Susan's Blog

Friday, July 28, 2006

House Call

The call came while I was on vacation, staying at my parents’ Cape Cod house. We had just come back from the beach, and I was checking voice mail. The message was from Carolyn Something, and it sounded like she said from the White House. I listened with half an ear, my attention suddenly called into sharp focus by the name, “Eunice Shriver,” and the words “black-tie dinner.” I listened again, and when it got to that part, I wordlessly handed the phone to my husband Ned, my wide eyes telling him that he had to listen to this. As he listened, he gave me the thumbs-up sign, and then hung up. We just tried to absorb it all.

“Is it for real?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said.

“So we’re going to meet Bush?”

“Yeah.” I never got too bent out of shape over the implications for my political integrity but I knew that others in my circle would. I whipped off the obligatory heads-up to them and then resumed my fantasizing about what the evening would be like.

This was how the whole night in DC began. With trembling hands, I started trolling the Internet for flight and hotel information, while also calling various friends and family to tell them the wild news: that I was being invited to a black-tie dinner at the White House, where the President and Mrs. Bush were honoring Eunice Kennedy Shriver for her birthday, and Special Olympics, which she had founded in 1963. One friend never called me back or said anything; the others were thrilled and offered their own advice or asked questions, mostly centered around what to wear, and how to use the opportunity to spread various political agendas near and dear to us. I also wondered, naturally, about the flirtation potential.

“Do you think it was Tim Shriver who got you invited?” Ned asked me.

“Who knows?” I replied. “I guess so.” Tim, who is the Chairman of Special Olympics, had called me after I had written about Nat, Rosemary Kennedy, and Special Olympics. He had said that mine was the only good coverage of his Aunt Rosemary, who had just died. Tim felt that I had really “gotten it right,” about her, in that she had been an inspiration to his mother, Eunice, and also the way I did not judge the Kennedys for the debilitating results of the treatments Rosemary had endured. My feeling is that families make the best decisions they can given the information at the time; we all go with our guts, in the end, and hope for the best. I have been there many times, myself, with my children.

My children! I had to get my parents to agree to leave their vacation and come to my house to stay with the boys so that Ned could come with me. I was allowed one “guest,” and of course it would be Ned, and I had to give the White House a lot of information about us for security purposes: dates of birth, legal names (Edward, rather than Ned) social security, how we planned to arrive at the White House. My parents, bless their hearts, agreed right away, then they started making bragging calls to all of their friends.

Ned would need a tux and I needed a dress. I had asked the friendly White House social events person what did most of the women wear; she told me, “Oh, Mrs. Bush will most certainly wear a long, elegant gown, as will most women. A few will wear shorter, elegant dresses.” Elegant. Well, I could do pretty, sexy, cute, ugly, and sometimes even gauche, but elegant would be difficult for me. I figured that my mother, even though she is pretty earthy herself, would know what to do. We went shopping at the Hyannis Mall. Ned started making calls to Mr. Tux, grumbling the whole time about having to wear one, including those dopey black patent leather shoes and sheer black socks.

I must have tried on around 30 dresses that day, from the horribly tacky to the magnificent, finding many that were close, or that could almost close, until finally, Mom suggested Filene’s Basement. I rolled my eyes. Mom with her bargain shopping! So not me. Still, after only five minutes looking, there it was: a sugar pink satin strapless column dress, in my size, a Shelli Segal, one of the best brands Bloomie’s carries. Tried it on, and it was perfection. But it needed spaghetti straps.

Total agreement among the dressing room women, too – always a good sign. Mom was so excited, she bought it for me. Then, onto Marshalls for some $13 strappy pink high heel sandals. Totally psyched about my low budget outfit.

We left our vacation a few days early to be sure we were ready for this. Ned was surprisingly nervous; he is usually the calm one, but this time, I was. “Why aren’t you nervous,” he asked me.

“Not yet,” I said. “But I will be.” Especially when I realized I only had a few hours to find a seamstress who could attach just the right kind of straps. If I couldn’t, I’d spend the entire night yanking up the bodice of my dress; not quite the elegant image of a White House guest. I had the idea of cutting off the straps from an old pink ballgown that was now too big on me, that I’d worn when I was a bit heftier, to a Christmas bash at Ned’s old job, back in the day when he worked for IBM and there were big bucks to throw around.

The straps were a perfect match. I rushed over to Bonnie’s in Brookline Village and begged her to sew them on: they were going to close in an hour. She said yes. I drove around Brookline for an hour, went to TJ Maxx to buy a handbag, nothing, then back to collect the dress. Tried it on: perfect. Bonnie was delighted with the solution and her happy customer.

We flew to DC, which was fun because we were on the plane together sans enfants, and it was very relaxing, even the part in the airport where you have to take off your shoes, etc. We took a long cab ride into the city and checked in, and I noticed that my dress was wrinkled. I tried to steam out the creases, but then I saw what looked like water marks and almost fainted, except I don’t faint. Ned said, just like a man: “No one will notice.” What could I do, try to find another dress in a couple of hours? Yes, but I didn’t feel like pushing Ned this way. We left the room and instead went to visit our college friend Ray down in Georgetown.

At 5:30, as we hurried to sweatily dress, I felt the first pangs; I wanted to throw up. I didn’t; I just fixated, instead, on the wrinkles in my gown from the flight. Ned assured me I looked fantastic; I told him the same. I hadn’t seen him in a tux since our wedding day, twenty-two years ago!

The cab dropped us at 15th and Alexander Hamilton Street, where we were to go in by the old Treasury Building. All I saw were gaping tourists, who must have thought I was somebody, gliding in my finery up to the gate with the Secret Service guys, duly equipped with earpieces and sunglasses. They stopped us and checked our I.D.s against a list. They did not have Ned down, because it turns out they had him as “Ned Senator,” (his last name is Batchelder). While they checked on Ned, black limo after black limo passed through the gate.

We stumbled through a few minutes later and we saw Tim Shriver. I thought that was a good sign. We greeted each other and I met his wife Linda, who told me that my article was taped up on the wall of their dining room. While I was talking nervously to her, I was glancing around me, trying to absorb where I was. The long windows to
my left looked out on a gorgeous perennial garden, with stands of pink, Suess-like cleome and friendly yellow coreopsis, and topiary hedges of boxwood or yew.

We passed a pair of women in military dress playing a huge golden harp and a flute, then filed into a lovely room three times the size of my living room, with large oil portraits of important people I didn’t know, a baby grand piano, and more long windows. Hors d’oeuvres every few minutes: caviar (the good kind) on endive, and potato-y thingies, all good. I saw Barbara Walters, Tim Russert, Peter Lynch, Ted Kennedy, as well as others who looked vaguely familiar or Kennedy-esque. No other women were wearing pink; most were in black. Ah, elegant = black. But I felt like I had done well, in maybe a Jackie O retro kind of way, considering how out of my league I felt. My nervousness subsided and I started to enjoy myself, looking around for whom I might try to meet. I made it into kind of a game, where I would try to meet as many interesting-looking people as I could. What was to be afraid of? I tried Barbara Walters, who was pretty wooden. She reminded me a lot of my Aunt Rhoda, even the way she held herself. I made Tim Russert pose for a pic with me because Mom loves him as an interviewer because he “follows up.”

There were twelve “Global Messengers,” representatives of Special Olympics worldwide. These were actual athletes who had competed in the World Games. Some had Down Syndrome; others’ disabilities were less apparent. These athletes were the easiest people to talk to: so friendly and open about their experiences, and so eager to help me get Nat into the World Games. We are quite a long way from that, but who knows? If I get it into my head that Nat should do it, and if Ned has the energy to support my impulse — well, you read the book.

Then we started lining up for our photos with the President, the First Lady, and Eunice Shriver. I got nervous, and did not listen to the instructions of where to stand, whose hand to shake, etc. When I got in there, I looked at the President, taller than I had realized, and nearly swooned, although I don’t swoon. Instead, I fixated on the curtains, which had some threadbare parts. Why in the world would the silk hangings be threadbare, I wondered, staring at the famous people out of the corner of my eyes. More to the point: What the heck was I doing there? How had this happened? Unreal. But, like being on the Today Show, here it was, and I was going in full throttle, head held high, as dazzling as I could be. No regrets.

Also, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did they all feel, always being treated like stars?

Ned and I kind of ambled over to the President and suddenly Mr. Bush was gently telling me where to stand. “Oh, sorry, I forgot,” I mumbled. Why don’t I ever listen to directions? But then the President said softly, “Oh, I know, it’s hard to remember this stuff.” For that split second, I was in love.

But then, it was over and we were ushered out into another overly decorated silk-hung room, into the dining area. My seat was at Table 6; Ned’s was at 1. Oh no, another mistake! Shows you what I know. No spouses were together. A quick glance at the names at my table: Maria Shriver! Senator Chris Dodd! Okay, not bad. And two tables away: the First Lady. One table beyond that: the Prez and Mrs. Shriver! Calm down, I told myself. Elegant, elegant…

Then Arnold came in, with that unmistakable hard, jutting jaw. He was shorter than I had realized. How to meet him? I had to, for the story if for nothing else. I noticed a woman corralling him into taking a picture with her. So then I went up to him and asked, “Do you take pictures with anyone?”

He answered, sounding just like The Governator, “Not anyone, but I will with you.”

For the second time that night, I was in love.

I never did get that picture, because Arnold had to get back to California to govern, or something. But I got my story.

Dinner was like a fancy wedding in a bordello. Gold rimmed plates, red silk tablecloths, fat dahlias in silver vases, gold silverware. I loved the soup, which was chilled avocado concoction with spicy corn thrown in. There was no bread, however, and I had been prepared to toss Atkins for the night. Oh well.

As for my illustrious table: Maria did not speak to me, nor did Chris Dodd, until I forced the matter on them by introducing myself, leaning across the table desperately, and telling them about my writings, even slapping down a promotional card for my book. Yikes! The other people at the table were okay, a bit quiet for my tastes. I began to realize that most of the people there that night were either Special Olympics Board Members, athletes, politicians, Shrivers/Kennedys, members of the band (Rascal Flatts), or — me.

I enjoyed talking to the man on my left, however, Leonard Flowers, who had had a pretty big role in the movie The Ringer, which is a Farrelly Brothers film about a guy who rigs the Special Olympics. Leonard was sweet and charming. He would not try his soup and I almost offered to eat his, but I figured that was bad manners (See? Elegant).

The food was strange and not enough of it, either: four little bits of lamb as an entrée, a weird salad of grapefruit and artichoke, that kind of thing. Four different wines, including a champagne. Dessert was Mrs. Kennedy’s birthday cake and chocolate Special Olympics medals, which I gobbled up!

As we filed out for the entertainment, photographers snapped away, and so Ned got out his camera. Luckily this happened just as the President and Ted Kennedy were walking by, so I sidled up to them, grinning my face off, and Ned took our picture!

Around this time, a devilish older gentleman (my favorite kind), started flirting with me. He asked me, “Who do you belong to?” And I told him, “Ted Kennedy.” He looked startled, then laughed, and was my pal for the rest of the night, which continued on at the St. Regis Hotel bar, where the Shrivers were having an after-party party. There we sat with the voluptuous Vanessa Williams, Olympic skater Scott Hamilton and his wife Tracy, Maria Shriver, my gentleman friend, Ned, of course, and Tim at the other end of the table. My feet were bloody stumps from the walk over from the White House, but never mind! It was boiling hot, too, but never mind! A party with the Shrivers!

Maria got a little raucous, which was fun. We all did. Tim made a nice speech, as did one of the Global Messengers, whom I adored and decided she ought to write a book. Or — maybe I should, about all of them…

Another guy in the corner of the room kept saying I looked like Sarah Jessica Parker. He came over and kissed my hand and told me how he loved my work in Sex and the City. I thanked him. He also told Ned that if he were ever tired of me… Luckily Ned doesn’t mind that kind of thing; it just makes him feel kind of proud. Ned understands me better than anyone I have ever known; remember, we were friends first, for a year, way back in 1981 before we got all hot for each other. Or should I say, before he finally got all hot for me, because I was so there, within a month of knowing him — but he was not. Ned was the longest flirtation campaign I have ever waged!

After a while, I was too tired to enjoy any more. My mind was full. I had to get home and debrief, in both senses of the word: to recount the evening and because my clothes were squeezing me.

Back at our hotel, Ned said, uncharacteristically sentimental, “I don’t want to take the tux off, because that will mean it’s over.”

I am sad to say, it is over. But I hope to be back one day. And next time, forget Elegant!


Man, your post about the White House dinner made me cry. I am not usually a crier. It hit right at the part about pictures with Arnold. But I cried while reading MPWA too.

I have taken to reading this blog because I liked the book so much, but I find myself feeling like I am eavesdropping on a private life that does not concern me. I am glad that you share so much of your life with us.

I am not a big blog reader, but I read this one and This Mom all the time. Thanks.

— added by Mom on Friday, July 28, 2006 at 12:32 pm

I loved reading Ned’s comments and then your’s for additional flavor.
SOunds like a fun experience.

— added by Anonymous on Friday, July 28, 2006 at 2:36 pm

I utterly enjoyed reading that. I’m more than a little bit jealous too!

It sounds like you both did so well. It’s great that you can get out there with the big folk and get your message across.

— added by Sharon on Monday, July 31, 2006 at 7:37 am

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