- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Donna Green was in her Cohasset Village kitchen in Massachusetts one steamy August morning when the phone rang. The voice at the other end of the line had a soft Texas twang and identified herself as Laura Bush.

Miss Green almost hung up, thinking it was prank by one of her girlfriends.

“But then she said she had liked my illustrations for ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ and asked me if I would illustrate the White House holiday booklet. I went out to my garden and squealed.”

Miss Green — whose artwork fetches prices as high as $100,000 and is collected by rock star Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, among others — went to work, completing 14 paintings — oils and watercolors — in a little more than a month. For free.

“I was singing Christmas carols in August,” Miss Green said yesterday, standing by the first lady as the White House unveiled its holiday theme: “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Wearing a Carolina Herrera wool suit, Mrs. Bush took reporters on the annual tour of the State Dining Room, Blue Room, Red Room and East Room to see the decorations, markedly subdued compared with years past.

There were no dolls, no arts and crafts, no needlepoint, reindeers, fake snow or kitschy giant nutcrackers. Mrs. Bush wanted something more elegant, and in fact, the decor — heavy on fruits and flowers, moss and ivy, cranberry topiaries and lime-green ribbon — seemed straight out of Fresh Fields.

Pears nestled in vases with dozens of pink French tulips; tangerines were transformed into tree-shaped tabletop decorations interspersed with lemon leaves; fresh and preserved red roses dotted the Fraser firs; and fragrant white lilies stuck into glass test tubes draped on pine branches.

Two giant structures of potted white azaleas were artfully shaped into faux Christmas trees and flanked the Grand Foyer. The Lincoln portrait in the State Dining Room was fringed with a boxwood garland and amber glass balls.

“Hey, Jamie, good to see ya,” Mrs. Bush said, greeting artist Jamie Wyeth, who sat on the South Lawn in July to sketch the White House Christmas card, a dreamy scene of a snow-covered Andrew Jackson magnolia tree by the South Portico, featuring the Bush family dogs, Barney and Miss Beazley, and India the cat.

Although the White House sticks to tradition by sending out Christmas cards and showing off an 18th-century Italian creche with terra cotta and carved wood figurines in the East Room as its occupants have done for the past 30 years, there are no religious overtones. Mrs. Bush did say they were planning to host a party to celebrate Hanukkah, just one of 26 private soirees they will throw in the next three weeks.

That’s 9,500 invited guests — military, press, diplomats —on top of 44,000 public visitors who snagged tickets months ago to get a glimpse of the holiday decorations. White House pastry chef Thaddeus DuBois, who made the elaborate gingerbread White House, will be busy baking 30,000 Christmas cookies and 10,000 petit fours.

“It’s one of the most beautiful Christmas trees I’ve ever seen,” Mrs. Bush told reporters, emphasizing that the theme was “how beautiful nature is and how many things we can use from our own gardens or woods during Christmas.”

She walked slowly through each room, answering questions while a member of the Marine Band tinkled “Silver Bells” on the baby grand piano. Earlier, she led a tour for “Good Morning America” and, when asked about the troops in Iraq, said she hoped they could return home “as soon as they possibly can.”

A former schoolteacher, the first lady guided the media gaggle with an officious air. And nobody dared act up.

“Nobody asked any questions,” veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas complained. “Like whether she wants the war to end.”

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