- Janet Pelz
This New Year’s resolution was to find myself in some unexpected places and to say yes to some unexpected offers. Fortunately, no one has invited me to go skydiving or to dine on cockroaches.
I’ve already stepped into some new territory this year and had reason to congratulate myself. But then the big offer came through – the one coming at the midpoint of calendar that allowed me to draw a big black line through that resolution and mark it ‘done’.
It started when my brother Dwight Pelz, Chairman of the Washington State Democratic Party called and posed the question. “I don’t suppose you would have any interest in, say, going to the White House when the President (of the United States, just in case you were wondering) congratulates the Seattle Storm on their national WNBA title last year? Like, if I were to come up with two invitations for you and, I don’t know, maybe your daughter Casey, to go?”
Red meat on a plate for supper.
Women’s basketball, my daughter, oh yeah, the President (not just any President but one I would actually want to meet and one who is not just a fan of basketball but of women playing basketball), seeing my sister and one of my very best friends? Let’s add that up.
It comes to a big, hell yes!
So then came the challenge of booking a flight (thanks to my wonderful husband Bob, who coughed up a stinking heap of frequent flyer miles and who, because of his super-duper flying status earned us access to someone who could cut through the red tape and actually get us on a flight, not to mention a free cocktail on the way home). And then there was the process of getting security clearance into the White House (I’m not even going to start with the list of offenses they had to ignore for that to come through). And all of this to get done within a week.
But get done it did, and there we were, my basketball-playing daughter Casey and me, on an early morning flight heading east. She, sacrificing two days of her basketball camp and me having lined up play dates and carpools for her brother Matthew for those same days. Landing in DC, on a flight with one of the team owners, the Storm’s CEO and VP, dinner that night with my sister Mary and my dear friend Gail Dratch and then the announcement that because Gail’s husband is the head of OSHA, he was able to score her a pass as well. Perfect.
Even more perfect when Tuesday’s thunderstorm scared all the humidity out of the air and the weather was a sunny, breezy 85 degrees. Casey and I got dolled up in our bought-for-the-occasion-40%-off-JC Penney-dresses and drove downtown with Gail. We killed some time walking the neighborhood before getting in line at noon at the guests-only White House gate.
We were the first ones there (having not gotten the memo that the gate time got moved back an hour) but enjoyed the time meeting and greeting the new arrivals. The first were a couple of young women – Katori and Ingrid -- who, like us, were there because of a connection with the Democratic National Committee.
(l-r Ingrid, Katori, and Katrina – sister of player Ashley Robinson, who flew in from Dallas for the event. In the background Seattle’s mayor checks his emails).
Then others began to arrive, including Anne Levinson, one of the team’s former owners, Dwight’s former colleague on the King County Council Larry Gosset, the Mayor of Seattle, Mike McGinn (who, we discover as we’re chatting with him and waiting, has a daughter who went to elementary school with Casey), and many others. The waiting took on a quality of a pre-event tailgate party sans keg.
When the gates opened, Casey, Gail and I sprung to the front and were the first to clear the several security checkpoints and be met by the dress-uniformed greeters. When I asked if we could walk on the grass to the water station at the opposite end of the Rose Garden, the female officer told me “Make yourself at home. After all, this is your house.”
(Casey greeted as she enters the Rose Garden)
Loved that. I mean, not to get too sentimental, but in what other country on the planet would that be the invitation?
The Rose Garden itself is not that much to write about but the portrait of FDR on the hallway leading there certainly caught my breath, as did the façade of the south portico, which was close enough to touch. We were snapping photos like fools, and I had to get one of Katori, who had put on her crown and ‘Miss Black America District of Columbia’ sash when she entered. What a tease to keep that bling in her bag!
(Gail, Queen Katori and Casey inside the Rose Garden)
Then they let us through to the opposite side of the portico, and we’re kids in a candy shop, clicking the cameras again. But we stop in time to make it to the lawn where chairs are set for the event. We snake around the back row to nab some empty seats near the front, so we have a clear line to the podium, which bears the Presidential seal. More photos of us framed by the White House, of the other visiting notables there for the occasion. We recognize Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services; Ron Sims, former King County Executive; Former Washington Governor and newly-appointed Ambassador to China, Gary Locke and his wife Mona, and Senator Patty Murray. The two Washingtons in one place.
And then that thing happens when everyone spontaneously stops talking and moving in anticipation of something big. We mute our giggling to a whispered voice.
Doors open and out march the WNBA Commissioner, the team owners and managers, and the players – the beautiful, tall athletes, their strong shoulders proudly worn in dresses to set them off.
(Storm team and owners, their trophy in lower right)
And the Big Guy makes his entrance, alongside the Storm coach Brian Aigler (the team’s affirmative hire) and takes the podium. In case you ever find yourself in this situation – this is a time to stand. Show your respect to the most powerful man on the planet.
Though in this context, strength is not what he’s out to prove. As he must do with countless of these events – which for his audience are once-in-a-lifetime occasions – he presents himself with warmth, grace and a touch of self-deprecating humor. He lauds the team for their accomplishments, for the fact that they exemplify teamwork, for providing to girls like his two daughters wonderful role models of women who are strong, self-assured, and know how to compete. He shares the experience of coaching his own daughter’s basketball team a couple times since taking up residence in the White House. He acts overwhelmed with surprise when presented a Storm jersey bearing his name as well as a ring matching the championship style on all the players’ hands.
(Click here to watch the video of his comments and see the event for yourself)
But for that pesky debt-ceiling issue I don’t doubt that he would have stayed for another hour of hand shaking, but he had another podium to get to and under far less pleasant circumstances. After he left, the team filed out through that colonnade you always see in White House movies and photos – Kennedy worrying over the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bush trying to understand what just happened inside -- and disappeared inside the White House to conduct a basketball clinic with some local Boys and Girls club kids.
We popped up to shake hands and grab a photo with Gary Locke, whose daughter also went to school with Casey in Seattle and amazingly was coached in soccer by my brother-in-law when the family moved to D.C. area, and with whom I shared a rickshaw ride around Beijing on the Ambassador’s first ever trip to China many years ago. We also greeted former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowski, the current Federal Drug Czar, whose bigger claim to fame is that his parents live in the same retirement home as mine. All these connections spanning the continent and every member of our family adding to what was already an amazing afternoon.
We clicked a few more photos before making our way out the gate, just like hundreds of thousands of others have done, who undoubtedly felt just as special as we did at that moment.
Giddy and with time to kill before heading back to the airport, Gail had the brilliant idea of taking the elevator to the top of the Hotel W across the street from the White House, where an open-aired porch offered fabulous views of the DC skyline as well as lunch. We sat there savoring the moment and took up a whirling conversation with a young woman chasing her toddler son who had to stop to note how Casey and I looked so much alike and how wonderful it was to see strong women and Mazel Tov and a kiss to Casey in congratulations for something, though it wasn’t clear just what. On the way to the airport I told Casey that it was if we were on the set of the Truman Show and everyone with whom we came in contact were actors put in place to say and do wonderful things for us.
Debt ceiling and Republican recalcitrance aside, it was truly perfect. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, or at least the last one until Casey is standing behind a future President, celebrating her team’s national title. In which case, I intend to be sitting in the first row.