Washington, D.C. - The stories about people who sneak into White House parties just keeping coming, and I'm getting annoyed. Why doesn't everyone leave us alone?
I mean them. Leave them alone.
Ok, yes - I snuck into a White House party a few years ago. I shook hands with First Lady Laura Bush, then stayed to eat and drink for a few hours. Getting in without being on the guest list was so easy that I figured it was no big deal.
I've since learned that some people around here feel differently. There people snuck into a state dinner at the White House way back in November, and parts of official Washington are still doing the "how could this happen" ritual. A congressional committee held a hearing this month to demand answers from two of the people who slipped into the White House bash, and when the couple refused to answer questions, you'd have thought they were withholding Iran's nuclear secrets.
I hate to see Congress upset. Want to know how someone sneaks into a White House party? I'll tell you.
Then, let it go.
I understand the security concerns. And the social-climbing couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, give me the ickies. But am I the only one who enjoys seeing that, despite all the cement barricades around places of power and all the lists that dictate who can go here but not there, someone can still talk their way into a snooty party?
After all, gate-crashing is an American tradition, from baseball games to weddings to inaugurations. That's why one of the top movies of 2005 was The Wedding Crashers. That's why people have made names for themselves by breaking into Hollywood parties, even posting the videos on a website. And didn't we all cheer for that teenager who slipped past Soviet air defenses to landed his Cessna on Red Square in 1987?
The common denominator that lets all of this happen is human judgment. That's how I got to meet Mrs. Bush at the White House.
Just Hop on the Bus
It's October 2005, and I'm at Howard University covering a White House conference called "Helping America's Youth" - a day-long talkfest about youth programs hosted by the first lady. As editor of the national newspaper for people who run youth programs, I'm there primarily to mingle with the 300 people in the audience. The event itself is just another of Washington's hot air productions; I'm glad when it mercifully ends.
As we file out to the street, someone asks if I'm going to the reception at the White House. Damn those White House press people; they didn't tell me about the reception. I'd love to go, for networking purposes. I say no and walk toward my car, the dejected kid who didn't get invited to the party.
Then I see something down the street that inspires me: People from the conference climbing onto unmarked coach buses. I ask someone in line if these are the buses to the White House; he says yes.
What the heck. I join the line and chat with people around me as we shuffle up the steps of the bus. I tend to talk with people on lines anyway, but I'm also a basic gate-crashing tactic: Look like you know people who are getting in.
Even to me, my effort seems lame; I don't expect to get past the driver. The first time I tried some amateur move like this was in high school, when I got snagged trying to blend into a line of older kids going into an R-rated movie. If a dork who rips tickets could catch me back then, I figure, then surely some federal agent on the bus will stop me now.
No one on the bus checks our names. The transportation arrangement works on the assumption that if you walk out of the building at Howard and onto the bus, you belong on bus.
I sit and talk to the woman next to me about the youth program she runs, further cementing my image as part of the crowd.
All the while, I wonder how far I can carry my prank. As the bus approaches the White House, my stomach tightens. I feel foolish. Surely the guards at the big place will check names against a list of invitees. Will I be exposed on the sidewalk outside the gates? On the grounds, where the Secret Service sometimes shoots people for sneaking in? In the White House, from where a pair of soldiers will dump me onto Pennsylvania Avenue?
If the buses drive through gates, I'm home free. They'll let us out on the assumption that everyone on the bus has been cleared. I silently pray, "Please go through the gates."
The buses park on 14th Street, just outside the White House grounds.
Down the sidewalk we walk toward the black iron gates. A pair of guards and some intern-looking types are holding printed lists and asking people their names. I chat nonchalantly with people around me while my brain plays a preview of my pending humiliation: The guard will search his papers, shake his head and declare those shame-inducing words, "You're not on the list." I'll feign surprise, ask him to check again. I'll step aside to let others pass.
Eventually, I'll shrug and say there must be some mix-up. I'll wave goodbye and smile like this is no biggie, then crawl back to 14th Street and hail a cab back to Howard, where my car will display a parking ticket.
I reach the guards. I give them my name. They shuffle through their papers. One asks for my name again. The other lets people through. I know some of them and say things like, "Hi, Nancy. See ya inside."
I don't realize it, but I'm following the advice of Amir Bar-Lev, a party crasher who told Wired in 2001: "The fundamental principle is confidence. If you act like you belong there, you'll get in. If you have one iota of doubt, you won't."
I do not press my case with the guard. It seems like enough to let him face the unfolding situation: The line has slowed because he's checking for my name, which I seem to think should be on his list. I'm known by people who've already gone in. I got off the bus with the group. Which came from an event called "Helping America's Youth." Which was hosted by the first lady.
The guard makes a reasonable judgment that I'm safe. He writes my name at the bottom of the list and waves me in.
This is how the third party crasher at the White House last fall says he got in. Carlos Allen told The Washington Post that he went to the Willard Hotel, where the Indian delegation had gathered, and when they got in line to go across the street to the White House, he joined the line.
Once inside the East Wing, I feel not so much like, "Wow, I'm in the White House " - I've been here before - as "Thank God I didn't get chased from the White House." We go through a metal detector and join yet another line, at the end of which stands Mrs. Bush, shaking hands.
Here is where the danger of my intrusion lies: I am about to touch the first lady, and have not bee pre-approved to do so. I introduce myself without incident. Mrs. Bush graciously says "thank you for coming" for the 246th time in a row.
She does not join the finger food reception, so I don't get to make small talk, like, "So, how did you get here?"
I got there because I caught a break from human nature, which is still an element in most security systems. I realize this could be dangerous in certain circumstances. But I'm glad I got in, because anyone who has had his name wrongly left off a list - like a hotel reservation or conference registration - knows that even though we need security systems, we also need room for people to make judgments.