The White House and beer diplomacy

Topics: Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., War Room, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Middle East, White House,

The White House and beer diplomacyPresident Richard Nixon, left, meeting with Elvis Presley on Dec. 21, 1970, in Washington.

Today, President Obama is scheduled to engage in a little beer diplomacy. Cambridge, Massachusetts police Sgt. James Crowley and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. will join the President at the White House for a beer in order to extinguish the firestorm of controversy that has engulfed all three men since Crowley arrested Gates in front of his own home — and Obama commented that the police “acted stupidly.”

It’s not the first time that the most formal home in America has been the backdrop for  a casual meeting of the minds. Here’s a quick trip through a list of our favorites:

  • Barack Obama, John McCain and the financial crisis of 2008 — In September 2008, just weeks before the presidential election, with the U.S. economy nearing a seeming financial precipice, Republican presidential candidate John McCain decided on a bold strategy: He suspended his campaign. Then both McCain and Obama met with President Bush at the White House to try to hash out a way to salvage the American economy. Though, the meeting did little to break the partisan stalemate over the economic bailout, it did lead to renewed questions about McCain’s competency.
  • Bono and George W. Bush — When you think of odd political-celebrity pairings, President Bush and U2 frontman Bono have to rank near the top. Yet, in 2005, sun-glassed Bono met Bush for lunch in the Oval Office. Bono pressed Bush on providing assistance to the world’s poor as well as expanding outreach programs for those infected with AIDS. However, the meeting didn’t lead to Bono developing an undying affection for the former U.S. president: In 2006, at a prayer breakfast, Bono sidestepped a hug from Bush.
  • The baseball strike and Bill Clinton — Hopefully, for the sakes of all parties involved, today’s meeting between Gates, Crowley and Obama goes better than former President Clinton’s attempt to end the 1994-95 baseball strike by calling a summit at the White House in February 1995. Clinton tried to get the warring factions, the players and the owners, to agree to submit to a neutral third-party binding-arbitration process, but he proved unable to persuade the two sides. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, eventually issued a ruling against the owners that ended the strike.
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict — On September 13, 1993, President Clinton brought together at the White House two men who had long been enemies: Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Prime Minister and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). While Clinton never achieved a lasting peace settlement between Israel and Palestine, Rabin and Arafat’s symbolic handshake and the peace accord they signed on the White House’s South Lawn at least momentarily provided the world with hope.


  • Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan — In 1984, President Ronald Reagan welcomed the King of Pop to the White House. Jackson’s appearance marked the kick-off of a national campaign to counteract underage drunk driving which used Jackson’s song, “Beat It.” Reagan began his speech by saying, “Well isn’t this a thriller.” That wasn’t nearly as bad as the riffs from newscasters who covered the event:
  • Willie Nelson and Jimmy Carter — First Lady Michelle Obama recently made news by planting a garden on the White House grounds. But when activist and country music star Willie Nelson performed at the White House on September 13, 1980, he was interested in cultivating a different sort of plant. Carter invited Nelson to sing on the White House’s South Lawn. After the performance, Nelson allegedly snuck up to the White House roof and smoked a joint. The friendship between Nelson and Carter led to Nelson frequently staying over at the White House during Carter’s term. Nelson admitted in his biography that every time he slept at the White House, he lit a “big fat Austin torpedo.”
  • Elvis and Nixon — On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley got his wish and had a meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House.  He wanted Nixon to make him a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. According to notes taken by a Nixon aide during the meeting, Presley repeatedly told Nixon of his support for the president, and showed Nixon his wide array of law enforcement memorabilia, including numerous police badges from around the country. He even mentioned to Nixon that he thought the Beatles promoted an anti-American spirit.
  • Sammy Davis Jr. and JFK — This was the meeting that wasn’t. According to his 1989 autobiography, “Why Me?”, Davis, an iconic singer and performer was supposed to be at the White House in 1961 to participate in the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. However, at the last minute, Kennedy asked Davis not to attend because Davis had recently married actress May Britt. Kennedy was worried that having the interracial couple at his inauguration would arouse the ire of Southern voters. Davis Jr. was so upset by the slight he went on to support Nixon in the 1970s.

 

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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