By Suzanne Marques

CBS2 News This Morning’s Suzanne Marques was in Washington, D.C., to interview First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. Follow along with her experiences here.

By Suzanne Marques

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WASHINGTON (CBSLA) – Thank you everyone who watched the White House Christmas special! Here’s some behind the scenes dish!

Have you seen the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Gene Wilder appears as Willy Wonka. He has a hitch in his step, and his cane gets stuck in the pavement cracks. He freefalls into a somersault and then jumps up gracefully to the applause of the crowd. He told NPR’s Fresh Air, the grand entrance was necessary “because from that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”

The White House looks nothing like the Chocolate Factory unless you count the pile of faux red presents with purple ribbon at the entrance for Christmas. But I felt like Charlie with the golden ticket. The First Lady invited a handful of journalists from around the country. One from each large city. Our guide was Dr. Biden’s Press Secretary Michael LaRosa, who told me just enough to let my imagination run wild. He is also her spokesman and worked for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Michael made sure we never knew what to expect. Before I interviewed the First Lady, Michael shared my texts and notes with Dr. Biden, which helped us connect during the interview. There’s quiet collaboration to create magic every step of the way.

Let’s go back to the beginning. My photographer, Scott Mackie, and I walked to the White House carrying our gear. I made the mistake of wearing heels the entire day, but it was a formal occasion! We all took PCR tests to ensure we didn’t have Covid-19 before going inside.

When we arrived at the north gate of the White House, we checked into a small security office. Secret Service police in SWAT gear let us in. As our camera and belongings went through a security conveyer belt, one officer kept his eyes on us with a hand inside his bulletproof vest. He was ready for anything. I expected nothing less.

Once we made it through security, we gathered near our fellow journalists. Communications Coordinator Asjia Garner greeted us and told us Michael was on his way. I learned she is a recent graduate of Cal State Long Beach. LBC in DC! I love to see it.

 

Scott and I got to work filming teases and social media videos. We have worked together for years, covering countless red carpets, the Oscars, the Golden Globes, you name it. We’ve taken trips to San Diego and Las Vegas, but this trip took the cake. We stood near a row of open tents facing the White House. Networks have lights and equipment set up, so reporters can use the White House as a backdrop while they’re on the air. The tents resemble cabanas to block out the rain and snow. It’s like a permanent red carpet setup. But crews tear down film premieres and Academy Awards tents immediately after the cameras stop rolling, and there’s never an end to this show.

Michael arrived and gave us a warm welcome, phone in hand. I have a feeling he keeps it with him 24/7. Just like the First Lady has said, it’s anything but a nine to five job. It’s a job that never stops. He swept us toward the White House and pointed out the West Wing. We spotted a redhead with shoulder-length hair walking by in a long winter coat. Michael waved her over, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said hello to all of us and had a quick chat. I don’t know why I expected everyone to be uptight or guarded, but everyone was relaxed and friendly. It was her birthday, and I asked her for a photo. It was a present for me. If you’re worried I’m getting too cozy with the Dems, I also have a selfie with former Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. To quote Aaron Burr in Hamilton, “I wanna be in the room where it happens!” I’m not, but at least I’ve rubbed shoulders.

We passed delivery trucks with doors wide open, parked next to the East Wing entrance, and someone joked we were taking the scenic route. Maybe it was Michael? I was enjoying our peek behind the scenes. I love to see how the sausage is made. Maybe it’s why I worked at Disneyland in college. I want to know what it takes to make the magic happen. It also brought to mind the saying that everyone puts on their pants the same way, one leg at a time.

Once the doors opened to the White House, and we stepped inside, I saw Nancy Reagan’s portrait. She’s wearing a floor-length Reagan red gown. It’s by Aaron Shikler, who also painted President John F. Kennedy’s official White House portrait. Complimentary red decorations were hung high, with twinkling lights.

The staff told us we could put down our things and tour the decorations. I asked if I could leave my purse, and someone joked, “If it’s safe anywhere, it’s here.”

Communications Director Elizabeth Alexander walked us through each room and described the history and meaning behind each room and decoration. I heard a voice introduce themselves as Carlos, and I made a beeline for him. It was the first Latino name I’d heard since our arrival. I learned he’s from Texas, and his family is of Mexican heritage. I jotted down his name and did a quick search.

Carlos Elizondo is the first Latino social secretary, handling all of the First Lady’s social engagements. He was the one who orchestrated our day inside the White House. Carlos was also Special Assistant to President Barack Obama, Social Secretary for then-Vice President Joe and Dr. Jill Biden.

He was the conductor leading the orchestra of people behind the scenes to create an inviting atmosphere. He made it feel relaxed inside the White House.

Elizabeth Alexander took us room to room, and I compared her information with my notes. I’m so glad I researched ahead of time. I’d have been overwhelmed.

After the tour, we went back and grabbed our gear. I waited for someone to appear and escort us, or whisper rules into our ears. Nothing! I grabbed my notes, and we started to film.

By the time we returned, every fireplace was burning beautifully with stacks of perfectly placed wood. The crackle and pop of the fire, the warmth, the faint smell of wood in each room’s fireplace made it cozy and inviting.

Every fifteen minutes, people tended to the fire to maintain the ambiance. Most people came and left quietly, but one young man named Alex had a big smile, and I could tell he was in the mood to talk. Scott and I told him how lovely the fireplace was, and he said he’s an engineer here to make sure it keeps going. Note to self. Assign a family member this job at Christmas.

When it was our turn to interview the First Lady, we walked upstairs to the red room, which had become a holding area. One journalist was sitting in the antique chairs, but I sat on the ground. In truth, I kept taking off my heels while we filmed. I forgot flats, and my feet were killing me. In a flash, they brought in a couple of event chairs.


I was scribbling down my questions for FLOTUS when they called my name. I walked into the State Dining Room, and First Lady Jill Biden was standing there in a purple dress. She looked radiant.

Now I’ve interviewed plenty of people before. I interviewed Dr. Biden when she was on the campaign trail with her husband, and she appeared on CBS2 News This Morning. But suddenly, I was standing in the White House, looking at the First Lady waiting just for me.

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I became my 17-year-old self, taking the stage in the Miss Downey pageant. I got cottonmouth. I said hello and said I needed a moment to take it in. After a brutal year, it was an out-of-body experience, taking in the highlight of my career.

Her people asked if I wanted a glass of water and told me we could take our time. I looked at their kind faces and listened. They were words I have spoken to people nervous about interviewing. It was lovely.

I asked Michael LaRosa to hold my notes. I guess because I’d sent them to him before. I was not going to ask him for a prompt. I suppose I didn’t want to do something as undignified as put my notes on the ground in front of FLOTUS.

I turned to the First Lady and asked what she prefers, Dr. Biden or First Lady? She said, “Jill.”

Before the trip to the White House, I read her memoir, “Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself.” She’s a beautiful writer and a loving mother and grandmother. It hit home when she wrote about losing her son Beau. I’ve seen articles refer to him as her stepson, but she is his second mom. She loved him as much as my mother loved my brother. Unfortunately, they both lost their son, finding it hard to talk about them. President Biden loves to tell stories and talk about Beau. Dr. Biden finds it challenging to talk about him or relive memories of him. Her pain made her lose her faith for a while. I know the pain of a broken heart.

My brother died before he turned 40. He would’ve been the first one I called when I found out about this interview. Matt accomplished so much in his life, like Beau. Beau was an Iraq War veteran and Delaware attorney general. Matt was a composer and musician and performed worldwide with the New Music group Alarm Will Sound, from Carnegie Hall to the LA Philharmonic. The morning I left for DC, I went on a walk, scrolled through my Instagram feed on my phone, and saw a photo of Matt. I instinctively started rubbing my chest. It hurts. Emotionally, physically to think of him.

I told her how much her sharing her story meant to me, and she said she knows I’ve been through the same kind of pain. I had told Michael, so she knew. I said yes, and my mom lives with me and struggles the same way she does. I took a moment and held up my arms because words weren’t enough at that moment. I said to her, “Virtual hug!” And she said, “No. A real hug.”

After our quiet embrace, I held her hands and thanked her for the interview. She said, “Send your mother my love.”

She also told me she’d see me soon, which I took for more b-roll. Scott and I had resumed filming in the halls and rooms when Asjia told me to meet in the Vermeil Room. I passed musicians warming up in the East Room for another event.
The buttery yellow Vermeil room feels so feminine, with portraits of First Ladies on every wall. A woman stood in a corner, holding a tray of champagne glasses. Next to her was a basket of cookies. I said, “Don’t mind if I do!”


She said, “We’re awaiting a toast with the First Lady.”

The interview was in the can, Scott was wrapping up filming, and we would share a private moment with the First Lady. Someone mentioned a gorgeous bathroom hidden behind a door. I walked in and filmed with my iPhone. It was beautiful, and there were stacks of disposable hand towels embossed with the Presidential Seal. When I saw them, I joked I was tempted to steal them, but I didn’t dare. As I type this on Christmas Day, I wish I had them instead of my stack from Home Goods printed with Christmas trees. Who am I kidding? I wouldn’t let anyone touch them.

Someone mentioned taking a group photo Met Gala-style in the massive mirror of the bathroom. We were about to assemble when the First Lady walked in. We stood around her and grabbed a glass.

She said she invited us to the White House to share the Christmas decorations with the country since people can’t see them in person. What an honor.
Then, since we were all TV journalists, we started talking her ear off. We discussed shopping for Christmas presents and learned she loves when Joe buys her jewelry. We admired a stack of red rings on her ring finger. She told us she took a Barre class that morning and that people go about their business. What a difference from LA. Anytime a celebrity leaves their home, paparazzi are lurking nearby.

Carlos appeared to whisk her away to her next engagement when she noticed we hadn’t taken the cookies. She held up the basket, and we each took one and noticed they were in the shape of the peace doves from the White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room.

When she left, another journalist who knows the ropes held up the basket and told us if we didn’t take them all, someone else would. We divvied up the cookies, headed back to our photographers in the Map Room, and took many photos. That was the first time I noticed Secret Service standing at attention in the room.

Until that moment, I had seen men in suits walking and talking as we roamed the White House freely. They didn’t speak into microphones. They spoke to each other and walked in pairs.

I had a feeling they were the First Lady’s Secret Service. But now that she’d moved on, just one guard stood on patrol – at least in our eyesight.

He told us he’s used to being on patrol outside, and he wasn’t comfortable wearing a suit. He said he prefers dealing with the public, and the protests, instead of the pressure indoors. Someone asked if there was a restroom nearby. When another staffer mentioned a door hidden off the room, with a hallway, he said he’s worked for the White House for sixteen years and never knew about the door. In Southern California, most security is intimidating on red carpets and at most venues. He was talking to us like we were friends.

And if you’ve made it this far in my journal, I now consider us friends. And since I’ve been dishing every detail since the beginning, I’ll respond to two questions I’ve been asked repeatedly since my trip.

First, what were the rules to do the story? There were no rules, and while staffers told us where to go, nobody told me what to say or show, which leads me to my second question.

Why didn’t I cover First Lady Melania Trump’s Christmas decorations, and was I asked not to talk about her? I haven’t been invited to the White House before, and there was a nod to the Trump presidency and Christmas decorations. Dr. Biden decorated Christmas trees in the State Dining Room with ornaments featuring photos of past presidents. There’s an ornament with a picture of President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump admiring the arrival of the National Christmas Tree.

People might be curious because those red Christmas trees got so much negative attention during the Trump administration. The rest of her Christmas decor was traditional, and it was beautiful! It’s important to remember every First Lady has ideas, and designers and volunteers bring the vision to life. They dedicate many hours to spinning Christmas magic. You’ll notice similarities if you look at the decorations across the years. Last year, First Lady Melania Trump had wreaths of pencils hanging in the windows of the Vermeil room, printed with her phrase, “Be Best.” This year, garlands made of paint-dipped brushes hung in the same windows. Both took humble elements and turned them into art.

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I hope you enjoyed the Christmas special and learning about the history that endures in the White House. I already have ideas for next year. But I’m hoping by then, the pandemic is over, and everyone can see it for themselves. After all, it is the People’s House.

Suzanne Marques