The west wing of the White House may be the most formidable power stage in the world. But when it was built 100 years ago, it was an architectural afterthought, completed under President Theodore Roosevelt for his temporary executive offices. William Taft added the Oval Office in 1909 (wags suggested it was fashioned in the image of the 300-lb. President). Temporary became permanent, and this strange, constantly evolving warren of work spaces became the incubator of our lofty national aspirations. Most of the great presidential ideas were conceived, debated and executed here. During John F. Kennedy's term, journalists and writers caught on to the mystique and began capitalizing "West Wing." In movies and TV programs, Hollywood made West Wing a household phrase of honor and wonder--and, with some help from certain Presidents, no small amount of rascality.
The most celebrated power chorus in existence will come together this week to sing the West Wing's praises. Vice President Dick Cheney, the highest-ranking graduate among West Wing staff members, will open the two-day symposium in the Ronald Reagan Building. President George W. Bush, a relative newcomer, will give fresh observations on the sacred precincts. Laura Bush will offer a view from the East Wing. Scholars and former inhabitants will plumb the meaning and memories.
If the West Wing stands for anything, it's power. Former denizens contend that the placement of offices around the President's Oval forms a power chart similar to the old Kremlin reviewing stand, where Stalin's rankings of his Politburo members were measured by how close to him they stood during parades. Roger Porter, who served as an aide to three Presidents in the West Wing, notes that Homeland Security head Tom Ridge is only a few steps down the hall from President Bush's office--"a good measure of the President's priorities."
All in all, about 250 benignly obsessed people cram into the West Wing's 75 rooms, which are mostly small (some lack windows), badly ventilated, poorly sound-proofed but coveted beyond measure by people in the power business. A successful term in the West Wing can mean a couple of million dollars a year more in salary and consulting fees, an insider estimates.
The memories of the West Wingers make for fascinating history. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's verbal alter ego, recalls that at the crucial moment of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, J.F.K. asked him and Bobby Kennedy to go to Sorensen's office to work out a reply to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's threatening letter, a response credited with defusing the nuclear danger. Porter, who is a professor at Harvard, worked out George H.W. Bush's education goals in his cramped, second-story office with then Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell.
Karl Rove, a former historian and now political guru to President Bush, is writing a short history of his office, which over the years housed, among others, Kennedy's political operative, Larry O'Brien; Eisenhower and Nixon's troubleshooter, Bryce Harlow; and Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole. "The office has the only full-length vanity mirror in the West Wing," says Rove. He initially assumed it had been installed for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first First Lady to have a West Wing office. (She insists it was there when she moved in.)