The Obamas Bring Cheer, Patience as Holiday Hosts

For the first family, campaign season has nothing on the grind of being gracious at holiday parties.

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The White House holiday parties have begun, illustrating the sheer fortitude it takes to be president and first lady in today's Washington.

On Wednesday night, it was the print media's turn. Several hundred journalists and their guests (many White House correspondents brought spouses, parents, and children) sipped wine and egg nog and dined at buffet tables groaning with lamb chops, sliced tenderloin, a ham carvery, green beans, boiled shrimp and crab claws, while Barack and Michelle Obama stood stoically at the head of a long line of guests, shaking hands and posing for photographs for two hours.

I've attended these parties since 1986 — 26 of them, to be exact — and the most amazing moment is always the same. It's getting to the head of the line and finding the president and first lady showing patience and good cheer while their antagonists in the media file by for a brief moment of conviviality. This has been true not only of the Obamas, but also, in my experience, of George W. and Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

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It can't be easy, especially when greeting a journalist who has just written something nasty. But the presidents and first ladies soldier on, and they do it graciously and with seemingly endless patience.

Michelle Obama speaks with children on Christmas
First lady Michelle Obama reacts while talking on the phone to children across the country as part of the annual NORAD Tracks Santa program.

What's even more remarkable is that the Wednesday night party was only one of about 20 such events that the White House is holding this season not only for the media but for members of Congress, volunteers, diplomats, donors to the Obama re-election campaign, and others. The Democratic National Committee often pays the bills. And Barack and Michelle Obama are the center of attention at all of them.

There were so many journalists in attendance Wednesday night that the White House gave out color-coded slips of paper — red, white or blue — advising attendees when they should join the hand-shaking queue. The photographs will be sent out later by E-mail.

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The host staff, from the press aides to the servers and the Marines on duty, was scrupulously polite and helpful; the food and drink were excellent, and the decorations were spectacular.

This year, the president and first lady seemed particularly at ease, given that he just won a big re-election victory a month earlier.

The talk of the party among the journalists seemed to be the state of their business. There was much chatter about layoffs, austerity, cutbacks, and days gone by when travel budgets were substantial and reporting staffs were full. But journalists have been living under these frugal conditions for a long time now, so they seem to have learned to accept them and adjust to the new realities, not curse them. The mood was upbeat.

And there was always another friend to greet, another festive holiday display to admire, and another glass of wine to be poured at the open bar a few steps away.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.