Photo Line at the White House Holiday Receptions…The ‘Awkward Six Seconds’


So…you’re standing in the annual White House Holiday Photo Line. Palms sweating. Mind racing. Any minute it will be your turn to take a picture with the president. It will only last a few seconds, yet long enough for you to feel the need to say something clever…or long enough to feel uncomfortable if you don’t.

But what do you say to the leader of the free world in only a few seconds? What lasting impact can anything you are forced to say in such a short span of time have? 

Yet and still, the annual “Say Cheese” moment takes place at approximately 20 different holiday receptions attended by the First Couple each December. And according to The New York Times, this “sometimes politically fraught and often agonizingly awkward photo-line banter with the president has become a staple of the holiday season in Washington, where yuletide ritual meets professional opportunism — all in the course of about six seconds.”

Let’s face it. It’s not like you will have time to adequately “pitch” anything. And if you try, and fail, you’re left feeling you’ve made a fool out of yourself …in front of the president. But just smiling and saying, “Nice to meet you, sir” no matter how proper, seems inadequate. And you may never forgive yourself for not seizing the moment to contribute something intellectual during your ‘time’ with the president.

Then again, this will only come into question if your friends, family or colleagues know you even had the opportunity.  For it is they, who will make you feel like crap if you didn’t “take greater advantage of it.”

I can hear them now:

“You were WITH the president and you didn’t talk about…”?


Which might make you want to give props to Representative Steve Cohen — a Tennessee Democrat who made his way to the front of the photo-op line and managed to get an entire thought in AND encourage the president at the same time. It was at the black-tie congressional ball last week the day after president Obama’s  highly criticized address on Terrorism.

And though you may not agree with what the lawmaker said, I’ll bet his two short sentences made an impact.

“That was a good speech you gave last night, Mr. President. It’s hard to be the grown-up in the nation,” Cohen said.

Nice. I’ll bet he didn’t leave feeling like an idiot. More than likely, he left standing a foot taller than when he came.

Now some politicians obviously thought this out before they got to the front. Depending on where they were in their career, their life, they figured out a way to get a quick “sound bite” in; deciding to through fate to the wind and see what happens.

Take  former Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, who brazenly took hold of the president’s hand, and while shaking it said, “You need to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities.”

Wow! Who wouldn’t want to know more? And I wonder if the presidential handshake lingered long enough to inquire. As it turns out, Bachmann was on her way out of Congress and used the opportunity to start a little something before she left. But in response to her statement, president Obama told her it was not that simple, according to an account she later gave to The Washington Free Beacon.

According to MSN News people who step up to shake the president’s hand tell jokes, request interviews (I can’t say I wouldn’t try this, being a journalist!), and give unsolicited advice to the president. They also salute him with high fives and they suffer through the not-infrequent deer-in-headlights stare from those guests who are speechless. Family members are introduced — and often star-struck.

“To staff the president and first lady at the holiday photo line is to observe humanity in its most awkward state,” said Bill Burton, a former top press official in Mr. Obama’s White House.

Being the First Black Couple in the White House, president and Mrs. Obama recognize the strain that a receiving line can cause. And unlike their predecessors, they have even cut back on the time-consuming ritual. Plus, they don’t appear to be phony people; comfortable with schmoozing.

The ritual is said to take at least 2-1/2 hours and standing for that long can be tiring for anyone involved.

“It’s just long and tiring and pretty hard to get through,” Tina Tchen, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, said in an interview. “We also had to balance, from a staff perspective, having photo lines versus how many people we could get in.”

If I found myself standing in line to meet the First Couple, I would take one of each of their hands into mine, smile and look them straight in the eye and say: “The two of you have made me very proud during your time here. We’ve seen your daughters grow into beautiful young women. And I thank you for all of your efforts.”

And believe me, I’d get all three sentences in!

Tell me, if you had six seconds to be with the president and first lady, what would YOU say?


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