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Richmond councilmember attends Obama’s White House Christmas celebration

on January 9, 2014

It isn’t every day that someone from Richmond gets invited to the White House. But when councilmember Nat Bates received an invitation to a White House Christmas celebration that took place Dec. 17, his initial reaction was to turn it down.

“It’s very cold back there in December,” Bates said. “But how do you turn down an invitation from the President of the United States and the first lady? If it happened again, I wouldn’t hesitate.”

Bates had previously visited the White House in the 1970s during Jimmy Carter’s presidency as a councilman. That visit was to secure funding for the portion of Interstate 580 that runs through Richmond, known as the John Knox Freeway. He had also attended Carter’s 1976 inauguration and President Barack Obama’s in 2008.

“This was my first social invitation to the White House,” he said.

To make up for her being unable to attend the 2008 inauguration, Bates took his daughter, Gale along for the trip. It was her first visit to the nation’s capital.

The two arrived a few days ahead of the party and enjoyed visits to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of Natural History.

Upon arrival to the White House at 5 p.m. Dec. 17, the approximate 200 guests were greeted at the door with Champagne and other drinks, Bates said.

The guests were free to wander the building. Bates said he took a few pictures with some of the presidential portraits that hang on the walls.

“To my disappointment, I couldn’t find Jackie and John F. Kennedy,” he said.

In the main event, Christmas trees and decorations were everywhere. The United States Marine Band played while guests noshed on salmon, lamb chops, vegetables and desserts from a buffet.

There were two bars with five bartenders. Well-dressed servers brought fresh drinks when glasses were empty.

“I wasn’t begging for anything,” he said with a laugh. “It was no disappointment. The decorations, the atmosphere, the entrance to the White House, especially at Christmastime, the friendliness and politeness of his staff … it was like a family party.”

At 6:15 p.m. sharp the President and first lady descended from their living quarters down a staircase and joined the party. The President thanked the guests for coming and joked about being up late decorating, then did a brief meet-and-greet with handshakes and hugs.

Bates said a nearby guest would snap a picture when the Obamas got to them.

“Michelle (Obama) is such a humble and loving individual,” he said. “Just the feeling of being in that close, intimate relationship became special. Same thing with Obama. We didn’t talk about anything of major importance. He was appreciative of the support.”

After about 45 minutes, he said the presidential couple went back to their living quarters and the party wrapped up at 8 p.m. following Christmas carols from a choir.

While Bates was in Washington, the city council held its last meeting of the year and debated the city’s controversial housing recovery plan. Bates sent a letter in lieu of attendance.

Councilmember Tom Butt said members occasionally miss meetings.

“I thought what he did was fine,” Butt said. “It wouldn’t have changed the outcome.”

Butt was unaware of Bates’ trip until he received an email from Bates that described his trip, which Butt shared on his e-forum.

“I thought it was interesting,” Butt said. “I’m glad he had a good time.”

Bates said he wouldn’t soon forget his trip to the capital.

“To be associated with an event of this magnitude has got to be a career high for me,” said Bates, who has been in elected government since the 1960s. “It’s a tremendous honor, not only for me but for the city. I’m fortunate and appreciative the citizens saw fit to support my re-election to the extent that gave me this opportunity.”

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