Melinda Bates knew she had finally fallen down the rabbit hole as she penned the words, on embossed White House stationery no less, “How kind of Your Majesty to think of me…”
She stepped through the looking glass again while rescuing Elizabeth Taylor from boredom…
For Melinda Bates, director of the White House Visitors Office for all eight years of the Clinton Administration, surreal moments like that became commonplace – almost. “There were still times I just had to pinch myself when I realized just what a fantastic opportunity I had been given,” recalls Bates, “especially for someone like me who has such a passion for White House history and who feels such an emotional attachment to it.”
This weekend Bates, author of “White House Story: A Democratic Memoir,” will share her Washington experiences with visitors to the Southern Women’s Show. (See details in box.)
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She met Bill Clinton when both were undergraduates at Washington’s Georgetown University. Their friendship remained strong throughout his rise in politics in Arkansas and beyond. When the Clintons moved to the White House in 1993, the new president asked Bates to join him, giving her responsibility for running the visitor’s office with the title of Special Assistant to the President.
Based on a recent telephone interview from her home in Baja, Calif., one can quickly tell that Bates has never met a stranger. A few excerpts:
About that thank-you to a king: Because of strict rules, all gifts to government officials must be vetted by the Ethics Office. Gifts from heads of state, however, are exempted. As a token of gratitude for Bates’ hospitality during his visit, the King of Morocco sent her a rug. Naturally, only a handwritten note of thanks would do in response.
The rules did get annoying at times, however, like with the Hollywood production team scouting the White House for sets for the 1994 Harrison Ford movie “Clear and Present Danger.” Afterward they took Bates to dinner, choosing the most expensive restaurant in Washington. Because the maximum amount that could be spent on food for a White House staff member was only $20, Bates had to content herself with a bowl of soup, insisting she was not really hungry while everyone else devoured steaks.
Liz Taylor, mom: “I’m never tongue-tied,” Bates admits. “I’m an easy talker as long as I can find out some little something about a person.”
That trait came in handy during an occasion when actress Elizabeth Taylor made a dutiful appearance and appeared to be bored.
Bates had recently read a magazine article about Taylor’s children, and once she reached the actress, she brought up this topic. “Her eyes lit up, and she started carrying on just like any proud mama,” Bates recalls. “She pulled me off to the side and we chit-chatted like old friends. It was just the thing to ask her about!”
Be careful about bottoms. Likewise, sombreros. One of Bates’s stock stories while conducting White House tours concerned first lady Dolley Madison and a dinner party interrupted by British soldiers. The dining chair occupied by Mrs. Madison – and her supposedly ample bottom – inspired some comments by the intruders.
After relating this anecdote to the Queen of Sweden, Bates noticed an abrupt chill in the mood of Her Majesty and her lady-in-waiting, who pointedly looked at her watch and announced something to the effect, “We’ll be late if we don’t leave right now.”
Only later did Bates discover that any mention of that particular part of the human anatomy is strictly frowned upon by the Swedes. “Just imagine what I could have called it,” Bates says with a laugh.
Another social faux pas – this one averted in time – involved a dessert to be served to the president of Mexico and his party. The pastry chef had carelessly decorated little individual cakes with figures taking a siesta beneath sombreros. Bates intercepted the first batch before it was served. “Usually there was a careful review process of everything on the menu, but somehow it hadn’t caught the sleeping Mexicans. Just what we don’t need – an international incident over an insulting stereotype.”
Everybody gets star-struck in America’s House. Whether it was Oprah, Barbra Streisand, Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams or one of the hundreds of other celebrities to whom she gave private guided tours, Bates says there was a common denominator: Americans are proud of “their” house and are fascinated with it.
“Jackie Kennedy made a lot of changes that were long overdue,” says Bates, who calls Washington “change-averse.” “When she came in, people thought it was the end of civilization as we know it. But the improvements she made were brilliant, and she was a wonderful steward of this house. Laura Bush was, too.”
If you’re going
The 33rd annual Southern Women’s Show, offering hundreds of vendors, exhibits and demonstrations in lifestyle, health, beauty, food and fashion, runs 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday at Charlotte Convention Center, 501 S. College St.
Admission: $12 at the door for adults; $10 in advance online; $7 at Walgreens. Youth (ages 6-12), $6; under age 6, free with paying adult. Groups of 10 or more can purchase advance tickets for $7. Admission is free after 4 p.m. Friday, and for teachers presenting a valid school ID all day on Sunday.
Parking is available at uptown garages, including the nearby NASCAR Hall of Fame. See SouthernWomensShow.com for locations and rates.
Spotlight Stage: White House insider Melinda Bates will share candid and funny behind-the-scenes stories at these times:
2:30 p.m. Friday: The talking tour she gave to hundreds of visitors and personal guests of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
10:30 a.m. Saturday: Entertaining at the White House from George Washington to Barack Obama: Dress swords to gate crashers!
12:30 p.m. Saturday: Back Stage with First Families: Presidents, first ladies and their frequently misbehaving children through the 215 years of this family home.