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Published: Sunday, 7/13/2003

Curious? `Ask the White House'

WASHINGTON -Did you know that the White House chef, Walter Scheib, grew up demanding his mother fix him three hot dogs every day - one with ketchup, one with mustard, and one with both? And that if he had one last meal it would be a 10-course Thai banquet served on the beach in Phuket, Thailand?

And did you know what happened to Amy Carter's treehouse? According to White House curator Bill Allman (no relation to the Allman Brothers), it was dismantled when the Carters left the White House in 1981 and put in storage. (No mention of where her famous Nancy Drew books are.)

Americans wormed such facts out of both men through Internet question-and-answer sessions being staged by the White House in a new program called Ask the White House.

At regular intervals, White House bigwigs and Cabinet secretaries respond to online questions. Many times the replies are so programmed, the torpidity factor is large. Sometimes the celebs get playful, and the answers are more interesting.

Dan Bartlett, communications director, waxed interminably about what a pleasure it is to work for such a wonderful man as the President. But then he was asked who is the toughest person in the Bush Cabinet. “If there was an iron cage match and all Cabinet members were put in that cage, who would be the last man or woman standing?'' Mr. Bartlett (yes, the same name as the fictional president in West Wing) replied, “Well, Billy, that's a tough one. I will put my money on the former general, Secretary [of State Colin] Powell.”

Asked who is the smartest person at the White House, aside from Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney, Mr. Bartlett answered, “That's an easy one - Mrs. Bush.”

Lynn Cheney, wife of the vice president, was yawn-producing as she discussed history books she's read, taking care to note she just gave Laura Bush a biography of Martha Washington.

Then she talked about the vice president's mansion. “It's a lovely old Queen Anne house with rolling lawns and great tall trees. It's perfect for grandchildren and dogs. There are 37 rooms in the vice president's residence. I counted because kids ask me that all the time. There are 137 rooms in the White House. I called the curator and asked because kids want to know that, too.”

White House horticulturist Dale Haney was one of the best-liked guests on the program. Larry from Chicago wanted to know how to get rid of crab grass. Mr. Haney advised, “You need to apply a pre-emergent crabgrass control early spring and this should control your crabgrass problem. That's why we use a pre-emergent here at the White House.”

He also revealed the White House grows thyme, rosemary, and chives for use in the White House kitchen, that the oldest trees are southern magnolias planted by Andrew Jackson, that gardeners tend two apple trees and concord grapes planted in 1963, and that every spring the north fountain is surrounded by 4,000 oxford tulips with a border of 8,000 grape hyacinth and the south fountain is planted with 8,000 oxford tulips and 16,000 grape hyacinth.

And this White House always plants the Laura Bush petunia developed by Texas A&M.

Mr. Haney said the Bushes' dogs hang out with the gardeners during the day. Barney plays with a volleyball and Spot plays with a tennis ball and loves to swim in the pool.

Chief White House photographer Eric Draper, who has four photographers and three photo editors, said his most difficult moment was to photograph Mr. Bush's meeting with families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

He said his most memorable photo was taken on his first Oval Office visit, which was also the first day of the current Bush Administration. Mr. Bush sat in his chair in the Oval Office for the first time as his father, former President George H.W. Bush, stood beside the desk.

As of May 8, the photographers had shot 29,929 rolls of film, Mr. Draper said. Every week the photographers make a “photos of the week” book for Mr. Bush. They also print 20 inch by 30 inch prints of that week's best shots called jumbos that are displayed around the White House complex.

The online sessions made news with the inaugural session April 16 when White House chief of staff Andy Card said he was convinced Saddam Hussein was dead. A questioner in Quincy, Mass., asked for news of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Card wrote back, “He is not likely to be in Quincy, Braintree, or my home-town of Holbrook. I think he is dead.”

Actually, the White House now thinks Saddam Hussein is probably still alive.



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