West Wing Story: 'Tis Not The Season

The White House has decided that its doors will stay closed to public tours--even for the holidays. Nobody at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is more upset about this decision than the First Lady, who often refers to the mansion as the "People's House." Of course, there were always sections that were off limits to the public. During tours, a screen stood between the tour pathway and the stairs leading to the residence. When Laura Bush used to go downstairs to take the dogs for a walk she often heard the sounds of excited citizens beyond the screen. Since the tours ended on September 11, then restarted for a day, then ended again, Mrs. Bush says, "It's lonely and sort of quiet in there. So I hope that will come back pretty soon."

No such luck. The word from the White House is that the tours are off limits "until further notice" for security reasons. "Evil does not take a break or take a rest for the holidays," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said on Tuesday. The Secret Service decided it was still too risky to let just anyone traipse through the hallowed halls. But there is political risk in the decision as well. How can Americans be expected to return to normal if the People's House still feels under siege?

There has long been a tug-of-war between the Secret Service and city officials. Six years ago, the Secret Service won its battle to shut off a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue; the cab drivers still complain about it. But D.C. commuters are used to motorcades suddenly stopping traffic. Pedestrians who try to walk by the White House during the arrival or departure of a foreign dignitary often find that they are rerouted around the block. But the news of the White House tours got the city hot because tourism has dropped dramatically since September 11 and the holidays were their chance to make it up. "The federal government is the Scrooge of the season," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton declared.

Instead of the real White House promoting Washington tourism, it's fallen to the cast of "The West Wing" TV show to do that. Several of the show's actors have donated their time to film public-service announcements beckoning visitors to D.C. That's ironic, because none of the cast members live in D.C. and "The West Wing" is not popular among those who actually work in the White House. If there is an "in" show among Bush staffers, it would be "Saturday Night Live." Even Bush and Cheney occasionally get a kick out of their imitators. A few staffers have perfected the Bush squinty eyebrows and they are working on the Cheney sideways mouth thing.

It's "The "West Wing" that seems like a cheap imitation. "They always have all those people hurrying everywhere," says one White House aide. There is not a lot of running in the halls at the Bush White House. I'm always struck by how neat and clean the press briefing room seems on the show. The seats are a bright royal blue, free of coffee and ink stains. In the TV version, reporters' cubbyholes are transformed into offices with doors that close. If the accommodations look more posh than reality, the dress code is decidedly more downscale: there are no jeans in the Bush White House. Not even among the most disheveled reporters.

Now that tours are closed, people have little choice but to watch "The West Wing" to get a feel for the White House. Mrs. Bush, who started planning Christmas decorations in July, is disappointed that only invited guests will get to see the 80 pounds of gingerbread and 30 pounds of chocolate that go into the gingerbread house. It's a replica of the White House from the year 1800. This year's theme is "Home for the Holidays." Unfortunately, for the city of Washington, that is exactly where the 3,000 tourists who usually come through for a day during the holidays will likely stay: at home.