When America's first lady puts her arm around you, what exactly is the right response, protocol-wise? That delicate question arose during the official photograph President Bush...

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WASHINGTON — When America’s first lady puts her arm around you, what exactly is the right response, protocol-wise?

That delicate question arose during the official photograph President Bush and first lady Laura Bush take with each invitee, and that person’s guest, to one of the White House Christmas parties held for a favored few.

The chance for a souvenir photo with the president is one of official Washington’s special perks, at least for those on the White House invitation list — or, those who know someone who is.

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While most Americans never have the privilege of having a photo taken with the president and first lady, the pictures are a highlight of a series of Christmas parties held each year for different categories of guests, including military families, administration members and political allies.

As usual, there were two parties for media this year (print and broadcast journalists were separated like incompatible species). Some Washington journalists have had so many such Christmas photos taken over the years through several presidencies that they’re at a loss as to what to do with new ones.

With the post-Sept. 11 White House still largely closed to public tours, these Christmas parties are among the few times large numbers of people are invited into the world’s most famous home.

It is also one of the world’s best-protected houses, with most of it off-limits even to journalists who work in the press room every day.

So for the official picture and a chance to roam the famous rooms on the White House’s second floor — the State Dining Room, the East Room, the Blue Room — all decked with appropriately whimsical yet presidential holiday decorations, even the most jaded, self-important Washington journalists seldom turn down the Christmas-party invitation.

Plus, there’s the largely unspoken fear that, if you blow off the invite, you risk being purged from next year’s list.

Certain aspects of the parties are sure to put people in the holiday spirit. Although the president is, self-admittedly, a reformed heavy drinker, booze flows pretty freely at these White House gatherings, and guests are appreciative.

But they also are mindful of the dignity of their surroundings, an atmosphere enhanced by all the ramrod-straight young military officers in their prim dress uniforms who serve as White House ushers. So no one ever appears smashed at these gatherings.

Sobriety is aided by the ample supply of hors d’oeuvres, such as tiny lamb chops, smoked salmon and sliced beef, that load the buffet tables.

There’s also the healthy fear of making a fool of oneself in front of the president that likely keeps people from overdoing it. Even so, the heavily spiked eggnog received especially good reviews from this year’s guests.

To remind people of the reason for the season, as ministers say, there’s the large 18th-century creche in the East Room that’s trundled out of White House storage every year, despite risks that someone could file a church-state constitutional challenge.

In the State Dining Room, a model of the White House is done in gingerbread and chocolate. It’s an incredible (and edible) piece of confectionary art, with arresting details, including holiday carolers fashioned from marzipan and a miniature elephant, symbol of Republican triumph this year, cavorting on the Truman Balcony.

Nowhere in the scene, which includes snowmen, Santa Claus and even the Marine Band, is there a donkey, the symbol of Democrats. That suggests all you need to know about where bipartisanship stands in the nation’s capital these days.

Speaking of triumphant Republicans, there in the East Room you can spot Karl Rove, architect of the president’s electoral successes. He looks relaxed and cheery, a man who’s already received all he wanted for Christmas.

Just as children line up at the mall for a few minutes with Santa Claus, partygoers eventually are invited to stand in line for the picture with the president and first lady.

This year, the oval-shaped Diplomatic Reception Room on the White House’s first floor was the backdrop for the presidential picture-taking. A card the invitee received on entering the White House, with his name and that of his guest, is taken by a White House aide. When the front of the line is reached, another aide, in a booming voice, announces the guests to the president.

The president shakes your hand and typically greets people he doesn’t know with something like “Happy Holidays. Thanks for coming. We really appreciate you.”

If he knows you, he customizes the greeting. To Jeff Zeleny, a Chicago Tribune colleague who covered the presidential race in 2000 for a different newspaper, the president said, “I’ll always think of you as Jeff of The Des Moines Register,” with it coming out in his Texas twang as “Dee-Moines.”

The protocol about positioning is simple. If the invited couple of the moment is a man-woman combination, the woman stands next to the president, the man next to the first lady.

While a young officer had reminded us that it was one shot and out, no do-overs, she mentioned nothing about the first lady putting her arm around my back.

So when it happened, I momentarily was caught off-guard. “Hey, she didn’t do that last year,” I thought. “Am I supposed to slip my arm behind her back? Can you do that to the first lady? What will the Secret Service do?”

The flash went off, the moment was over. Laura Bush removed her first-lady arm, and the president reached over for a final handshake, saying, “Merry Christmas.” Final for me, at least. He had hundreds more to go before the night was out.

As for the future, I plan on researching whether an arm around the first lady’s back is appropriate. I’ll be ready next year.