Where Sinatra Danced, and Tad Lincoln Played With Goats

Sure, the West Wing gets the glory, but the East Room gets the action

By BEN FELLER
|  Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009  |  Updated 2:04 PM EDT
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Where Sinatra Danced, and Tad Lincoln Played With Goats

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Yeah, we totally hang there all the time.

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sure, the West Wing gets the glory. But the East Room gets the action.
 

Indispensable, yet overshadowed by more famous rooms like the Oval Office, the roomy space at the end of the White House's first floor is more than a hub of activity. It's the most important all-purpose room in America. And has been for more than two centuries.

Consider that in President Barack Obama's first two months in office, this was just a slice of his East Room lineup: two news conferences, two policy summits, four signings of bills and orders, a Cabinet announcement, a dinner for lawmakers, a reception for governors, a speech for mayors, an online town hall and a performance by Stevie Wonder.

Oh, and a conga line.

By now Obama and his wife, Michelle, have used the chandeliered room more than 60 times for a remarkably diverse string of events. Like that stretch in May when the room held a naturalization ceremony, a Cinco De Mayo celebration, a poetry slam and the introduction of a Supreme Court nominee.

The first occupant of the not-really-finished White House set the anything-goes tone in 1800. First lady Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, ended up hanging out laundry in this room built to host elegant public gatherings because she had no other good options.

If the White House has one room to count on, this is it.

Union troops encamped here. The Civil Rights Act was born here. Gerald Ford ended the "long national nightmare" here as he succeeded Richard Nixon after Watergate.

The Cold War even did some of its thawing here, when Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a disarmament deal.

Today's East Room visitors stand where Abraham Lincoln's son Tad played with his pet goats, Teddy Roosevelt arranged a wrestling match for his guests, Susan Ford held her senior prom and Amy Carter roller-skated.

This is where presidents party: Reagan once cut in when his wife, Nancy, was dancing with Frank Sinatra.

This has been a room of opera, poetry, jazz, rock, country music, ballet and Shakespeare. And it has marked moments of national sorrow. Seven presidents have lain in state in the East Room, including John F. Kennedy.

"It is just massively important, as far as I'm concerned, to the history of the country," said Gary Walters, who worked at the White House for more than 30 years, including two decades as the mansion's chief usher. "The more I think about it, the more spectacular the activities that have taken place in that room."

Why the East Room? Well, where else?

In a building with more than 130 rooms, none is as big and flexible as this one -- at nearly 80 feet long and 40 feet wide, it's almost the size of a high school basketball court. For a gathering of notable size, the gold-and-white East Room often is the only option, especially if dicey weather rules out the Rose Garden and the South Lawn.

"The fact that it's large, and usually empty, makes it so practical," said White House curator William Allman. "It doesn't need to be reconfigured. It's already waiting to be configured."

History will show that the East Room is the place where Barack Obama loosened restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, expanded health coverage for poor children, launched his first efforts to limit greenhouse gases, and signed legislation to help workers sue for pay discrimination. With some rearranging, the Obama White House also has used the East Room for black-tie entertainment, holiday celebrations, and a foot-stomping concert for 200 school children.

It came in handy when Obama invited Democratic and Republican lawmakers for legislative schmoozing and a dinner of steelhead salmon and couscous. "It's hard to move around out there sometimes," he told his guests, "so I've got to bring the world to me."

With all of the White House's demands for hosting and toasting, the place might well be sunk without the East Room. The Obamas have put it to use again and again as they try to keep their pledge to make the executive mansion more open to the public.

The room is used so often that its history can be taken for granted -- another day, another East Room event.

Yet it boasts one of the most valuable items in the White House, the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, the single oldest possession in the White House. Martha's portrait hangs nearby, keeping her husband company.

The room's aura changes with the context.

On the night that Wonder performed, it felt like an entirely different room than the place where Obama holds prime-time news conferences and daytime policy sessions. During the holidays, invited guests pack the parqueted floors here for cocktails and schmoozing.

Yet in conversations about the White House -- Hey, did you see the Rose Garden? What's it like in the Oval Office? -- the East Room doesn't get its due.

Perhaps the East Room never will hold the majesty or mystique of some of the other prime locations in the White House.

But try finding one of them that can host an Earth, Wind & Fire concert one day -- complete with governors dancing a conga line -- and a fiscal responsibility summit the next.

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