Sunday, June 2, 2013

No visitors allowed: a medieval solution to the cessation of White House tours

Versailles. Fontainebleau. Windsor Castle. The Tower of London. The Vatican Palace. In the old world, lives were made and broken in these halls of power. Some people go to tea gardens or the great outdoors to commune with nature; I choose to tour historic sites and get in touch with the forefathers of our civilization by walking through the same corridors, seeing the same walls they passed through day in and day out. The places I mentioned above are just a few of the great buildings I've visited in the past, but one very important site is conspicuously absent from that list: the presidential palace of my own country, the White House.

Every time I've visited Washington, DC in the past and checked with my local member of Congress to get tickets for the White House, they were either unavailable or I was asking less than a month in advance. Since it's an active seat of government and not just a museum, and the President is probably the most desirable assassination target on the planet, I understand the need to jump through hoops. Truly, I do. But this year, before another upcoming trip to the capital, I checked with my Congressman again, only to find this message on his website:
"President Obama has chosen to suspend White House tours effective March 9, 2013. The President claims that this is due to sequester spending cuts. But there are plenty of unnecessary and duplicative government programs that could be cut instead of White House tours. The President should find ways to reduce spending in other areas so White House tours can resume. Meanwhile, public tours of the United States Capitol will remain open. Congress chose to implement alternative spending reductions to ensure that public tours of our nation’s Capitol building would continue. Please enjoy your time in the nation’s Capital. And if we can be of help in other ways, let us know."

Indeed. I confirmed on the White House's own website and other sources that tours are still suspended. Now, some people make a profession out of reading the news and hating President Obama (or Bush, five years ago) for everything he does or doesn't do. They remind me of those who blame God for starving children in Africa, and in doing so, they've made Obama a god in their own minds. In this instance, however, I believe I'm fair in saying that the President, being clearly in charge of White House affairs, has committed a major faux pas here, and it's not just because touring the White House has been one of my aspirations since I read a book about it in the 3rd grade. How many generations of children have passed through the East Room, the Blue Room, the Lincoln Bedroom, inspired to ask themselves, "some day I will work here"? Not anymore, apparently. A transparent administration? Negro, please. We can't even see the public areas of your house now; and I use "your" in a very limited sense, because the White House is actually the property of the state, funded by the public. It stands to reason that with the proper precautions, good citizens should be able to tour the seat of the executive branch, just as I can still visit the Capitol or the Supreme Court building. Right?

The given reason for the suspension of tours is to cut federal spending. A noble goal in itself, but the cessation of tours only saves the Secret Service about $74,000 a week. That's just a drop in the great ocean of deficit, but it still raises the question of why it would cost that much just to give tours. Having never been on one, I couldn't imagine.... I do have one solution nonetheless. 

In the medieval world, a noble family would send their children away to be trained in the arts of war and leadership at another nobleman's castle. The first step on the path to knighthood was becoming a page, a servant in another lord's household. Perhaps one reason the medievals sent their children away was to break them out of their comfort zones and more quickly adapt to responsibility and obedience. In any case, our federal government today has a similar institution. The U.S. Senate has pages recruited from the nation's brightest high school juniors to deliver messages and otherwise serve senators' daily needs. The House of Representatives had pages as well until 2011, again due to budget cuts and a belief that they were obsolete in our age of smart phones and other toys (which clearly misses the point entirely). 

Capitol pages with Vice President Thomas Marshall (Wilson administration)

But still, flying in, housing and feeding all those pages from around the country for all those Congressmen must have cost some money. Let's assume, for now, that the cut was reasonable. I have a similar, but more cost-friendly solution for the White House. Let the President instead take as his "servants" the children of statesmen who already live and work in the capital: the children of Congressmen, other federal officials and their employees. They would naturally want their children to get a "foot in the door" of political office by working as closely to the President as possible, so positions will be competitive. But since their parents work in DC, they can go directly home afterward without the need for room and board provided by federal funds. And of course, as children of civil servants, they would be working at the White House for free. The only cost to the government would be minimal Secret Service supervision in case things go awry. The children get a taste of responsibility and get to meet hundreds or even thousands of their future "subjects" every week through tours. It's a win-win for everybody.