Magazine

Playing the White House: Entertaining with the US president

  • 30 September 2011
  • From the section Magazine
Pat and Richard Nixon at the piano
Richard Nixon and his wife Pat were the first presidential couple to bring jazz to the White House

Whoever holds the keys to the White House not only has the free world to organise but a busy entertainment schedule too. It's not just fun - very often it's crucial for oiling the wheels of diplomacy.

"It's the social side that really gets a lot of business done," says Maria Downs, social secretary to President Gerald Ford.

Richard Nixon's vice-president, who became president for two years after the Watergate scandal, did not leave as big a mark as some other 20th Century presidents - but he and his wife earned an excellent reputation for arranging, and enjoying, good entertainment.

In October 1975, as part of Middle-Eastern peace initiative, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat attended a White House state dinner and Betty Ford chose Pearl Bailey, a Broadway actress and singer who had sung for President Sadat in Egypt, to perform.

Maria Downs took the singer aside before she took to the stage. "I said, 'Pearl, the State Department briefing told us no dancing for the Sadats.'"

But after the performance, as the crowd burst into a standing ovation, Pearl Bailey reached down and grabbed President Sadat pulling him to his feet and twirling him around the dance floor.

President Ford reacted by escorting Mrs Sadat on to the floor.

Maria Downs was worried about the drastic breach of propriety and turned to the chief of protocol Henry Catto.

"I stopped Henry and I said, 'Let me know if we owe them a very huge apology.'"

Luckily, no harm was done.

The Fords were by no means the first presidential couple to invite great American performers into their home. The tradition goes back to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th Century.

Roosevelt had just won the Spanish American Civil War of 1898 and was conscious of the US's position as a new world power. He dramatically renovated the White House, making it a symbol of strength.

He began to entertain in the house, organising musicales that attracted the greatest stars of the era.

"These were star billings - not just a Sunday afternoon of music with the local talented music teacher," says White House historian Bill Bushong.

They performed in the newly built East Room, the same room the president uses to entertain today.

Artistic coup

In 1902, the renowned piano manufacturing company Steinway & Sons donated the first concert grand piano to the White House. It was followed by another in the 1930s that is still in use.

John Kennedy and Pablo Casals (top) and Barack Obama at the Motown event
In the East Room: Kennedy welcomes Casals in 1962 and Obama hosts a Motown event in 2011

"Of course what happened after that, all the great pianists came," says musical historian Elise Kirk. "So you had Paderewski and Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern, just a wonderful array of concert artists coming to play."

The bar was raised again in 1961 when John F Kennedy entered the White House with his socialite wife Jackie. She took on the role of social chief with gusto and invited the media to join the party.

In 1961 she scored an artistic coup when she secured Spanish cellist Pablo Casals to perform. Casals hadn't played in the US in 23 years in protest at America's recognition of the Franco government in Spain. His performance was a major televised event.

But jazz - one the most influential cultural movements of 20th century America - had been entirely ignored by the White House until Richard Nixon stepped into office.

In 1969 it was the 70th birthday of jazz great Duke Ellington and Nixon invited Ellington to the White House, to present him with the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ellington grew up near the White House and his father had been a butler there, but he swept into the East Room that day with all the pomp of a visiting head of state.

"In the royalty of American music, no man swings more, or stands higher, than the Duke," declared Nixon.

As Duke Ellington made his acceptance speech, President Nixon inched across the small stage and sat poised at the piano, smiling at the crowded East Room.

"The Duke was asking earlier if I would play, and I've never done so yet in the White House, but it did occur to me as I looked at the magnificent programme" he said. "Duke Ellington is ageless, but would you all stand and sing Happy Birthday to him, and please, in the key of G."

Nixon not only embraced jazz, he was the first president to celebrate American pop culture through music.

He invited 1960s pop sensations the Turtles, the Temptations and the Beach Boys to play at a party for his daughter Tricia in 1969.

As you would expect, the White House does not have dressing rooms - so offices and toilets doubled up as places for artists to get ready... and the Turtles found themselves using the Lincoln Library as a dressing room.

'Surreal experience'

Pop singer Johnny Mathis has played the White House on a number of occasions. He has in fact sung for six presidents - Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and Bill Clinton.

Like a number of performers, he found the East Room - 80ft long and 36ft wide (24m x 10m) - uncomfortably small, and "acoustically awful" as a venue.

"The president and his wife are sitting in the front row, and you were really then five or 10 paces away from them," he says.

"So the first thing that I was told - 'Mr Mathis, please don't sing too loudly'. I said: 'Well thanks!'

"Anyway, I've done many performances at the White House. I've sung on the lawn with tents over, where it is much more comfortable."

The Clinton administration made regular use of tents, allowing them to invite several hundred guests, rather than the 200 or 300 who can be accommodated indoors.

Former British cabinet minister Alan Milburn, who visited the Clinton White House with Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, remembers a "slightly surreal experience" of having an in-depth discussion on the geopolitical significance of Turkey, with Elton John rehearsing Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me in the background.

"I've never been to a pop concert in a black tie, and it sort of doesn't feel right," he says. "But it is certainly the most memorable pop concert I've ever been to in my life. I'll say one thing about President Clinton, he certainly knew how to throw a good party."

But the Clintons' skills were put to the test when then President of China Jiang Zemin and President Clinton were engaged in some delicate trade negotiations.

Their first meeting had not been particularly warm or constructive, says former Clinton chief of staff Thomas "Mack'"McLarty. But that evening in the White House, President Zemin played the violin for his American hosts.

"When you speak of culture, diplomacy, entertainment, that was the moment that crystallised and captured that there was a relationship, and a real opportunity to work together," says Mr McLarty.

"That was a pretty important moment not only for me but for our children and grandchildren."

Honouring the Office: Playing the White House was first broadcast by the BBC World Service, listen to the radio documentary here

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