WASHINGTON — Regardless of political persuasion, it is thrilling to stroll casually amid the lush, meticulously groomed White House south gardens, then stand outside a few feet from the Presidential Oval Office.
Only twice a year, spring and fall, is the general public allowed this pleasure of being enveloped in the green seclusion where America’s major historical figures and world dignitaries have visited.
First lady Patricia Nixon initiated the garden tours 40 years ago. President John Adams liked an early morning dig in these flower beds. President Andrew Jackson planted a southern Magnolia tree that still blooms every June next to the South Portico.
The gardens evince a comforting stability — an immortality that trumps politics.
Cornerstone for the neoclassical White House was laid in 1792, but President George Washington never lived there. In 1800, President John Adams was the first president to occupy the home designed by Irish-born James Hoban and constructed of Aquia Creek sandstone plastered in white.
The ground has been artificially sculpted into hills where Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878 began the Easter Monday tradition of children rolling eggs. America’s backyard has a large swing and climbing set for presidential children Malia Ann, 15, and Natasha, 12.
Although the event is free, you must have a time-numbered ticket, obtained in a small tree-obscured building at the corner of E Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue. Then you wait in another line until your ticket time is announced. Security screening was surprisingly cursory — compared to most D.C. venues.
Volunteers distribute keepsake color booklets featuring a garden map numbered with plant specimens and historical snippets.
Luckily, I just happened to be walking near Sen. Marco Rubio’s press secretary, Alex Conant, who had served on the media staff working within the White House. He pointed out windows and balconies, their history and what was behind each in the interior.
Although Secret Service Agents were everywhere, I was astonished at how very close we were allowed to the outdoor stairways, porches and passages of the White House — within several feet. Visitors remarked that their electronic devices seemed to be inoperative.
Down the hill, looking toward the Washington Monument, the uniformed Air Force band played patriotic tunes like “God Bless America” and musical themes from each branch of military service.
A blocks-long line waited to view the Kitchen Garden established by first lady Michelle Obama — the first White House vegetable garden since first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden.
Texas-born first lady Lady Bird Johnson created the Children’s Garden featuring a fish pond with castings from the past 40 years of handprints and footprints of grandchildren alive when their grandfathers were president.
Alas, there is the possibility that the April garden tour I took may be the last. Public tours of the White House interior, once obtainable for free via tickets through one’s Congress member, were canceled March 9 because of staff reductions caused by budget issues, according to the White House website.
The next White House garden tour is scheduled for October. Keep checking the White House and National Park Service website for the exact date and status.