Three things to keep in mind should I ever be invited back to a White House holiday party: Uttering "Salahi" in line is like saying "bomb" on an airplane; know how to address the first lady before you're in the room with her; and don't blink - you won't get a second picture for a Christmas photo with the commander in chief.
Last week, my wife and I arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. about 15 minutes before a party's scheduled 7 p.m. start time. That commencement hour was the first difference we noted when comparing the current occupants to their predecessors - the Bushes' started, and ended earlier.
There were many other contrasts. When we arrived at the White House perimeter on 15th Street and surveyed the 100 or so individuals already lined up on the sidewalk waiting to enter, there was a lot less fur adorning those invited by the Obamas. Cloth coats were the most popular number and the only designer label I saw said North Face.
It was on the curb that we were asked for the first time - there would be two more requests - for our names and identification so they could be compared with the invitation list. The next time was when we were at the perimeter entrance to the White House grounds, the third about 100 yards later when we were inside the White House compound. This, before snaking, Disney-style, through metal barricades before entering an outbuilding that housed the metal detectors and more detailed screening. As I have grown accustomed to cursing Richard Reed when emptying my liquid bottles at airports, I now found myself cursing the duo who recently crashed the state dinner for the Indian prime minister.
I was not the only one with them on my brain. A woman in line behind me who had appeared on one of the Sunday-morning news programs just last weekend reported that the name is now being used as a verb. Her guest suggested they tell the next check-in official that their last name was "Salahi."
"Don't go there," she answered.
Inside the White House, violinists played in the background as Social Secretary Desiree Rogers greeted guests with a handshake and a "Welcome to the White House." I fumbled to greet her because of the invitation, picture ID, and e-mail trail of party-related correspondence I was clutching. To my wife's embarrassment, I wasn't going to risk "Smerconished" becoming a topic of discussion in the receiving line at a future holiday party, and so I was clutching a proverbial file of paperwork proving our invitation.
Once we were fully vetted, we checked our coats and received our assignment cards, indicating that our appointed time to meet the president and first lady was 7:45 p.m. This was the first confirmation that yes, contrary to some reportage in the days leading up to this party, there would be a photo taken. Good news for the assembled guests. Sad for the Obamas. Holiday parties like this for the first couple are a tortuous process whereby they stand in one formal setting while guests receive coveted clicks of the camera.
In the meantime, we were free to circulate through the ground floor of the White House. The best part? Unlike a tourist visit, there are no stanchions at these holiday parties, meaning you're free to roam a bit more and even sit on the furniture. The decorations are a sight to behold and, contrary to the latest Obama-related Internet lore, the crèche had not been replaced with a Muslim crescent. It was in place, and it was beautiful. So too were all of the decorations.
The White House art collection is breathtaking. And as I remembered from my two dalliances at the White House during the Bush years, the presidential portraits were again a highly trafficked picture-taking area for guests. But this time, unlike what I'd witnessed under President Bush, guests were not lined up to take a picture in front of the formal portrait of President Reagan. That distinction went to Reagan's hall mate: JFK.
At the appointed time, we lined up for our picture with the president and first lady. "What do I call her?" my wife asked as we stood in the Map Room and were about to enter the Diplomatic Reception Room. A good question, and one for which I didn't have the answer.
A moment later, I handed our name card to a man wearing a uniform, one of several whose job it was to introduce guests to the first couple. I told him he got the short end of the stick, having to present the Smernakovs to the Obamas. He laughed after he read the spelling of our name. We were about to greet the president in the same spot the Bushes had stood for photos, and where just four months ago I had the privilege of interviewing the president for my radio show for 30 minutes. The instructions were straightforward, but the knowledge that you are about to greet the first couple makes them seen like an SAT introduction: I was to enter first and shake the president's hand, then that of the first lady. My wife was to follow and do likewise. Then I was to stand next to Michelle Obama, with my wife standing next to the president.
We followed instructions. The president offered me a compliment and unprompted, told the first lady that we were from Philadelphia. I appreciated the personal acknowledgment. Michelle Obama then complimented my wife on her appearance and told me to show her a good time. We all smiled. The lens snapped. And just like that, we were escorted into the China Room.
Our brief encounter with the president was over, though our time in the White House – the ultimate fishbowl – wasn't. At a bar inside the White House front door, I was offered a drink. I think it was called a Robert Frost, and after two of them, I was thinking I spoke poetry. Then I found myself looking out the front door toward Pennsylvania Avenue. I've often been on the outside looking in. The reversed perspective was nice.