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The vacation I spent, and spent, in the Whitehouse

It was a year ago when my wife and I began thinking of taking a vacation trip to our nation’s capital. A friendly fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee recommended lodging in the center of town in order to be close to the sights. And what could be more convenient–or more secure–than The White House?

Tennis, swimming, excellent food, fine furnishings — even the eminent Ritz Carlton nearby could not hope to compare.

I admit to having a certain amount of clout as president of Acme Ball Bearings Co. (our motto: “We Can Roll Anyone”). But, my wife wondered whether even I could arrange to stay at such a prestigious address.

No problem. It turned out to be open to anyone who was a personal friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton. And absolutely free. To become such a friend you merely needed to make a contribution to the Democratic National Committee.

How big a contribution, it seemed, naturally enough, depended on one’s choice of accommodation. Anyone who has stayed in a hotel knows how that works, so I am surprised that it has raised so much comment in the media. Those who contributed $100,000, for example, might be asked to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom. If you dropped in $50,000, you might stay in the Queen’s Bedroom. Lesser sums presumably evidenced a more distant friendship with the Clintons and warranted proportionately lesser accommodations.

But we didn’t want to consider anything less than the best, for, as the head of Acme BB, I had always felt a hitherto unrequited intimacy with the Clinton family in general, and with the President of the United States, in particular.

We put down a $25,000 deposit and were delighted by the prompt issuance of an invitation. Later we paid the balance of $75,000 and learned from our contact at the DNC that we suddenly had been remembered as very good friends of the President, indeed.

We got our hopes up, and so did my colleagues at Acme BB, which, coincidentally, had a little business deal going with China and was hoping for some help from the Commerce Department. Maybe, if we contributed another $50,000, we might get invited to have coffee with Mr. Clinton himself.

So we put in another contribution, and guess what? Just coincidentally, it turned out that the day we were invited to stay in their home the Clintons were scheduled to be there, too. And the morning of our check-out the President was going to have a cup of coffee and let us have one with him. Many overnighters never see the President or First Lady at all!

When we arrived at the White House gate we were ushered–quickly–past the press room, and then past the East Wing, where mere tourists were standing in line for the regular White House tour. Believe me, ordinary visitors only get to see the state rooms and aren’t allowed anywhere near the Oval Office, let alone the private quarters upstairs. We got to see everything they did, plus much more, and without waiting in line. Still, it did seem a bit annoying that they got in without making any campaign contributions at all. I wondered,when did that start?

Anyway, we were thrilled when we finally were taken up the Roosevelt elevator and down the hall, past the Records Shredding Room, to the Lincoln Bedroom.

Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, who stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom, said the towels looked worn. Well, first of all, who is he to complain? He probably got in on sheer political “pull,” and paid nothing at all. Secondly, the bell boy from the DNC explained that keeping the furnishings fresh was a constant chore. “The Hollywood people and all those Arkansans just run off with things,” he confided.

Fortunately, the White House has learned a lot from other upscale hotels, so now the Democratic National Committee section of the White House provide each visitor with a catalog of high-quality souvenirs that one can order at any time. Monogramed towels are $3,800 each. A reproduction of a shaving mug left by Winston Churchill on one of his visits to see FDR, goes for $5,500. (I was afraid to ask the price of the original.) Those little shampoo and hand lotion bottles–plastic, but with the White House design–are a bargain at $1,900 each.

I loved the Lincoln Bedroom. It’s truly authentic and when you think of who has been there– representatives of some of the biggest special interests in America –you can only feel humble.

The only drawback was the noise. The people sleeping next door in a converted maid’s room ($14,890 a night, I was told), the couple in the broom closet ($9,500), along with the 12 guests on cots in the hall ($7,400 a night each; but only $6,950 if you bring your own sleeping bag) were up until dawn playing poker and singing Ozark folk tunes.

Still, coffee with the President the next day was a splendid occasion. Along with 30 others who were special, longtime friends of the President for that day, I met a helpful China expert from the Commerce Department and was given an inspirational pep talk by another DNC offical.

We even met Vice President Gore, who was just taking a break from “dialing for dollars.” I was glad to have a chance to explain the unfortunate circumstances about the call he had made to our house a few weeks earlier. My 12 year old son had hung up on him that night after pointing out that “We don’t take phone solicitations during dinner.” I told “Al” I just hoped he would try us at a more appropriate hour next time, and gave him a check for $10,000 for his trouble.

We were tempted to contribute some more money to see if we could get invited to sit in the Presidential Box at the Kennedy Center or take a morning jog with the President. There even were hints of excursions to Camp David and flights on Air Force One. But I think it is always good travel advice to leave some attractions for your next visit, don’t you?

Meanwhile, one can only express satisfaction that these experiences, which in the past have been available only ocassionally to friends of Presidents, and then without any clear connection between partisan donations and rewards, have finally been organized by the Clinton Administration as a thoroughgoing business.

I was particularly glad to read that President himself has assured the nation that “the Lincoln Bedroom was not sold.” After all, I might like to rent it again.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.