I haven’t done a Monday morning travel post for a while, when I take some time to reflect on a place I have visited and what I loved about and learned from it. It’s been a little while since I have travelled and there has been a lot else going on. But as I’m starting to prepare for a trip to the US, including Washington DC, in just over three weeks time, I’m thinking it would be great to pop in today to one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and be reminded again about the responsibilities and opportunities of influence and power, as well as its limitations.
As a foreigner, it’s not easy to organise a visit to the White House. Apparently it is possible to book months in advance through the Australian embassy, but I have not yet come across anyone visiting as a tourist who has actually made that work. For me, it was arranged through a friend of a family member who was working at the White House and got me onto the public tour – as well as taking me to a couple of places “behind the scenes” (no photos from there – and only mobile phone photos from the tour so apologies for the lack of quality!)
What did I love about visiting the White House?
First of all, I’m a huge fan of the TV series The West Wing, so it actually felt like I was already very familiar with the place 🙂
A number of scenes in various episodes were shot outside these gates …
… I’m pretty sure this entrance hall looked familiar …
… I remember that the OEOB building next door is where the VP and other “less important” staffers work …
… and for bonus points there was even an episode with protestors about what is in this room!
It was December when I visited, so there were all kinds of beautifully decorated Christmas trees everywhere.
Some had ornaments belonging to various dignitaries,
while others stood in places normally occupied by a podium from which the “leader of the free world” speaks.
And the gingerbread version of the White House certainly puts my annual attempts to shame.
Like most people who visit, I think there is an excitement in getting to see just a small glimpse of the corridors of power and places where so many significant decisions have been made and worked out.
As a lover of history of all kinds, the portraits of previous Presidents remind me of the stories of the different times and situations through which they led,
… and the various ways in which the world has been shaped by those who have passed through this place.
What did I learn from visiting the White House?
As well as touring the White House, I managed to secure tickets in the annual lottery to attend the National Christmas Tree Lighting at which the President speaks and numerous entertainers perform.
(This did involve about five hours of sitting in the pouring rain on a cold, December, Washington night, which wasn’t the most fun I (or my Dad!) have ever had).
But it was really interesting to see the patriotism on display, a challenge perhaps to someone like me who comes from a country where we do not always show our political leaders respect or even courtesy.
It was also fascinating to compare and contrast this event with our Aussie traditions of Carols by Candlelight.
My main reason for wanting to go, however, was to hear the President in person. As a lifelong student of politics and history, for me it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear anyone who occupies such an office and try to get a sense of them for yourselves. And I thought Obama lived up to his reputation as an inspirational and persuasive orator.
But something else that sticks with me from that night is the contrast between the trappings of power and wealth and influence seen in this place, and the message that we were there to celebrate. The story of the most powerful king of all, who chose humility, service and sacrifice as the way He showed His glory.
The White House represents power and status in this world, and I will always be keen to understand what takes place there, to recognise its influence in the world and to reflect on the lessons to be learned from the decisions made there. But in the end, I follow an even greater leader, a leader who speaks a message that seems upside-down to everything I see here and throughout this world: that the way to true greatness is found in service, and that the way to exaltation is found in humbly giving yourself up for others.