Unwitting tourists attend White House breakfast

It wasn't a state dinner, and they didn't crash it on purpose.

Still, a Georgia couple who showed up at the White House a day early for a tour somehow wound up at an invitation-only breakfast with President Barack Obama and the first lady. It left the White House once again explaining how people who were not on an event guest list wound up being ushered into the presidential mansion anyway.

The improbable adventure of Harvey and Paula Darden, Obama supporters from Hogansville, Ga., took place on Veterans Day, two weeks before Virginia socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi infamously crashed the Obamas' state dinner for the prime minister of India.

The Dardens mistakenly showed up a day early for a tour scheduled through their congressman.

The White House and Secret Service both said the Dardens went through the appropriate security screenings and were allowed into the breakfast as a courtesy because there were no public tours the day they arrived.

That explanation was news to Harvey Darden, 67, a retired pharmacist who said he and his wife never were told about the breakfast. They thought they were simply starting their tour until they were ushered into the East Room, offered a buffet spread and told they'd be meeting the president.

“The further we got into the White House, the more surprised we were,” Darden told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “My wife looked at me and I looked at her, and I said, 'You know, I don't know if we're in the right place.'”

They approached a White House aide with their concern that they had veered off course but were told to “just go with the flow,” Darden said.

“I felt kind of funny because I was the only man in the room that wasn't dressed in a coat and tie,” he added. “I was just a plain tourist.”

Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said agents performed the same screening procedures on the Dardens that were used for other breakfast guests: They checked the Dardens' names and did a criminal background check — steps that were not taken for the Salahis at the Nov. 24 state dinner.

Because the Dardens were able to pass Secret Service vetting, they were allowed to attend the breakfast for veterans as a “nice gesture,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said. He added that it's not unusual for White House staff to take people who are cleared in for tours to other events if there is space, including Marine One arrivals, East Room events and Rose Garden ceremonies.

Shapiro said the White House Office of Public Engagement, which Obama created to engage citizens in White House activities, was responsible for clearing in the Dardens, as well as the other breakfast guests. The social office handled admittance to the Indian state dinner.

On the morning the Dardens showed up, security officials working from a list of names began letting people inside. When the Dardens reached the checkpoint, they said they were told their names weren't on the list and were asked to present photo identifications and other information.

After waiting for agents to check their information, they were allowed in and directed into the East Room, where about 200 people were gathered for the breakfast.

The Dardens approached an aide who was mingling with guests.

“I told him, 'I don't think this is part of the White House tour,'” Darden said. “He said, 'No it's not. It's an invitation event for veterans.'”

The official, whose name and title Darden didn't remember, asked whether Darden was a veteran. Darden told him he was a Navy veteran, and the aide suggested he stay, Darden said.

So the Dardens served themselves at the buffet, and took their seats. Shortly thereafter, Barack and Michelle Obama arrived and began talking and getting photographs with guests at each table. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, also stopped by.

Darden said it was “quite a treat” to meet the Obamas and the Bidens. But he remains puzzled about how he was escorted into a private breakfast — and he grew a little anxious after the Salahi episode exploded in the news.

The couple's only regret, Darden said, is that they haven't received a copy of that picture taken with the Obamas.

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