The best respite from politics is at the White House

What can go wrong on a lawn like this?
What can go wrong on a lawn like this?
Image: Ephrat Livni
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In the midst of a historic presidential impeachment inquiry, the best place to escape from talk of the Trump administration appears to be the White House.

The twice annual White House garden tours are being held this weekend in Washington, DC. These may be among the most peaceful gatherings in a politically embattled land, occasions when the only dispute is over whose peppers are better—yours or the president’s?

Band on White House balcony.
Jazz in uniform. 
Image: Ephrat Livni

Hundreds of local and global visitors lined up around the block as the sun was rising on a chilly Saturday morning (Oct. 19) to see the presidential grounds.

Strangers exchanged pleasantries during their hours-long waits in various lines, and nary a political murmur was heard. Visitors much preferred to opine on trees and flowers than affairs of the day.

I know because I, rudely it now seems, made inquiries about political leanings and was gently rebuffed.

For example, Carolyn from Maryland happily shared her appreciation of the grounds on her second such tour in two years, but she was hesitant to give her last name or discuss ideology, inching away as she said on behalf of her companions, “We support the president.”

This approach appeared to be nearly universal among the garden tourists. John Barnes of Arizona, who brought his 14-year-old grandson from Ohio on the tour, professed to be apolitical and was more keen to discuss the executive lawn than the president or his activities. Ivy Craig from Virginia said she didn’t support Trump but wouldn’t elaborate, although she was opinionated about expecting to see more flowers and vegetables at the tour’s end.

Fountain at White House
Strolling within the ropes.
Image: Ephrat Livni

Some dressed up for the occasion, donning heels and dresses or blazers, while others took the guidance it was a walking tour more literally, prepared in their raincoats, jeans, and sneakers. But all seemed to approach the stroll on the executive lawn with a certain reverence.

For it is not every day that we, the people, are greeted by a jazz band and smiling secret service staff while meandering the sunlit walkways admiring the president’s view.

 Walk this way 🌳

Rosalynn Carter image before a tree on the White House lawn.
Rosalynn Carter before her tree.
Image: Ephrat Livni

The White House grounds are the oldest continually maintained landscape in the US. They are spacious, strategically sloped, and tactically shaded. Elegant, but not overwhelming.

Presidents and first ladies have since 1870 planted commemorative trees along these paths—for example, Melania Trump’s 2018 pin oak, Jimmy Carter’s 1978 cedar of Lebanon, and John F. Kennedy’s 1962 magnolia saucer—making their literal mark on the storied terrain.

“Their variations in species and generation represent the historical flow of the president’s house,” a brochure issued for the tour explains. “The White House gardens are constantly growing and adapting, just like the seat of government they encompass.”

Still, visitors who were hoping for glorious bouquets and stunning floral displays were disappointed. Fleeting blooms were few and far between.

“Look how small it is,” one woman murmured to her companion as she checked out the Rose Garden, where so many presidential ceremonies take place. “It seems much bigger on TV.”

Foliage at the White House.
Tree ablaze.
Image: Ephrat Livni

Nonetheless, she posed for a photo by a bush, behind which peeked fading fuchsia roses, their petals wilted and browning in the fall sunlight. And those in search of color found ample supply looking skyward to treetops ablaze in autumn’s rust and orange leaves.

The kitchen gardeners’ vanity 🌶️

Down the path at the White House kitchen garden—started by Michelle Obama in 2009 “in the hope of growing a healthier nation for our children”—visitors’ competitive streak started to emerge.

None seemed to note the inspirational quote by Thomas Jefferson planted among the cabbage and kale, stating, “The failure of one thing repaired by the success of another; and instead of one harvest, a continued one throughout the year.”

Nor did they appear particularly impressed with the abundance of the plot. Instead, the gardeners focused on perceived shortcomings in the presidential crops.

Few can claim to have a lawn as prettily manicured as the executive’s, sure. But anyone can grow oregano. Comparisons were perhaps inevitable.

White House Kitchen Garden.
The maligned kitchen garden.
Image: Ephrat Livni

“Our cabbage is better than theirs,” one garden tourist and gardener noted gleefully as she inspected the neat rows of lettuce, turnips, chard, herbs, and more growing in the flourishing executive plot.

Her companion pointed at a box full of bright, red vegetables and countered, sounding disappointed, “The president’s peppers are definitely doing better than ours, though.”