The White House has always been a magnet for all kinds of lunatics, so it's not surprising that a pair of wannabe reality show stars attempted to crash a party last week. What surprised everyone, of course, is that they got in. This shocked the media and politicians alike, because together they compromise the "inside the Beltway" set -- who become more than a little bit afraid when the "common folk" intrude on their shindigs. Hence the widespread and breathless coverage of this story for nigh on a week now. But, I repeat, the White House has always been a giant magnet for lunatics and other invaders throughout America's history.
The first of these, defined very loosely, were British soldiers. During the War of 1812, Washington fell to the enemy. Dolley Madison personally grabbed a few paintings off the walls of the White House and fled before the advancing British. When the Brits got to the White House, they found it previously vacated, but with a hot meal just having been cooked and readied. So they did what any civilized soldier would do, they sat down at the tables, ate the meal; and then burned down the White House.
No other gate crashers through history would have quite the same impact, although a few have come close. But the Redbacks weren't exactly "gate crashers," since the White House was a valid military target in the middle of a war. Also not true gate crashers are the subset known as "fence jumpers," who are indeed the crazies. A quick walk around the White House grounds shows why these folks are so tempted -- the fence is a very basic iron fence, and looks eminently "jumpable." Anyone decently agile could swarm over it in a matter of seconds. Inside the fence are lots of inviting trees and bushes, as well as large stretches of lawn which beckon to those already receiving radio waves from outer space. The Washington Post recently ran an article with an incomplete list of these sad individuals, back to the early 1900s. They are indeed sad, because many of these folks who jump the fence and go running across the lawn come to tragic ends as they find out the security is a lot better than a cursory glance would reveal. Because anyone running towards the White House who refuses orders to stop is shot down. As they should be.
But, invaders and fence jumpers aside, there are two amusing stories which are much closer to the gate crashing which just occurred at Obama's first state dinner. The earlier of the two probably couldn't accurately be called "gate crashing," because I don't believe a fence or gate around the White House even existed at the time. And the later of the two isn't really gate crashing at all, since Grace Slick had an actual invitation.
Because Grace, before she became the lead singer of the Jefferson Starship (née Airplane), actually came from an upper-middle-crust society girl background. And she attended (although not at the same time) the same college Tricia Nixon would also later attend. From Slick's biography "Somebody To Love? A Rock-and-Roll Memoir," specifically from the chapter entitled Dosing Tricky Dick, Slick explains in her own words:
Tricky Dick Nixon, as he was fondly referred to by people not part of his inane circle, had a daughter, Tricia, who had attended Finch College about ten years after my stay at the "bow and curtsey" academy. Which led to Yours Truly, of all people, getting an invitation to tea at the White House.
Slick was sent the invitation by a former Finch "suite mate" of Slick's (who was "in charge of passing judgment on each alumna's character -- or lack thereof"), over protestations from "other Finchettes." When asked, Slick responded she would be bringing, as her escort, "Mr. Leonard Haufman." This turned out to be none other than that notorious Yippie, Abbie Hoffman. The big day came, they tried to spruce up Abbie by slicking his hair down and putting him in a suit and tie, since "we didn't want to look like a couple of screaming hippies." Unfortunately, Grace herself didn't get her own memo, and wore a "black fishnet top with three-by-three-inch patch pockets just covering my nipples, a short black miniskirt that went all the way up to the beaver, and long black boots that reached up to my thighs."
But Abbie and Grace weren't just there for the fun of a White House tea party. Again, as Slick explains:
The plan was for me to reach my overly long pinky fingernail, grown especially for easy cocaine snorting, into my pocket, fill it with six hundred mics of pure powdered LSD, and with a large entertainer's gesture, drop the acid into Tricky Dick's teacup. ... We knew we wouldn't have the pleasure of seeing Nixon tripping (LSD takes a while to kick in), but the idea that he might be stumbling through the White House a little later, talking to paintings, watching walls melt, and thinking he was turning into a bulldog, was irresistible.
Alas, security was apparently a bit tighter back in those days, even if you did have an invitation. They were stopped at the gate, and refused entry. But Grace persisted and got the guards to at least agree to let her in (without Abbie). She refused, saying she required her own security guard, to which Abbie piped up: "I wouldn't let Miss Slick go in there alone, because I understand they lose a president every three years. It's a dangerous place."
The irony of the story is that the social secretary, upon being informed Grace and Abbie had left, responded, "Go back and find them. Mrs. Nixon and Tricia really want to meet her." Seriously, if your daddy got powerful and famous and you got to invite all your college's alumnae to an event, wouldn't you want to meet any stars among them?
Anyway, for better or for worse, this particular gate crashing did not happen. Slick ends the story by saying (italics in original):
Of course, from what we later learned about Nixon, he walked around the White House talking to pictures anyway, so maybe nobody would have noticed much of a change ... ultimately, we didn't have to dose him. He overdosed himself on love of power, driving himself out of office without any outside help.
But for the real granddaddy of a White House gate crashing story, we have to reach deep into the past, to the 1829 inauguration of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson was the defining politician not just "of his day," but also of a lot of American politics from that point on. He defined not only the way we've run our campaigns ever since (with mudslinging galore -- accusations of bigamy and adultery going back and forth between Jackson and the incumbent John Quincy Adams, for instance), but also several recurring themes in American politics. Jackson, not Lincoln, was the original "born in a log cabin" president. He was also the first-ever "man of the people" president. He was the original anti-elitist politician.
His election, much as Barack Obama's, was seen as a victory of "The People" over entrenched Washington politics-as-usual. And, much as with Obama, when Jackson was inaugurated, The People showed up in droves. The crowd was so thick, they momentarily prevented Jackson from riding his horse back from the Capitol to the White House. When he got there, he found what can only be described as absolute chaos. Either that, or a frat house kegger. From a contemporary first-person account of the scene:
After a while a passage was opened, and he mounted his horse which had been provided for his return (for he had walked to the Capitol) then such a cortege as followed him! Country men, farmers, gentlemen, mounted and dismounted, boys, women and children, black and white. Carriages, wagons and carts all pursuing him to the President's house. ... [W]e set off to the President's House, but on a nearer approach found an entrance impossible, the yard and avenue was compact with living matter.
But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob. We came too late.
The President, after having been literally nearly pressed to death and almost suffocated and torn to pieces by the people in their eagerness to shake hands with Old Hickory, had retreated through the back way or south front and had escaped to his lodgings at Gadsby's.
Cut glass and china to the amount of several thousand dollars had been broken in the struggle to get the refreshments, punch and other articles had been carried out in tubs and buckets, but had it been in hogsheads it would have been insufficient, ice-creams, and cake and lemonade, for 20,000 people, for it is said that number were there, tho' I think the number exaggerated.
Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe, -- those who got in could not get out by the door again, but had to scramble out of windows. At one time, the President who had retreated and retreated until he was pressed against the wall, could only be secured by a number of gentleman forming around him and making a kind of barrier of their own bodies, and the pressure was so great that Col. Bomford who was one said that at one time he was afraid they should have been pushed down, or on the President. It was then the windows were thrown open, and the torrent found an outlet, which otherwise might have proved fatal.
This concourse had not been anticipated and therefore not provided against. Ladies and gentlemen, only had been expected at this Levee, not the people en masse. But it was the People's day, and the People's President and the People would rule.
Others present said they feared the building would collapse because of the pressure of people inside it. A genius whose name is lost to history finally figured out how to solve the dangerous situation, by throwing open the windows and serving punch and alcohol out on the front lawn. As any attendee of a keg party knows, people tend to congregate where the keg is, which is why you put it outside in the first place.
So, while Washington is all a-twitter over two society climbers crashing the gates at an Obama soirée, rest assured that in the grand sweep of history, it was a fairly minor event. They passed through the metal detectors just like everyone else, no one was in danger, and no real harm was done. Nobody got dosed with LSD. And nobody was in fear of the building collapsing under the sheer volume of the gate crashers. Things, in other words, could have been a lot worse.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant