The White House’s Wonderland Ethics

This is a weird one.

"Alice in Wonderland" party at the White House? I don't remember any party!

“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.

28 thoughts on “The White House’s Wonderland Ethics

  1. I’m torn here. From what I’ve seen, this hardly qualifies as a Hollywood-esque style blow out. Depp and Burton are the only celebrity names associated with this story, although George Lucas was said to have sent Chubaka. (Probably could have been arranged without bothering Lucas) When I read the headline, I was ready to hear about a wild night of secret adult partying at the White House. I was pretty disappointed when it turned out to be a fancy kids party.
    I imagine the White house staff and advisors are always worried about how events might be perceived, and don’t doubt that secret meetings, events, parties etc go on from time to time. Obama’s hardly the first and won’t be the last. So then the issue becomes a President who has repeatedly promised transparency, and then seemingly failing to consistently deliver. I suppose in the strictest sense, this was an ethical lapse. But what they were trying to hide was an opportunity for their critics to spin a childrens event, focused at least in part on military family kids, into something that would make him look like an elitist, insensitive outsider. With so many other and more important issues to go after Obama on, it seems mildly amusing that this sort of episode would generate such weeping and knashing of teeth on the right. But no opportunity should go unexploited.

    The American people will speak soon enough. I wonder what role silly attacks will play? If we keep getting this type, the real issues will be covered up. Especially if the economy continues to show signs of s rebound. Better pick your battles wisely…..

  2. A puzzling response.
    We begin in agreement: I said that the party itself does not create a legitimate cause for criticism, just an inviting one. Nonetheless, the public has the right to make up its own mind. “There are more important things”; “Everybody does it”—these are rationalizations, and especially so when it involves a matter in which this administration pledged to be different.
    And the claim that the event was not hushed up seems to be a blatant lie to me, a silly one, and a telling one. Administrations that are willing to lie about relative trivia can be expected to lie about the important stuff. This is why this is important.

    And I don’t think it should require partisan antipathy to be bothered by this. A president who hides his activities from scrutiny because they look bad, or may be made to seem so by partisan critics, is sinking into Nixonian paranoia. When a leader is willing to keep a party secret, the obvious question is, “what else”?

    • As I’m an ethics alarms newcomer, help me out with something. Can there be ethical shades of grey? Is any importance placed on the content and importance of the ethical breach? Is there an equivalent of “the little white lie”? Part of my previous response was rationalization. And i share your thoughts on what I perceive to be a slippery slope. As in other areas, the realities of day to day governing is a hell of a lot different than what was said and promised on the campaign trail. So what standard should Obama and those that advise him be held to? Is this standard consistent with what we’ve held others to? Or have the rules of the road changed? I’m just asking???

      • It’s a great question. I am, I admit, a believer that small lies are, if not as damaging as big ones, just as relevant to trust. For example, the biggest lie I ever heard Bill Clinton tell was when, on his birthday (which he shared with Thomas Jefferson), he told a crowd, “If Thomas Jefferson were alive, he’d be outraged that we didn’t have universal heath care!” Now, Bill knows all about his namesake, and knows that he’d be shocked that the US even has a health department. Clinton was intentionally playing on the ignorance of his listeners, and I thought—What an unnecessary lie! If he’ll lie when he doesn’t have to, what WON’T he lie about? The answer in Clinton’s case: not much.

        If Obama’s staff really did work to hide the details of the party, it had no real impact–I agree, it’s trivia. But I think it’s significant, and goes to integrity. I acknowledge that this way of looking at minor lies is an obsession of mine. But I do try to hold to it as a consistent standard, and I would hold any politician to it. I hate the trivial lie. If I miss one, let me know.

  3. Occasional parties I have no problem with, provided that they’re held within the bounds of propriety. The White House is intended as a center of social gatherings. But those gatherings are also supposed to reflect national business or foreign affairs in their attendees.

    This explains why the administration took the unusual and unethical step of trying to cover up this particular affair. It was not only expensive, but bizarre and completely divorced from the affairs of state. Can anyone imagine such an event as that? With Johnny Depp running around loose as the Mad Hatter and with Tim Burton presiding? Arcane and embarrassingly pathetic.

    Why, then? “Because he could”? And did Obama believe the story would never come out.? Did he think that his rock star popularity would last forever? Or perhaps that his then-youth appeal demanded splurges of pop-culture and thus it didn’t matter. Sheer arrogance? Combinations of these things?

    I maintain that the whole affair illustrates how unclear Obama and his minions are as to just what the Presidency means and how little it matters to them beyond the immediate uses they can make of it.

  4. I didn’t hear about the event in 2009, but I (and other readers of Cracked) knew about the party before learning about this controversy (this is the first I’ve heard about it as being at all controversial). Cracked even gave links to blog posts from 2009 that reported about the party (see The blog doesn’t mention Depp or Burton, so there may be something to the story about the cover-up of their involvement, but I believe there was a notice on Depp’s website as well.

    In any case, when Canadians know about it, it is not a well kept secret.

      • I don’t think I’d notice the tea party connection if it wasn’t pointed out to me. The Mad Hatter was there, so I got the feeling it was more of an Alice-in-Wonderland Tea Party than a Boston Tea Party. Would you associate a sit-down, drink tea and socialize with your friends (or large rabbits) occasion with the Tea Party movement?

        • No, but think back to 2009…it was all Tea Party, all the time. Any hint of there being an elaborate “mad tea party” in the White House would have had every wag from Jay Leno to the Post gossip columns buzzing, not to mention Fox, Rush, and Hannity. There was nothing. To me, that’s proof that at least that aspect of the event was kept from the press.

          • I guess so. The presence of an “Alice-in-Wonderland” style party within a larger tea party just seems like such a non-issue (even if a cover up is not). I guess that has never stopped the press from reporting about something.

  5. “This was an event for local school children from the Washington DC area and for hundreds of military families. If we wanted this event to be a secret, we probably wouldn’t have invited the press corps to cover it, release photos of it to Flickr, or post a video from it on the White House website,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.

    That was taken from the second link. Did they do all that and when? Were the hundreds of military families in attendance asked to not mention the invitations? The Flickr and website video should be relatively easy to confirm. If so, I guess they don’t know the definition of a secret. Posts to Flickr and public websites would fall outside my idea of keeping a secret.

    Now, I don’t know which side is the true story but it seems to me that the two can’t co-exist as truth.

    • The book says there were two events, the public event for the military families,and the private Hollywood extravaganza. The public event got plenty of publicity. The “tea party” didn’t. That’s the story. Again, with all the tea party controversy in 2009, I guarantee this would have attracted attention and ironic commentary. And Barry notwithstanding, I would have remembered it. It wasn’t reported.

  6. 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?

    My guess is, you don’t remember it because it wasn’t a newsworthy event and wasn’t talked about much, and because — contrary to what you seem to think — your memory is not perfect, and is certainly not evidence of anything.

    A CNN person says the party was reported on by a bunch of newspapers and wire services, including the AP and USA Today, and they show video of the party which they found on the White House’s public feed. Johnny Depp’s fan site reported that he attended the party.

    Pollowitz at The National Review asks “how “down-low” can a party be if Wonkette posted on it using photos from the official White House Flickr feed?” Is The National Review now part of the left-wing media conspiracy to cover up the Halloween Party?

    There is no evidence at all – ZERO — that this party was ever kept secret. I completely loathe Obama, but attacking him over a story that is both fictional and trivial is a mistake.

    When it comes to Obama trashing his openness pledge, we shouldn’t care about a Halloween party that was obviously not a secret. Let’s care about real issues, instead, like Obama’s war on whistleblowers.

    • I fact-checked the story myself. CNN’s claim has been debunked by CNN—they didn’t cover the party. The key fact is the tea party display—that is what the media here would have had a field day with, and that is what was hushed up. Wonkette is hardly mainstream media.
      The National Review just tweaks Kantor…it doesn’t show that the event wasn’t largely hushed up.

      My memory on stupid stuff like this is uncanny, by the way. It’s the important stuff that I forget. And my car keys.

      You’re another one I meant to include in the wrap up of 2011, since you always deliver terrific comments. An oversight. I’m sorry.

  7. I’m with Barry. A Halloween party that apparently was not kept a secret, nor was it advertised, is small potatoes compared to the whilstle-blower issue and the administration’s denial of FOIA requests, not to mention their continuing the secret rendition program of George W. Bush. He has not lived up to his promise of transparency, and should be held accountable. A children’s Halloween party is something the Republicans can latch on to because they would be doing all those other things themselves if they were President. But I can totally see them not wanting to give kids a party because it might cost too much.

    • A Times reporter, hardly an anti-Obama source, says it was kept a secret—nobody in DC remembers it, and the tea party angle, which would have normally had Rush bleating for days, never leaked out. It was a secret. But anyway, you know me well enough to know that “it could have been worse” and “Bush did stuff that was equally bad” cuts no ice here. It’s not a contest, and one individual’s unethical conduct neither lowers standards nor makes another’s conduct more ethical. And you know that. It’s a lazy argument.

      • I hope you’re not implying that I said that “it could have been worse,” or “Bush did stuff equally bad.” I’m saying that this “party scandal” is insignificant compared to what Obama is doing in the area of FOIA, whistle-blowing, and rendition. I don’t care about some party for kids that was over the top. I care that information is being kept from people who have a legitimate right to have it, that people are being punished for calling out the government on misbehavior, and that people are being flown to secret prisons to be tortured. This “scandal” is not even worth the paper it was written on, but if it can call attention to other, much more grievous offenses, then I guess it’s worth it. But, as I said, you won’t hear anything from Republicans about it because they approve. But a kid’s party? Outrageous!

      • Read my post carefully. I am not in any way saying it “could have been worse,” or “Bush did something equally bad.” I am saying that it is worse, and Obama is continuing the secretive policies of George W. Bush. I am not lazy. I try to do my research before I comment, as have others who dispute your accusation of deliberate cover up. This is not the New York Times reporting the story, but a New York Times reporter who wants to sell a lot of her tell-all book. The only way this party has any relevance to anything is, as Barry said, if it leads to a discussion of the more important issues of secrecy in matters of much more importance than whether Rush Limbaugh knew that Johnny Depp played the Mad Hatter at the White House. This administration needs to be called out on its abuse of the FOIA, rendition, and the persecution of whistle-blowers, because if a Republican gets in there it’s definitely not going to change. I think we may have a chance with Obama.

        • You’re not lazy, but the “it could have been worse” OR “there are worse things” arguments are intellectually lazy. OK, you’re saying that it is trivial because OBAMA does worse things. This was one of the Clinton Administration’s best maneuvers—“Why are you so concerned about THIS little lie, when there are so many other more important things we’ve done that were outrageous?” It worked, too—that administration raised the tolerance level for lies to an unprecedented level. That’s what “trivial” exercises do.

          Any time we see that a leader’s response to a problem is to deceive or mislead the public, it is indicative of a mindset, and it is the mindset, not the specific incident, that is important. FOIA or Johnny Depp—it’s the same thing. I’m writing about ethics, not policy. And I’m sorry Jan, but “the Republicans only care about parties, not the important stuff” line is an effort to deflect accountability from where it belongs. The lack of transparency in THIS administration is THIS administration’s choice and misconduct—it isn’t “continuing the Bush practice.” That’s spin, whether you mean it that way or not. Each administration is responsible for its own policies—constantly using the “continuing…” rhetoric is a dodge, an effort to say, “well, big brother was a bad influence.” As President, if you do it, you own it. Bush is 100% irrelevant.

          • The fact that the whole question of whether the party was deliberately kept a secret makes it irrelevant. I think there have been enough contradictory posts to make anyone skeptical about the intent of the party givers–or the author of the book. It’s not that Republicans only care about parties, it’s that they truly agree with the bad policies and want them to continue. When they can zing Obama on something trivial, and it is trivial, they jump at it. Believe it or not, I’m agreeing with you when I say that, if indeed the public was misled, it shows a mindset. What I’m saying is, get off the Halloween party for Pete’s sake and talk about that mindset in terms of things that are truly damaging, illegal, and against our very principles. I want to make clear that I hold Obama 100% responsible for policies I find despicable. I do not mean to give him an out by merely mentioning Bush’s name. If anything, he has carried the Bush sins to a higher level.

  8. Jack the private Tea Party themed party was common knowledge amoung our mutual actor friends who worked the public party. Some even worked the private party if I remember correctly. Hell even I knew about it at the time. If the press decided not to report it that on them not on President Obama and the first lady.

    • Good info, good intelligence. But the press reports everything…it certainly reported the kid-themed outside party. My source at the Post says the Tea Party angle was not known to the media, and therefore had to be hushed up. For once, I won’t blame the media on this one.

      You know how it is here—Depp and Burton at the White House with Depp in costume, and not a peep in the post? Impossible.They didn’t know, OR were told to keep it quiet.

  9. I’m with Eric Shultz: “If we wanted this event to be a secret, we probably wouldn’t have invited the press corps to cover it, release photos of it to Flickr or post a video from it on the White House website,”

    Keeping secret a huge expensive bash with Hollywood superstars and hundreds of attendees is a preposterous notion. No White House would ever have attempted such a thing. The press doesn’t cover every White House function: believe me, they didn’t cover a bunch that I tried to get them to cover.

    See Occam’s razor.

    • The Washington Post and New York Times confirm that no one on their paper knew about Depp, Burton or Wonderland, only the less glamorous event for servicemen’s kids. Ditto the press pool. And the photos were not sent to the White House Flickr…only Depp’s site had them.

      The White house is lying. It’s as simple as that.A bash like that, with those personalities and with the ironic tea party theme WOULD have been covered, especially in DC. I didn’t see it; nobody did. Why would you, or anyone, believe such an obvious attempt to re-write history? It’s an insult. You should be insulted. Everybody should. If Nixon had told the everyone in 1974—“you’re wrong—we admitted Watergate from the start! How could you forget that!”,, would you find that persuasive if you had never heard a thing, and the Post had no record of it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.