Monday, December 12, 2011

My Holiday White House Adventure (PT. 2)

((The Briefing))

On December 5, 2011, I was invited to attend a White House Holiday Tweet-up.

As I showed you in yesterday's blog, the Tweet-up began in the South Court Auditorium on the ground floor of the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), just spitting distance from the West Wing.

As we waited for the briefing to start, they played a slideshow of the Christmas decorations at the White House. Talk about whetting our appetite for what was to follow!

Kori Schulman, Depute Director of Online Outreach in the Office of Digital Strategy, kicked off the Q&A event by welcoming us all and introducing the speakers.

Contrary to what some in the media would like you to believe, none of the staffers we met were evil horned beasts with a secret agenda to destroy the country while eating our children.

Perhaps what impressed me the most about the briefing was that the staffers (in their manner and in what they said) seemed truly honored to be working for the country. And, whether or not you agree with their methods, the people we met were normal, hard working citizens who tried to do their best every minute of every day. This certainly isn't a 9 to 5 job for any of them.

The first speaker was Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady.

 (Not a great photo. I was still figuring out how to get the camera to work with the lighting conditions. While also listening.)

Tina described the planning process for decorating the White House, which begins...well, now. They're already thinking about what to do in 2012. The staff will bring a list of theme ideas to the First Lady who reviews and approves the one that means the most for her.

Tina emphasized how small the White House staff is (a sentiment that was echoed by many of the other staffers). No one at that White House just has one job or wears just one hat. Tina is involved not only in helping the President and First Lady, but she also serves on a woman's council.

When asked about her typical day, she laughed. Everyday brings it's own challenges. She often meets with groups, like this one, and talks about the work that the White House is doing in addition to handling the day-to-day operations of the First Lady's office.

Next up was Brad Cooper, Executive Director of Joining Forces.

Joining Forces is an initiative started by the First Lady and Dr. Biden as a way to reach out and provide assistance to the military and their families. The initiative works to bring together those in need with available resources. It also works to let the rest of the nation understand the needs of military families and provide us with a place to go if we'd like to help out.

  • Joining Forces focuses on three main areas: Employment, Education, and Wellness.
  • The unemployment rate for military veterans and military spouses (14-15%) is nearly double the national unemployment rate. Joining Forces is reaching out to industries to urge them to hire more veterans.
  • Wellness: Joining Forces focuses on bringing attention to PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries, which are often hidden injuries that can last a lifetime.
Want learn how you can help? Want to send a message of support to a member of the military? Visit Joining Forces's website.

We then met Macon Phillips, Special Assistant to the President and Director of Digital Strategy.

Macon is a computer geek (and I mean that in a good way.) I love computer geeks! Without them, we'd all be staring at the blue screen of death and cursing up a blue streak. We need a world filled with them.

The Office of Digital Strategy looks at how the White House gets information out into the ever-changing digital world. The office is responsible for keeping content on the website, the blog, producing videos/live streaming, and working to remove barriers to communication that frequently pop-up when working within the super-secure environment of the White House where there is no wi-fi. They still use Ethernet!

Macon realizes that no one, other than his mother, has the White House as their homepage. So they are looking at new ways (like the Tweet-ups) to reach and engage with the public.

Next on the agenda was Brian Deese, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council.

Brian talked about the economy. What I got most from his talking points was that the administration is frustrated. Well, so is everyone else. So I'll move on from that depressing topic to something more fun...TECHNOLOGY!

Aneesh Chopra, Assistant to the President for Technology and US Chief Technology Officer received a roaring round of applause when he was introduced. The energy in the room instantly ramped up. It was like someone had flipped the switch for the lights on a Christmas tree.

Every proposal that crosses the President's desk, Aneesh reviews to see if/how technology can play a role. He praised the inventiveness of the American people. He was filled with hope for the future and for the new innovations that are already in the pipeline.

He explained complicated situations by distilling them down to their basic parts. I was truly impressed and now know why he'd received such a warm welcome from the Tweet-up crowd.

You can watch for yourself what he said:

((Drum roll))

The moment I'd been waiting for ALL MORNING finally came...

Laura Dowling, White House Florist AND Bill Yosses, White House Pastry Chef (and quite a force in the kitchen garden as well!)
Laura explained how she got the job as White House florist. Her husband had read that the former florist, who had held the post for 25 years, was retiring. He called her and told her to apply. She told him that she was no one special and that you don't just send in a resume for a job like that. But because he nagged her, she finally did send in her resume. Soon, she learned that she'd made the first cut. Then, she heard that she was in the top three! She had to travel to the White House for a floral face-off. She and her competitors had to make several designs on the fly for the staff to judge. And her designs won...and she won the position!

Goes to show that you never know where you'll end up! Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.

She also admitted that after all the work she put into decorating the White House, she's not decorated her own home. (Smart woman.)

Bill, who like many in the White House, wears several hats. He is not only the "crustmaster." He also helps out in the First Lady's famous Kitchen Garden.

Did you know that my April release (the second book in the White House Gardener Mystery series), THE SCARLET PEPPER, features a mystery involving missing plants in the White House's kitchen garden?

Some scandals are too hot to handle...

Where was I? Oh, right, the yummy pastry chef. Here are some things he told us:
  • The 400-pound White House gingerbread house is architecturally correct. They use the White House's blueprints to help them build it. 
  • Almost every part of the white chocolate covered gingerbread house is edible, including the kitchen garden, the bee hive, and the miniature Bo, the First Dog. The working electric lights are not edible.
  • He starts baking the gingerbread in September. It takes that long for the gingerbread to dry out enough to be able to be used as a building material.
  • He regularly visits the local farmers markets to talk to farmers. Although the chefs cannot buy produce for the White House at the farmers markets, they do try purchase most of their ingredients from local sources.
  • For the thousands of Christmas sugar cookies he bakes, he make the dough months ahead of time and freezes it. The day that they need the cookies he defrosts the dough, bakes it, and then hand decorates each cookie.
  • In addition to the Christmas cookies, visitors to the White House will be tempted by many other traditional Christmas treats like chocolate yule logs.
Finally, Jon Carson, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Public Engagement wrapped up the morning session.

Jon thanked the participants for coming from all around the country to attend their 5th White House Tweet-up. He emphasized how difficult it is to get information to the public. He hopes that Tweet-ups like these can start local conversations about important policy issues.

Do you have an issue that you want the White House to address?

We The People is a portal for the public to engage with the White House. It's a tool provides you with a new way to petition the administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country. If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

Step 1: Build a Petition
Step 2: Build Support and Gather Signatures
Step 3: The White House Reviews and Responds

I don't know if We The People will work, but I like that there's a place where individual citizens can go and hopefully make their voices heard.

With the morning session over, I asked Kori where the White House staff often goes eat. She suggested a couple of places nearby. We chose Cosi, a sandwich shop located across the street from the White House. Several of the staffers who presented that morning were actually eating there!

The place was packed! The line was nearly to the door.

But the food service was quick and the individual flatbread pizzas we'd ordered hit the spot.

Tomorrow: THE FUN PART: Christmas Decorations at the White House!!!!

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