The White House finally gets to throw a party

By Kate Bennett, CNN

    (CNN) -- On Monday the White House will become something it has yet to become while Joe and Jill Biden have been in residence: A party house.

At 6:45 a.m. ET, the first of what will ultimately be an anticipated 30,000 guests, who won tickets via a public lottery, will pour through the south gates and onto the lawn for the 142nd White House Easter Egg Roll.

"Joe and I look forward to welcoming thousands of families to join us for this year's White House Easter 'EGGucation' Roll!" the first lady tweeted Friday.

"The Bidens are excited to open the People's House back to the American people, after being closed to the general public because of the pandemic," Jill Biden's communications director, Elizabeth Alexander, told CNN, adding that preparation for the Easter Egg Roll has been months in the planning. The first lady chose the theme of "EGGucation," a riff on her decades spent as a teacher.

"The President and first lady will give remarks and kick off the egg rolling for the kids," said Alexander, who added that Jill Biden will also read to kids at the Easter Egg Roll's outdoor reading nook.

The day's festivities are further evidence that life at the White House is slowly returning to a pre-pandemic version of normal, something that the Bidens have yet to experience.

On Friday, a limited schedule of White House tours resumed for the public, with tickets arranged via the visitors' Congressional representative, and last weekend saw the return of the Spring White House Garden tours, which saw almost 30,000 ticketed members of the public over the two-day period. A White House official told CNN that, barring any significant shift in Covid-19 spikes or rising cases regionally or nationally, the hope is to build the tour schedules back up to a pre-pandemic norm of several days a week.


A quieter White House


By this juncture in an administration, the White House has typically hosted two Easter Egg Rolls, a large Halloween trick-or-treat party, several significant dinners or luncheons for dignitaries, members of Congress, or other VIP leaders, as well as at least one State Dinner.

Due to Covid-19, the Biden White House has been quiet.

"We have worked hard over the past year to bring the White House to the American public through a variety of interactive and creative ways, on as many digital platforms as possible," says Wayne Skinner, director of the White House Visitors Office. "But nothing can replace experiencing the history and the magic of the White House in person."

It is Skinner's team who has overseen and implemented the planning of the Easter Egg Roll, which is customary for the Visitors Office.

The basement-level floral workshop, run by chief White House floral designer Hediah "Roshan" Ghaffarian -- who was hired by Michelle Obama in 2015 -- has generally focused on day-to-day needs, such as keeping arrangements in many of the White House's public and private room freshly rotated, says one person familiar with the operations.

The White House cooking team has also had a relative break from the mad hustle of preparing and serving hundreds of hot dinners for some of the most important guests in the world. The Chocolate Shop, one of several White House kitchens, is tasked with making and prepping the major centerpieces used when the President and first lady entertain.

"It's never 'slow-slow,' with nothing to do," said a former White House official who worked closely with the White House staff and chief usher for several years to plan and oversee social events.

"These are professionals who every day make food and desserts and snacks and buffets -- anything that is needed. But there is a profound loss in the use of their skills, that there has not yet been entertaining needs that rise to the level of their talents," says the person.


Plans for a state dinner underway


CNN has learned the plans for the first state dinner of the Biden administration are indeed underway, though it is unclear for which world leader the dinner will occur.

The former official familiar with the social activities of the White House adds a second state dinner is likely to follow quickly on the heels of the first. Alexander would not confirm the details of any upcoming state dinners, or their specific planning status, but she did say the Easter Egg Roll likely marks a jumping-off point for the resumption of such events.

"The first family is looking forward to continuing to share the White House -- with state dinners, celebrations, by commemorating parts of history that are coming up -- events they haven't been able to host because of the seriousness of the pandemic," she said.

Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association -- the non-profit, non-partisan organization established in 1961 by Jacqueline Kennedy to assist in the preservation and legacy of the White House -- told CNN state dinners are much more than fancy dinner parties attended by celebrities and titans of industry.

"State dinners often set the scene for much of the diplomatic work that an administration is trying to accomplish; they are strategic in the country that is hosted, right down to who is sitting next who in order to advance a dialogue about a certain topic," said McLaurin.

As the global balance of power becomes more fragile, the lack of Biden state dinners, while not a crisis, have hamstrung the social, diplomatic dance done for decades behind the scenes at the White House.


'A sense of joy'


However, McLaurin heralds the Easter Egg Roll, which is funded in full by the White House Historical Association, as a return to party normalcy.

"As in regular years, the ceremonial wooden eggs -- with colors selected by the first lady -- are ready to go," he said of the annual, signature eggs, which are individually hand-tooled each year by a company in Maine.

Hundreds of boxed sets of the commemorative eggs are sold ahead of the Easter Egg Roll by the White House Historical Association, with that money put towards the roll itself, as well as the organization's myriad of educational programs, books and other outlets for preservation and public interest of the White House.

Last year, although the Easter Egg Roll was canceled, there were wooden eggs made, but the bunny drawn on the side donned a surgical mask to mark the ongoing pandemic. This year's eggs feature the Biden's new pets -- Willow the cat and Commander the German Shepherd puppy.

There is also a new egg color, "Biden Blue," a rich, royal blue chosen by the first lady.

Fifty thousand real, hard-boiled eggs have also been prepped and readied for the stalwart egg activity: The race of kids holding an egg on a wooden spoon, with the hopes they can run fast and not drop and break their eggs. The former White House official familiar with social activities notes clean-up of the real eggs post-Egg Roll is thorough and imperative, or else the pungent smell of fetid eggs fills the air on the South Lawn.

Like Biden, McLaurin says he is most excited to see the children who attend the Easter Egg Roll, and to watch their faces fill with fascination at being in the backyard of the house of the President.

"A member of our board of directors, who is a native Washingtonian, said that as a child, his father used to come and sit outside the north gate of the White House the morning of the Easter Egg Roll, because adults in Washington wanted to go, but you had to have a kid to get in," said McLaurin, recounting one of his favorite Easter Egg Roll fun facts. "These kids would rent themselves out to childless adults to go into the Egg Roll."

There remains a healthy dose of hesitancy over whether the country is fully in the clear from the ravages of Covid-19, and the White House Visitors Office continues to monitor the latest guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health officials, as well as regional case numbers. But continuing a tradition that has only been interrupted a handful of times since its inception in 1878 is worth the spilling of a few eggs and the chance to sip lemonade and eat snacks in the shadow of history.

Only one mystery remains: Alexander would not reveal the identity of which staff member will don the bunny suit and play the role of official White House Easter Bunny, a tradition that began with a staffer from Patricia Nixon's East Wing.

"There is a sense of joy to be able to share the White House again," Alexander said.

The-CNN-Wire
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