Monday, September 29, 2008
I just got back from a whirlwind weekend in Washington, D.C., in the company of 70 authors, illustrators and poets at the National Book Festival. Below is a videotape -- a webcast -- of my address in front of 250 people gathered in a pavillion on the National Mall last weekend (Sept. 27). I followed Eleanor Clift, a famous reporter with Newsweek, discussing her moving book, Two Weeks of Life, about hospice care. And following me were Pauline and Arthur Frommer, the famous father-daughter travel writing team (who gave a great talk and were wonderful to meet). The weekend for authors invited to participate in the eighth annual event started the night before at a gala event at the Library of Congress' Jefferson Building. Dinner was in the newly renovated Great Hall, whose sweeping marble steps we climbed to the second floor, with its painted domed ceilings, to get to our assigned tables. Joining us were President and Mrs. Bush and their daughter Jenna. It wasn't known in advance that the President would be there -- and, frankly, it was quite a surprise, especially since lawmakers were working through the weekend on Capitol Hill. On my way to the dinner that night -- after having stepped off the Metro train -- I saw the brightly lit building — you couldn’t miss it — and knew that they were all inside, working on a bailout plan. Whatever your politics and whatever you think of Bush, it was nice to see him support reading and the book festival. Before the First Lady's speech, a military band began playing "Hail to the Chief," then an announcer said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States." Mrs. Bush spoke and, after four authors also addressed the audience, Laura Bush was presented with a Living Legend award for her efforts throughout her stay as First Lady to promote public libraries and fight illiteracy. After breakfast the next day, in the State Dining Room inside the East Wing of the White House, I met Laura Bush. My good friend and former editor, Charlene (or Charlie) Fern, asked me to be sure and say "hello" to Mrs. Bush for her. Charlene was Mrs. Bush's speech writer for many years. I didn't have the chance; while Mrs. Bush shook my hand, she shook others' as well as she moved from one author to the next. I didn't want to keep her, so I simply said "Hello." Earlier, at 6:30 a.m. (I arrived early for breakfast, walking from Pennsylvania Avenue, where the taxi driver dropped me, to the southeast gate of the White House, where I was allowed through a guard shack (as employees call the gates) to the entrance of the East Wing. Another guard announced my presence and a Navy officer escorted me to the First Lady's official receiving room. It overlooked the White House lawn. I sat in an antique armchair and thumbed through a copy of Pawprints of Katrina and chose the passages I would read at my presentation on the Mall. I was there about 20 minutes when poet Michael Lind joined me, whom I'd never met before. We had a pleasant conversation as we waited to be called. A few minutes later, another officer opened the door to the receiving room and escorted us to the State Dining Room. We passed Jacqueline Kennedy's garden. The uniformed people -- from the black-and-white clad Secret Service people, to the Naval personnel in white and the White House employees in red, were friendly as they greeted us. I can't even describe the feeling of being in the White House. Simply put, I had a deep sense of those who had walked through those hallways in the very same rooms I stood in. A grand piano, where a military pianist played as we walked by, was emblazened with golden eagles. In the State Dining Room, where I sat with Library of Congress employees, I couldn't help but notice the green marble mantel, restored during the Kennedy renovation. My mother, author Eileen Rose Busby, went to the White House in 1977 for the inaugeration of CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner, my late-mother's brother-in-law. I would have loved for her to be with me last weekend. She would have enjoyed every minute. To view the webcast of my talk, go here, then click onto "webcast." And go here to read an article by writer Sandy Miller about the weekend in D.C.