Re-viewing the situation

It seemed smaller than I expected it would be. The ceiling was a little lower and the hallways narrower. But it was pretty awe inspiring, especially that short corridor leading to the big, dark, wood-grained door with the presidential seal on it. The name itself invoked a mixture of respect and anxiety: The Situation Room. Big things happen here. Critical decisions made, disasters averted, policies hammered out, secrets kept, power wielded. The West Wing of the White House, up close and personal.

I was standing in front of that big door, together with a few Puget Sound alumni and colleagues, at 10 p.m. on a cold February night, just weeks after a new president had been inaugurated. Through the window, up on the second floor of the residence only a few steps away, we could see a light glowing into the winter night. I imagined the prez there, working through the day’s challenges, anticipating the tougher ones no doubt confronting him in the morning. I was hoping he might just wander over to the Situation Room to pick up a top-secret file, run into us, and strike up a conversation. Maybe invite us over to shoot a few hoops and, between jump shots, talk through the big conundrums he was facing. But no luck. The light burned steadily upstairs at the residence as I kept staring at that big wooden door.

“We’d better go,” Lacey said, tugging gently at my arm. “We’ve stayed long enough.”

That was the voice of Lacey Chong ’03, co-chair of the Puget Sound Washington, D.C., regional alumni club, conducting us on this private tour of the West Wing, the White House grounds, and her office, right there next to the West Wing in the then nearly empty Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Pretty cool. Not what we usually do after an alumni club event. Normally, we just go out for a burger.

I turned and stepped over the cord of a big vacuum cleaner and said goodnight to the two janitors who were cleaning the place, nodded my appreciation to the military security guard who let us in—one of the many security guards we ran into on the grounds—and followed Lacey out. Lacey knew all the guards, and they knew her.

“You can’t see them,” she whispered when we got outside, “but there are sharpshooters up on the roof of the residence protecting the president and his family right now.”

Lacey works for the National Security Council, in the Homeland Security department. I can’t tell you what Lacey does because she can’t tell me or anybody else. It’s top secret and pretty important. I can say this: It’s not strange for Lacey to walk over there to the West Wing on a mission in the course of a day’s work. Very cool.

You might remember Lacey’s office building by its earlier name, “The Old Executive Office Building”; or “The State, War, and Navy Building” (as it was originally called); or, as Mark Twain liked to refer to it, “The Ugliest Building in America.” I found the structure pretty impressive. Built in the elaborate style of the French Second Empire, it had the look of a place of power, whereas the West Wing had a more familiar and domestic feel. Here were great big hallways, wide spiraling staircases ending in elaborate stained-glass skylights way up there, huge doors along the corridor with important titles on them, historic paintings and statues and plaques everywhere you looked. Teddy Roosevelt triumphant with the Rough Riders on the top of San Juan Hill, that kind of thing. Power. Permanence. Authority.

But then, right there on the oversized  doors of a lot of the offices we walked by that night were little yellow sticky-notes with names and titles hand-scrawled on them, stuck over the tops of engraved signs—names of very important people (like the council of economic advisors and state department types) who were about to move into their new offices and replace the old administration. Emblems of contingency amidst the structures of authority. Symptoms of power’s elusiveness at the core of its machinery. Strewn through some hallways were piles of old computers (not so old, really) from the previous occupants, all bundled up in plastic wrap and inventoried with barcodes, ready to be removed the next day. Security is so tight that hard disks in this building are not only purged when the new people come in, the whole machine is wrapped up, destroyed, and replaced. Just like the giant framed pictures of the former administration that once lined the walls of the West Wing. They had all already been supplanted by photos of the recent inauguration of the new guy. A big pile of twisted old black frames—freshly emptied of their prior occupants’ images to make way for the new ones—cluttered an entryway over at the old office building, too.

There have been a lot of transitions here at the old office building, a lot of situations wrangled over and dealt with right next door in the Situation Room. Sixteen secretaries of the Navy in this big old building, 21 secretaries of war under those skylights, 24 secretaries of state. And all those presidents walking those spiral stairs. Churchill was here. Roosevelt. Truman. Kennedy. Johnson. Bush, Cheney, and Rice. Now Obama, Biden, Clinton.

And Lacey Chong ’03 right in the middle of it all, working on behalf of the nation’s security and safety—and ours.