The White House will soon have a new tenant, and for the first time in its history, he will be a black. This is quite a change for a country that fought a big war over slavery, and for a man whose father was an African, and whose stepfather was an Indonesian.
I have been twice to the White House, first as a tourist, and the second time as a visitor in connection with a seminar some friends were holding in Washington. As a tourist, my experience was less than overwhelming. We were ushered in by a posse of policemen - cops as they are called in the U.S. - armed to the teeth, each carrying two guns, one on either side of their huge paunches. We were not searched - this was long before 9/11 - though there were quite a few T.V cameras about, and I am sure we were being watched.
After our own Rashtrapati Bhavan, the White House is quite a comedown. The rooms are much smaller, there are few windows, and the ceilings are so low, you can almost touch them. There are, of course, huge oil paintings all over the place, including a man shooting a bison. America does not have much of a history compared to India, and its buildings show it.
The presidential library is so tiny I wondered how king - sized men like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton could manage to get inside. The books were the kind undergraduates use in India, including leather bound copies of Mark Twain and a small dictionary, perhaps to help Hillary look up some difficult words!
The second time, we had to go to the other end of the mansion, known as West Wing. We were escorted through long passages to the office of the official who was supposed to meet us.
On the way, at every corner, we were greeted, if that is the right word, by pantry after sentry, each one with a fair - sized pistol or revolver on either side, and possibly an AK - 47 up his leg. I had half a mind to turn back and flee for my life, but was dissuaded by my more courageous colleagues who said that, that would be asking for trouble, and possibly even a hail of bullets.
The offices were exactly as you see in films. There were pretty women, known as interns, all round, girls fresh from college, in flowery summer frocks, carrying paper cups as they tiptoed through the corridors. I have never understood why there are so many women in American offices, but now I know why Bill Clinton went berserk and almost lost his marbles.
I was curious to know where exactly the president worked. Was the oval office on the floor above us, or below? Nobody could tell me, or, to be more precise, would tell me. Every time I popped the question, there was silence around the table, as if I had asked for the formula for hydrogen bomb. I was later told that the oval office was two floors above us, but since the man had never been inside it, I was not too sure.
The White House is more like a five-star hotel than an office, probably a combination of both. The people who work there are so informal you feel you are in a club. Almost all men were in shirt sleeves and very few were ties. And the president himself, I was told, often came to office - a few floors down from his quarters - in a T-Shirt and sneakers. Only an American president can be so informal.
Almost the first thing I did when I came out of the White House was to shed my tie and jacket, and make for the nearest Mc Donald's. I hate hamburgers but I was in America and had just visited the White House, the very epicenter of U.S. power - what better way to end the day but with a Big Mac!