The West Wing We Knew | by Susannah Jacob



David Nakamura/The Washington Publish through Getty Pictures

Empty frames that after contained pictures of President Obama lining the partitions of the West Wing, down the hallway from the Oval Workplace, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017

These days, I’m wondering what’s left of the outdated West Wing, and the way it may really feel to set foot there once more. Spacious and light-filled on tv, the true West Wing on Pennsylvania Avenue has low ceilings, fraying electrical wires, cramped quarters, and is inhabited by gangs of flies, and daring, darting mice. It has workaday smells: the president’s lunch cooking on a sizzling plate in a closet off the Oval Workplace, exhaust fumes from Marine One pushing off from the South Garden, and, every now and then, the odor of a kind of mice, departed and decaying within the partitions of the State of affairs Room; and one other time, a faint burning odor coming from the ceiling, attributable to {an electrical} fireplace. “The president is actually not within the Oval as a result of it smells like somebody lit a tire on fireplace,” a junior aide reported out on the time. 

For 3 years I labored there. As an assistant speechwriter to Barack Obama, I shared a windowless workplace wedged into the slope of the South Garden. I beloved the West Wing. Its odd trappings advised, rightly, a spot of working individuals. Its tight quarters put the work of the presidency on a human scale, giving each day life inside an intimacy, a way of risk, and humor. The constructing’s agedness made its historical past inescapable and advised my very own private transience. The haphazard refurbishments and put on and tear of previous administrations was throughout, however I used to be most delicate to working in a constructing envisioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the final particular person to undertake a serious renovation of the West Wing. The current-day West Wing persists as a permanent metaphor for FDR’s brave imaginative and prescient of the American presidency.

In July, Donald Trump requested Senate Republicans to earmark $377 million in pandemic reduction funds to gut-renovate the West Wing. If Trump loses, his proposed renovation appears much less more likely to occur, however the risk alone has symbolic energy: Trump’s reconfiguring past recognition the final vestiges of a constructing made in FDR’s mildew, and maybe of the workplace of the presidency, too. If the Trump administration ever ends, I hope its reminiscence places an enduring dent within the romance of the American presidency. It’s a nationwide romance, or fixation, at all times assured to serve a storyline, however extra exceptionally does that romance serve the American individuals—the thought tempers my very own reminiscing concerning the West Wing. However because the election attracts shut, I discover myself returning there in my thoughts, believing within the constructing’s metaphoric energy.


Charles Ommanney/Getty Pictures

President Obama engaged on a speech with Jon Favreau, Ben Rhodes, and David Axelrod within the Oval Workplace, Washington, D.C., February 20, 2009

After I labored there, I delighted in observing how the West Wing’s modesty impressed newcomers. As soon as, my father—a Republican who had railed towards authorities extra all my life—came visiting. He picked at my wood-laminate desk and declared, with nice shock, “low-cost shit.” Within the spring of 2015, a delegation of Gulf state leaders visited the White Home. Whereas the heads of state met with Obama, their entourages waited flooring under, within the West Wing’s White Home Navy Mess, a eating room no bigger than a two-car storage. They drank espresso from paper cups coated in Styrofoam and studied the sturdy institutional carpet underfoot with seeming bewilderment. I toured my roommate’s mother and father, visiting from Ukraine, by the West Wing’s halls. With few phrases, they admired the constructing’s simplicity and the images on the partitions. On the finish, Tatyana’s mom, self-conscious about her English, requested simply two questions: “What does the president take for drink?” and “Who cleans these places of work?” Erstwhile occupants have been moved by it, too.

One August afternoon, once I introduced Jimmy Carter’s former aide Gerald Rafshoon to the West Wing. He gazed in by the doorway of the Oval Workplace and, as if transported to the final days of the Carter administration and re-living the presidency-ending Iran hostage disaster, he whispered, “If solely we’d spent the marketing campaign cash on three extra Apache helicopters.”

Once they arrived in 2017, Trump and his workers have been reportedly unimpressed by the flies and the West Wing’s general, government-issue look. Shortly after the election, Jared Kushner advised the Obama aide touring him round that the West Wing “appeared like one of many president-elect’s golf course clubhouses.” They’ve labored on that some extra: piecemeal renovations began quickly after they arrived. Helpfully, Trump changed the West Wing’s wheezing HVAC system, which despatched odd drafts by its in any other case airless halls—one by no means knew if the homeland safety adviser’s closed door indicated a temperature management concern or a nationwide emergency. Different modifications have been largely beauty: along with a large flat-screen TV, Trump added a glass chandelier to his personal eating room, off the Oval Workplace. “Look I made a contribution to the White Home,” he advised reporters, including, “We discovered gold behind the partitions, which I at all times knew.”

Trump redecorated the Oval Workplace in cartoon trend, all yellows and gilt. He had staff carpet the West Wing’s hallways in plush grey, and grasp gaudy, eagle-adorned matching curtains, limp and heavy on the home windows. They spray-painted gold the black plastic picture frames known as jumbos that grasp on the West Wing’s partitions displaying the White Home photographer’s most up-to-date photos of the presidency. Within the press workplace, they rolled out wealthy blue carpeting and coated desks in faux-marble contact paper. They gutted and renovated the kitchens of the Navy Mess, and the Kennedy-era, wood-paneled eating rooms the place senior workers and visitors lunch. They re-did the beforehand institutional-looking loos, I’m advised, in marble and gold trim, and added lighting fixtures all through. To the downstairs lobby, they added a wall of private lockers like these within the girls’s altering room within the Georgetown Equinox, after Trump’s former Chief of Workers John Kelly banned private telephones within the workplace to forestall leaks. Earlier this summer time, Melania Trump renovated the Rose Backyard, uprooting the tulips that stood so straight as to look stuck-in, and making it extra accessible—to individuals with disabilities, but in addition, particularly, to tv digicam crews.

In fact, a serious renovation of the West Wing of the dimensions Trump has proposed is lengthy overdue. The political optics of self-interest and extra, and the annoyance of transferring, dissuaded Trump’s predecessors, together with Obama, from taking it on, however the constructing sags, leaks, and its deteriorating wiring are the bane of each IT technician attempting to ship constant Web in a now-or-never ambiance.

I hope Trump is not going to oversee the renovation he desires, and that any future one will protect, in type and perspective, FDR’s touches, which have been all over the place I turned. Throughout his twelve-year presidency, Roosevelt had the fieldstone colonnade lining the Rose Backyard graded in order that he may wheel to work every morning. He moved the Oval Workplace, so it ignored the Rose Backyard, giving that room its present-day, breathtaking gentle, which streams in from the South Garden, so vibrant as to make standing there really feel unreal. A each day swimmer, he put in the White Home’s first pool. Immediately, the empty, aqua-tiled chamber homes the tv networks’ mass of buzzing transmission gear. In the course of the FDR growth, architects added a courtyard on the base of a windowed pit within the floor, in order that the workers who occupied the places of work down there wouldn’t be exiled from daylight. By the point it turned the cramped quarters of Obama’s speechwriters, the sunshine effectively had been crammed in, and we labored oblivious of the climate outdoors or time of the day.

FDR additionally noticed his modifications to the constructing as symbolic of his transformation of the workplace, too. Earlier than leaving for his summer time trip, when the work of renovation would start, he delivered one in all his fireplace chats, wherein he promised to guard the “inventive strains” of the White Home. “The requirements of recent authorities enterprise require fixed reorganization and rebuilding,” he stated, occurring:

The architects and builders are males of widespread sense and of inventive American tastes. They know that the rules of concord and of necessity itself require that the constructing of the brand new construction shall mix with the important strains of the outdated. It’s this mix of the outdated and the brand new that marks orderly peaceable progress—not solely in constructing buildings, however in constructing authorities itself.

I keep in mind not solely how the West Wing appeared, however the feeling of inhabiting it—the push and energy adopted by slowness, the ordinariness and humor a part of life’s tempo there. I believe typically of the individuals who got here with the constructing, and people who work there nonetheless—their West Wing excursions of responsibility should not term-limited, nor are they a lot memorialized. The Nationwide Park Service painters brushing white varnish over amassed fingerprints on the doorframes of the West Wing, the place individuals had rested their fingers. When the touch-up paint grew so thick round an Oval Workplace doorframe, and needed to be scraped off, I requested one painter why he didn’t merely wipe off the prints as an alternative. “I’m a painter, not a cleaner,” he advised me matter-of-factly, and saved working. The younger Secret Service officer standing guard on the Pennsylvania Avenue gate, a part of an overworked corps of recent recruits pulling twelve-hour shifts, six days per week. One morning, I put my umbrella by the steel detector tip first, and it almost impaled him. After I apologized, he advised me, half-smiling, “It’s okay; I’d get two paid weeks off.” The sailors working the takeout window within the West Wing’s Navy Mess, affecting a take-it-as-it-comes perspective towards the each day onslaught of harried, self-important West Wing staffers. One afternoon, I watched John Kerry emerge from a gathering within the State of affairs Room subsequent door, holding a plastic binder full of papers. He tapped the countertop restaurant bell twice, craning his neck into the pass-through, straining for consideration. “Hi there?” Kerry known as, with urgency. “What’s the yogurt taste of the day?”


Brendan Smialowski/AFP through Getty Pictures

President Obama strolling from the West Wing to the residence of the White Home with a binder of potential Supreme Courtroom nominees, Washington, D.C., February 19, 2016

With the election days away, I keep in mind with contemporary dread the unusual and haunting manner it felt on the finish of Obama’s administration: the West Wing started to really feel “like a seaside ball somebody sat on,” a colleague stated on the time. After which there was the morning of November 10, 2016, when Obama acquired Trump within the Oval Workplace. “For any given factor, there have been at all times greater than sufficient individuals who needed to return,” an Obama aide advised me. “This, nobody needed to expertise.” When it turned obvious that Trump—already en path to the White Home in a Secret Service motorcade—was some minutes forward of schedule, an Obama aide requested the staff to “slow-roll” it. By some means, atypically, the request went unanswered, a faint sign of the tectonic shift to return, the start of the top. The president and his two aides hurried alongside the colonnade to greet the president-elect within the diplomatic reception room, the place he arrived early.

A month later, when Obama delivered one in all his final press briefings, he made a drained try to record his achievements as president, however quickly he relented to reporters’ questions on what he knew and had carried out to cease Russia from interfering within the 2016 election. Within the warmth of the lights amid the jam of individuals, one reporter fainted. Standing on the podium, the president requested for the White Home physician, Ronny Jackson. Lengthy, televised minutes handed, and Dr. Jackson didn’t seem.

I watched the scene unfold on a thirteen-inch monitor mounted on the wall of my West Wing basement workplace. Obama appeared so alone. He continued standing on the podium, eyes and lenses glued on him and his impatient expression. “Is anyone grabbing our physician?” Lastly, he started giving instructions to Dr. Jackson’s workplace, as if making ready to stroll there himself. “Do you guys know the place the physician’s workplace is? Simply undergo the Palm Room doorways, it’s proper subsequent to the Map Room,” he stated.

I watched Obama’s well mannered impatience develop with every passing second as Dr. Jackson failed to seem. Perhaps no staffers outdoors the Briefing Room have been watching, I assumed, in panic. I darted from my workplace, previous the closet the place, I had been advised, aides as soon as saved the recording gear for FDR’s Oval Workplace press conferences, and bounded up the steps two at a time to the press places of work, a brief stroll from the briefing room. The aides I discovered there have been transfixed in horror, however simply then, finally, Dr. Jackson confirmed up.

“There he’s,” Obama stated. And right here he was once more, this previous Could, now working as Republican candidate for Texas’s thirteenth congressional district, and tweeting, “President Obama weaponized the very best ranges of our authorities to spy on President Trump.”

“All proper, there’s Doc Jackson,” Obama stated, letting go his irritation. “He’s all proper. OK, the physician is in the home.”



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