This is a weird one.
“The Obamas,” one of those “behind the scenes at the White House” books that has become a routine feature of every administration since the Reagans, has the usual tales about First Couples bickering and First Lady power trips. Author and New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor has caused something of an uproar with her account of the first Halloween party the first couple hosted at the White House, in 2009. She writes that it was so lavish and “over the top” that the administration kept the event secret out of fear of a public backlash. After all, this was a time when the Tea Party was in full swing, the economy was at low tide, and there was the ten-percent unemployment rate, bank bailouts and Obama’s health-care plan battles. Not exactly a smart time for a Marie Antoinette-style costume blow-out.
“White House officials were so nervous about how a splashy, Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans — or their representatives in Congress, who would soon vote on health care — that the event was not discussed publicly and Burton’s and Depp’s contributions went unacknowledged,” the book says. The State Dining Room was transformed into a secretive White House Wonderland. Tim Burton decorated it “in his signature creepy-comic style. His film version was about to be released, and he had turned the room into the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with a long table set with antique-looking linens, enormous stuffed animals in chairs, and tiered serving plates with treats like bone-shaped meringue cookies,” reports Kantor. “Fruit punch was served in blood vials at the bar. Burton’s own Mad Hatter, the actor Johnny Depp, presided over the scene in full costume, standing up on a table to welcome everyone in character.”
Sounds like fun! But there are two issues here, and one of them isn’t the propriety of a White House party. All presidents hold parties. This one sounds a little strange and badly timed, but still: a party, even a lavish party, is nothing to get too upset over. Holding a secret party, however, because you are afraid people will get upset, is troubling. A basic tenet of ethics is that if you feel you have to hide conduct for fear someone will think there is something wrong with it, there is something wrong with it. Again I must note that this was a President who made transparency a centerpiece of his argument for being elected. Hiding a party under these conditions can only be interpreted as an effort to hide one’s habits and identity. Will voters think less of a First Family that parties wild and vacations expensively while the nation is hurting? Well, whether they will or not, they have a right to know who their leader is. I can see why this kind of a party would be deemed a potential PR nightmare by the President’s political team—the Tea Party connection alone would be enough to send pundits, bloggers, columnists and Fox News into a feeding frenzy. The Obamas had two ethical choices: kill the party, or hold it and let the chips fall where they may. But holding it and keeping it under wraps?
Wrong. Deceptive. Untrustworthy. Sneaky. Dumb.
And certainly not transparent.
The current criticism from the conservative press about this incident is fully justified, and the silence about it from the rest of the Obama-can-do-no-wrong news media is incompetent and biased. Why wouldn’t they report that the Obamas held a themed party that was bound to attract criticism and kept it secret? Doesn’t that tell us something we need to know?
One reason, I suppose, is that the White House denies that the party was a secret. This seems to me to be an inexplicable act of gall, or, in the alternative, someone has been shooting off that little doohickey Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones use in “Men in Black” to make people forget what they saw. I live in the Washington area, and the Obamas holding a big, Hollywood, “Alice in Wonderland” bash featuring, of all things, a tea party theme, not to mention Johnny Depp in Mad Hatter duds and make-up, Tim Burton, and Chewbacca (!), would have been all over the papers and TV stations in 2009. I don’t recall it. Nobody else does around here. Do you? But the White House says it happened, and they let everybody know! We just all forgot! Fascinating.
Maybe it was the neurolizer. If not, however, the episode suggests that the Obamas and the administration…
1) Are not dedicated to transparency,
2) Don’t trust the public to see what they do,
3) Will hide activities that look bad, whether or not they are in fact bad,
4) Showed atrocious taste and poor timing in this event, which was not appropriate in the midst of such financial pain,
5) Are brazen beyond belief to maintain such an event was publicized and everyone just forgot about it in two years, and
6. Will lie to get out of an embarrassment,
…none of which is admirable or good.
Update: Some photos from the mystery party are available here.
Update 2 (1/10/12): For you skeptics, the Washington Post confirms that while the White House Halloween festivities were covered by the media in 2009, “for whatever reason” the Depp, Burton, “Alice in Wonderland” and tea party features were not revealed to reporters.