attend the White House holiday parties want to get their photo taken with the president, even the members of the press who try to maintain a professional distance. And so that line forms early and people are very happy to get a photograph with the president.

BRAND: And so when you're getting your picture taken, I guess you have--What?--all of three seconds to actually have a conversation with the president and first lady?

DICKERSON: That's right. This is how it works. A Marine will call out your name and then you'll have to walk quickly to your spot next to the president and the first lady. If you can exchange some conversation then, that's fine, but the picture's about to be taken. It's snapped and then they move you on your way because the next couple is coming into place.

BRAND: Who gets on these guest lists? You mentioned earlier journalists, the diplomatic corps, etc. But I imagine it must be quite a coveted invitation.

DICKERSON: That's right. And there are a number of parties that are for the president's political allies and Karl Rove, his top political man in the White House, keeps a list going long before the Christmas season arrives and he pays back people who have donated money or helped the president along the campaign trail. So people come from all over the country. And it's also a way that the president's political operation can sort of get some favors in line for whatever they may want to do next. And so a lot of people who are coming to these parties are there for political purposes.

BRAND: So you're describing something that seems like a chore for everybody. Does anyone enjoy these things?

DICKERSON: People complain about the party, but there is also this kind of mist that comes over people and they start to talk about the White House the way little children might. And the decorations are quite extraordinary and they're very tasteful with a few small exceptions, and people mostly in bulk have a cheerful kind of glowing sense about them when they go through this, though they may complain to their more cynical friends behind the scenes.

BRAND: And, John, are you going this year?

DICKERSON: I am going this year.

BRAND: And you're going to get a photo?

DICKERSON: I'm not sure whether I'll get a photo. I've gotten a photo two of three years I've gone, and it depends whether I want to spend that time waiting in line or visit with the others at the parties. It's a decision one has to make in the mood of the moment.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

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