C-SPAN Series Peeks Into Hidden White House

Posted December 10, 2008 at 5:01pm

When President-elect Barack Obama moves into the White House in January, he will bring more with him than just a new style of governing (and that much-talked-about puppy).

Obama’s mere presence, and the needs of his young family, are sure to change the place. Indeed, every president, from John Adams to George W. Bush, had a unique effect on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But before the Obamas move in, C-SPAN will broadcast an in-depth series studying the iconic building and its history in “White House Week,” which kicks off Sunday night.

For seven days, C-SPAN will take viewers into the White House, from the West Wing and the first family’s private residence to the gardens and grounds to an array of behind-the-scenes action in the kitchen and elsewhere. What C-SPAN cameras managed to capture is perhaps the most extensive look inside the White House ever presented on film, according to network spokesman John Cardarelli.

“The goal was to get in and show viewers the home today,” said Mark Farkas, executive producer of the series. “Then, go back in time and tell the story of why it looks like it does today.”

C-SPAN producers decided to film the White House after the success of last year’s behind-the-scenes documentary “The Capitol.” But getting into the building, which — for obvious security reasons — is more secluded than its neighbor at the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, required a different approach.

Fortunately, first lady Laura Bush was receptive to the idea, Farkas said.

“She was very involved in getting it off the ground,” Farkas said. “Every single one of the spaces we put a request to go into, it came down to her saying yes or no.”

And so for about a year, C-SPAN camera crews came to the White House — “three C-SPAN people to about 18 people in the White House,” Farkas joked — filming everything from the Oval Office to the private residence to the grounds to the famed kitchen.

Bush and her staff let C-SPAN film in an astonishing number of private rooms within the White House, and the only space where cameras were denied access was the swimming pool, Farkas said. (Although he said C-SPAN didn’t bother requesting access to the first couple’s personal bedroom.)

“I went into it thinking, here’s this regal home, and it is that,” Farkas said. “But it’s also this regular workplace, with regular people coming in to do a 9 to 5, sometimes having good days, sometimes having bad days.”

Perhaps the most fascinating footage is of the first family’s private residence, which fills the second floor and third-floor attic. The historic rooms are interesting in that they include expected presidential artwork but also personal touches that make the space a home.

“It provides a window into their tastes and who their heroes are,” Farkas said. “We can’t all decorate our homes with Monets and Cezannes, but they can.”

C-SPAN’s cameras were the first ever allowed onto the third floor, an especially secluded space originally built by President Calvin Coolidge. The space, where President Ronald Reagan recovered after his assassination attempt, serves as a “nice family room” for the first family, Farkas said.

“It’s a place to get as far away from all the cameras and what’s happening on the floor below,” he said. “Here’s a place that has a television and couches, where you can go and try to live somewhat of a normal life in this fishbowl.”

Laura Bush provides a tour of the second floor, including the West Sitting Hall, famously known to most Americans for its big fan window.

“We spend a lot of time sitting here,” she says in the documentary. “In fact, almost every night, the president often sits in a chair here by the telephone and makes calls.”

Laura Bush also takes viewers into the Yellow Oval Room, the most formal room in the living quarters. The space was President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite room in the White House — he often played cards here with aides, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says in the documentary.

“We did have a luncheon for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in here, the day of their state visit, and we were able to point out the mantle set … that [was] her gift from her father King George to President Truman when she visited the White House as Princess Elizabeth,” Laura Bush recalls in the film. “So there are years of history in nearly everything in this room.”

The goal of the week isn’t just capturing the Bush household, however. Much of the documentary studies the history of the building, including an entire episode that looks at the White House under President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s residency in the home during the Civil War defined the building’s power, an effect that lingers today, Farkas said.

President Harry Truman changed it more literally — he gutted the interior to make it a functional space. And most famously, President John Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, decorated the home to bring a bit of regality.

“The Kennedys come in, and she’s the one who said, ‘This can be more than a collection of things, let’s bring back its past,” Farkas said.

Other hours of programming include a rebroadcast of past White House tours by presidents and first ladies, a behind-the-scenes look at White House operations, a feature on the White House gardens and grounds, and extensive interviews with President Bush and Laura Bush on life inside the White House.

The president talks about living inside the bubble of the White House, Farkas said, especially after the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, when out of necessity, the building became further closed off to the public.

Farkas recalled that during filming, he spotted Bush and his beloved scottish terriers through a window outside the Blue Room. “There’s the president, with Barney and Miss Beazley, by himself, just trying to have a moment, just trying to be by himself,” Farkas said.

“White House Week” also looks ahead to the Obamas and what it will mean to have a black president living in a building that at one time reflected the segregation that was taking place outside its doors.

“The White House sort of stands as this symbol of whatever’s going in the country,” Farkas said. “We really leave open at the end how the next first family might change it.”

“White House Week” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday with “The White House: Inside America’s Most Famous Home.” Episodes of the series air each day at 9 p.m. through Dec. 20.