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White House historian William Bushong discusses the holiday. By Hallie Golden
Halloween at the White House in 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Although Halloween as we know it became popular early in the 20th century, it wasn’t until Dwight D. Eisenhower was president that ghosts, goblins, and witches were first invited into the White House. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower took the lead on dressing up 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for Halloween as early as 1956. “I know she loved to decorate,” says William Bushong, the White House Historical Association's chief historian. “She decorated for every holiday. Any reason to decorate, and she would decorate.”

President John F. Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s legacy by embracing the Halloween spirit during his time in office. “I think the [pictures] that really strike at your heart a little bit are the Kennedy series of photographs of the President with John and Caroline in costume coming to see their father in the oval office,” says Bushong.

Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

During the Nixon administration, Pat Nixon hosted a number of Halloween parties, including one in 1969 that included horror film Dark Shadows actor Jonathan Frid on its guest list.

Then there were the presidents and first ladies who not only dressed up the White House, they dressed up themselves as well. In 1993, Bill and Hillary Clinton dressed up as James and Dolley Madison. “Part of the reason for that was that Mrs. Clinton’s birthday fell so close to Halloween, on October 27, so I think they combined that party with her birthday,” says Bushong. Another time, he says the pair paid homage to the musical Grease by dressing as a motorcyclist and a Bobby Soxer. “I think just from the photographs you get a sense that they really enjoyed that sort of thing,” says Bushong.

During George W. Bush’s term, he and Mrs. Bush enjoyed taking photos of their two Scottish Terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, and their cat Willie posed with pumpkins and wearing costumes such as devil horns.

No president has had quite as elaborate of Halloween parties as Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. They tend to keep it very child-centric and intricate, with themes such as Alice in Wonderland and guest lists that include the likes of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

Halloween celebrations have become a fun way to start off the holiday season at the White House, and today, the American people have come to look forward to it. “They expect the president to be just like them and celebrate holidays in a manner similar to the rest of the country,” says Bushong.

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 10/30/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Psychologists say news coverage of the most recent fence-jumper will inspire copycats. By Michael Gaynor
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the East Room of the White House in July—the same room Omar Gonzalez was able to run into two months later. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

When it comes to assassination attempts, how much information is too much? Flooded by stories and reports of the White House fence-jumper, plus new information about the shots fired across the South Lawn in 2011, some psychologists say that media saturation of this political violence could spur more.

J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego who studies the assassinations of public figures, says one of the central motivators for these sorts of attacks is to gain a level of notoriety. And when someone like Omar Gonzalez, the fence-jumper, receives a storm of media coverage for his actions, other would-be assassins notice and want the same.

“They pay close attention to people who have preceded them,” says Meloy, co-editor of the book Stalking, Threatening and Attacking Public Figures: A Psychological and Behavioral Analysis. “They tend to not only identify with previous attackers, but also, in a sense, compete with them for greater notoriety.”

One of the most comprehensive reports on assassination in the US was a 1999 study of all 83 people known to have attacked or attempted to attack a public official or public figure from 1949 to 1996. The targets could be very different—presidents, congressmen, judges, celebrities—but there was a commonality to many of the attackers. They had reached a sort-of life crisis and wanted to leave a lasting impact on the world. The attackers saw assassination and the media coverage that follows as a way to do that.

“For them, it's better to be notorious than ignored,” says Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. Founder of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, Post spent two years in the 1960s as part of an NIH unit at St. Elizabeths Hospital interviewing people who had threatened the White House. He mentions the case of Frank Eugene Corder, who crashed his small plane onto the White House lawn in 1994. “He wanted to go out in a blaze of glory,” says Post. “It's the powerless seeking power by connection.”

Some of the attackers in the study even changed their intended victims. The killing could thus be impersonal, less about a specific target or grievance and more about the notoriety gained from the act itself.

“Typically these individuals lives have deteriorated to the point, at least in their mind, the most important alternative choice is to kill a public figure,” says Meloy. “It compensates for a life of failure and misery.”

Meloy believes the attackers shouldn't even be named by the media. He says that while an attacker's history and motivations are something the public has a right to know, photographs of them or personal comments they made at the time should be avoided. It's the same reason television networks don't show the streakers who run onto a soccer field during a game—giving them the coverage they desire will only inspire more to do the same. “They see the individual notoriety this person has gained through this act, and they want it too,” says Meloy.

Not identifying these attackers also prevents would-be assassins from forming a personal connection to their predecessors, which can also motivate them. Meloy points out that John Hinckley Jr.—who shot President Reagan in 1981—idolized Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's killer. Aspiring assassins have been known to even write or call their idols in prison.

A comprehensive account of what motivated Omar Gonzalez's mad dash to the East Room isn't fully known yet, but, Meloy says, “it wouldn't surprise me if notoriety is one of them.”

Find Michael Gaynor on Twitter at @michael_gaynor.

Posted at 12:00 PM/ET, 10/01/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
New revelations about the Secret Service's failures are a good reason to assess the White House's relationship with its neighbors. By Benjamin Freed
The way we sightsee now. Photograph by Flickr user Joe Flood.

Among the many revelations about bungled White House security laid out in recent days by the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, few are as jarring as the tidbit about the Secret Service’s initial assessment of the November 2011 incident in which a gunman fired a semiautomatic rifle at the presidential residence:

“By the end of that Friday night, the agency had confirmed a shooting had occurred but wrongly insisted the gunfire was never aimed at the White House. Instead, Secret Service supervisors theorized, gang members in separate cars got in a gunfight near the White House’s front lawn — an unlikely scenario in a relatively quiet, touristy part of the nation’s capital.”

During a week when the Secret Service has been flayed by public officials and the media, it's worth adding this to the bill of complaints: This theory betrays a baffling ignorance of the city where the agents work. To note this isn't to make another one of those poor-pitiful-me hometown gripes about how federal types ignore the locals. If you're in charge of protecting a guy who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue and periodically moves around the city, being an ignoramus about the environs represents a professional breach.  

A gunfight near the front lawn would be where, exactly? The steps outside of DAR Constitution Hall? Not impossible, but highly implausible. As Leonnig notes in the same story, the Secret Service can’t depend on the Metropolitan Police Department’s ShotSpotter technology—the nearest gunshot monitor is about a mile away—but of the parts of the District that are observed for weapons fire, the four plots closest to the White House complex each recorded one incident between 2009 and 2013.

The area immediately surrounding the White House—historic hotels, museums, other heavily fortified government buildings—is one of the lowest-crime parts of the city. The area would, on paper, get even safer if the response to last month’s White House invasion by a man who climbed over the fence and managed to dash deep into the building before being stopped, is to fatten up the security bubble. Ironically, the security bubble itself may be part of the problem when it comes to agents being able to ignore their surroundings. Alas, the Secret Service's first reaction to the latest revelations would make that worse.

Every instance of the White House restricting more turf from the public only exacerbates the nettlesome relationship between the presidential bubble and the city that surrounds it. Pennsylvania Avenue was closed off in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing; E Street, Northwest, followed after 9/11. The Secret Service actually staged a public forum in July 2013 raising the possibility of re-opening the two blocks of E Street south of the White House to bicycle traffic, but the matter hasn’t been touched since.

The biggest lesson the Secret Service struggles to latch onto in the District is that federal government police agencies need to be more cognizant of the fact they operate inside a city with 645,000 non-term-limited people. While veteran MPD officers tell Washingtonian that DC cops and officers working for the Secret Service or US Park Police share lots of information, there’s a fundamental difference in the types of police work they perform. Local cops patrol street corners and walk beats, federal cops—especially Secret Service officers on presidential detail—secure perimeters. Delroy Burton, the head of the union representing MPD’s rank-and-file officers, says expanding the buffer around the White House would be the wrong response.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton amplified Burton’s caution in her testimony Tuesday at a House Oversight hearing on the September 19 incident in which suspected intruder Omar Gonzalez made his way over the fence and into the White House. “Particularly troubling in light of such unanswered questions would be a rush to quick fixes such as suppression of public access to the area around the White House without a thorough investigation,” she said.

Yet the White House’s misunderstanding of its neighborhood runs deeper than just the past few years. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush gave a now-infamous press conference in which he amped up the “War on Drugs” by holding up a bag of crack cocaine purchased by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Lafayette Park. But even at the height of DC’s crack epidemic, Lafayette Park was no drug market, and it took some manipulation to get a dealer there. When the DEA called the dealer it would eventually nab for Bush’s prop, the suspect’s response was “Where the [expletive] is the White House?” the Post reported at the time. The police union scolded the White House and the DEA for mixing politics with law enforcement.

Burton is hardly insensitive to the White House’s concerns, though. District police are responsible for all presidential movements within city limits. The Secret Service works closely with MPD, but the partnership is tighter in the special operations division than it is with officers on street patrols.

The Secret Service clearly has issues to work out, as shown in Leonnig’s reporting this week, but its exposed faults seem more the results of human error. Responding by suddenly expanding the security bubble again—whether it’s more fences and Jersey barriers or bag checks on 15th Street—will only make the White House more alienated from the rest of Washington.

“They key is to educate the public,” says Burton. “When people understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing, it’s easier for them to accept some difficulty. But when they don’t know what you’re doing, it creates anxiety.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 10:15 AM/ET, 10/01/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Each security breach results in even stricter regulations. By Carol Ross Joynt, Hallie Golden
President Obama and the First Lady on the South Lawn of the White House in June. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

With more than eight intruders making their way onto the White House grounds in the past year alone (including one toddler who slipped through the fence’s iron bars), the Secret Service is contemplating beefing up security around “the people’s house.” A timeline of the increasing fortification of the presidential mansion:

Early 19th century: The White House grounds were a very popular spot for sightseers. “[T]he iron gates to the White House grounds opened at 8 in the morning and closed at sundown. Almost anyone was likely to wander [the well-manicured gardens], along the paths,” explains American historian William Seale.

1801-1809: President Jefferson replaces the rail fence surrounding the White House grounds with a high stone wall. He then begins his own tradition of opening the mansion doors every day to allow the public to enter and freely explore it.

1817-1825: President Monroe switches the White House’s high stone wall to an iron fence. He also hires guards for his executive mansion on days when the public is allowed into the White House.

W.S. Newton of the White House police with King Tut, President Hoover's police dog, in front of a White House sentry box. Photograph via the Library of Congress.

1835: After Richard Lawrence attempts to shoot President Jackson, a sentry “watch box” is put on the south grounds.

1922: President Harding creates the White House Police Force to protect the executive mansion and its grounds.

1930: After the White House Police Force allows an intruder into the White House dining room where President Hoover is eating, the Secret Service is put in full control of security.

An early White House gate. Photograph via the Library of Congress.

World War II: Public access to the White House grounds is discontinued. Everyone must now check in with guards at the surrounding gates.

1974: A man affixes flares to his body and drives his Chevrolet Impala into the northwest gate. The White House’s wrought-iron gates are switched to reinforced gates.

1976: Tourist traffic increases to the point that tickets are issued, admitting only a certain number of visitors.

1980s: Following truck-bomb attacks on a Marine barracks, concrete Jersey barriers are put around the White House perimeter.

Outside the White House in 1991, before Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to drivers. Photograph by Flickr user Steven Martin.

1995: After the April Oklahoma City bombing, the Treasury Department closes off two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue directly outside the White House. “I acknowledge that the security of the President of the United States is paramount,” says then-senator Rod Grams, “but . . . the need to ensure the President’s safety must be balanced with the expectation of freedom inherent in a democracy.”

2001: Immediately following 9/11, the White House is closed to the general public. Current procedure requires all visitors to apply at least 21 days before their visit to their congressional representative, who then passes their names on to the White House.

Posted at 04:43 PM/ET, 09/22/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan can now spend 17 days a month outside the mental hospital where he resides. By Harry Jaffe
President Ronald Reagan waves just before he is shot on March 30, 1981. Press secretary James Brady, who was seriously wounded in shooting, is third from the left. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s possible that John Hinckley Jr. was not confined to St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital when a Virginia medical examiner ruled that former White House press secretary James Brady’s death last week was a homicide. Hinckley could have been at his mother’s gated community in Williamsburg.

Hinckley shot Brady in an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan survived, but Brady suffered brain damage. A jury ruled in 1982 that Hinckley was not guilty by reason of insanity on 13 charges, including attempted assassination. He’s spent most of the past 33 years at St. Elizabeths, on a hill in Southeast DC overlooking the city. [For more on Hinckley’s case, read the October 2011 feature “Free John Hinckley.”]

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have been battling over Hinckley’s status before US District Judge Paul L. Friedman for more than a decade. Hinckley’s lawyers argue that he is recovering from the mental illness and should be allowed to live outside St. Elizabeths; prosecutors are adamant that he should remain confined.

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Posted at 03:29 PM/ET, 08/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Brady became a leading gun-control advocate after he was wounded in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. By Benjamin Freed

Brady. Photograph via Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence.

James Brady, the White House press secretary who was critically wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and became an advocate for gun control, died Monday in Alexandria at the age of 73, his family announced. The cause was not disclosed.

Brady barely survived a bullet fired by John Hinckley Jr., whose attack outside the Washington Hilton left Brady with permanent brain damage, partial paralysis, and short-term memory loss. While Reagan left the hospital within two weeks, Brady’s convalescence took a nine-month stay followed by years of physical therapy. As recounted in the March 1983 issue of Washingtonian, Brady’s life was very likely saved because of an argument between another White House staffer and an ambulance driver over which hospital he should have been taken to.

The driver insisted he was taking Brady to Washington Hospital Center, four miles away. [White House advance man RickAhearn wanted George Washington University Hospital, less than a mile from the hotel. The driver refused to change direction, and then suddenly admitted he didn’t know the way to Washington Hospital Center. Incredulous at this news, Ahearn, with the backing of a Secret Service agent, prevailed, and the ambulance sped off toward GW.

The doctor who operated on Brady told Washingtonian that Brady, who was in the GW emergency room ten minutes after the shooting, would have died on the longer drive to Washington Hospital Center.

He returned to the White House on a very limited basis by the end of Reagan’s first term, although he could never resume his press-secretary duties.

Instead, Brady and his wife, Sarah, became tireless promoters of enhanced gun control, particularly concerning handguns like the $29 revolver Hinckley used. The couple became the leaders of the gun violence-prevention group now called the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and pushed for a federal law, also named for Brady, that requires computer background checks on handgun purchases.

“I wouldn’t be here in this damn wheelchair if we had some commonsense legislation,” he said on Capitol Hill in 2011 after needling Congress to improve federal gun-control measures. Sadly, Brady’s message to Congress went unheeded, as Congress neglected to pass gun-control measures following mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Newtown, Connecticut; and DC’s Navy Yard, among many other incidents.

Posted at 04:11 PM/ET, 08/04/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Obama says he supports statehood, a claim his actions haven’t always backed up. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Ted Eytan.

President Obama pleased many District residents today by publicly stating his support for statehood for the nation’s capital.

“I’m in DC, so I’m for it,” Obama, an Illinois resident who’s worked in Washington for the past decade, said Monday during an event at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Northwest. “Folks in DC pay taxes like everybody else. They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. There has been a long movement to get DC statehood, and I’ve been for it for quite some time.”

That’s an encouraging statement, but Obama’s record as President isn’t exactly one that shows longtime support for the District’s goal of self-determination. Obama has been rather squishy on the topic over the years, famously trading away DC in 2011 to get a budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, who insisted on banning the city from funding abortions for low-income women. The president’s concession—“John, I will give you DC abortion.”—is a sore memory for many District residents.

Obama has made many statements since then in support of DC’s goals of budget autonomy and voting seats in Congress, including last week when he threatened to veto a House-passed appropriations bill that contains an amendment aimed at canceling the city’s newly enacted marijuana decriminalization law. The White House also slapped District-issued “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousines last year. But some statehood activists still feel Obama has fallen short.

“Those are both parts of statehood but not the whole thing,” says Josh Burch, who runs a group called Neighbors United for DC Statehood. “Statehood is the only thing that protects us from our enemies and our friends. Barack Obama is our friend, but he’s willing to sell us out.”

In fairness to the President, Burch says there are plenty of members of Congress who voice support for DC statehood but still vote for measures that limit the city’s autonomy, such as Democratic Representatives Jared Polis and Timothy Walz, who cosponsored a statehood bill but also voted last week for an amendment that seeks to overturn local gun laws.

“This problem is not unique to Barack Obama,” Burch says. “It’s something our entire national leadership is willing to be a party to.” Still, Burch says he’s happy to hear the President’s newly vocal support statehood, even if his record is lacking.

One possible reason Obama’s affinity for DC is growing: He might stick around town for a few years after his second term ends so his younger daughter, Sasha, can finish up high school here, as he told ABC News last fall.

“It’ll personalize him to the city,” Burch says. “We’re not just a city with good sandwich joints. Talk is sweet, action is better, and thus far his actions haven’t been that supportive of us.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

Posted at 04:35 PM/ET, 07/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library recently agreed to house a host of photographs, letters, and other memorabilia commemorating the career of John Ficklin, the longest-serving head of the White House domestic staff.
Ficklin, seated, with his staff. Eugene Allen, the inspiration for the recent movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is second from right. Photographs courtesy of Ficklin family.

John Ficklin met his first President in 1939, shortly after his brother Charles got the 20-year-old John a job as a part-time pantry boy at the White House—an elevator opened and there was Franklin Roosevelt. The son of a former slave from Rappahannock County, John Ficklin would go on to serve eight more Presidents and rise to be maître d’, as the top White House butler is officially known—often the first person the President or First Lady sees in the morning and the last person he or she sees at night. Ficklin’s personal effects from the time, says Duke Blackwood, director of the Reagan library, “offer a rare insight into the social and cultural history of a national institution.” Ficklin retired in 1983 and died the next year. Here’s a remembrance by Alan DeValerio, one of his former servers.

This article appears in the July 2014 of Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 06/26/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
President Obama checked out robots, life-saving devices for developing nations, and lasers. By Benjamin Freed
Russell, the robotic giraffe, was a star at today's Maker Faire. Photograph via the White House.

President Obama tickled a 17-foot tall electric giraffe on Wednesday. Silly as that sounds, it was just one of many exhibits at the White House’s “Maker Faire,” a summit celebrating the rise of the “maker movement.”

Maker culture—non-industrial types noodling around to find do-it-yourself fixes to life’s problems—isn’t new, but the past few years have turned hobbyist pursuits into a mainstream phenomenon, and some of their creations—even 2,200-pound giraffes have gone from one-off prototypes to items solving serious problems. Among the other “makers” at todays event were the creators of the Embrace, a portable blanket distributed in developing nations that serves as a low-cost incubator for prematurely born children. Embrace was developed at TechShop, a San Francisco-based chain of workshops that cater to would-be inventors.

TechShop’s newest location opened in April in Arlington, where on Tuesday its employees prepared many of the materials used at today’s White House event, including special badges made by a laser cutting through acrylic sheets.

To make the blue and red badges distributed to today’s Maker Faire participants, Corey Robbins, one of TechShop’s “dream consultants,” transferred the design—an outline of the White House topped by a sprocket—from Adobe Illustrator to printer software that controls one of four laser cutters. Just as people click to print out their homework, Robbins ordered the laser cutter to start slicing.

“It has the potential to inspire young people to get excited about manufacturing and design,” Thomas Kalil, a deputy director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told Washingtonian. “It’s democratizing the tools to make anything.”

The White House announced several new policy initiatives, including maker-recruitment programs at the Department of Homeland Security, grants from the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, and 3-D printed biomedical files at the National Institutes of Health.

“It puts the tools of the Industrial Revolution into the hands of amateurs and pros who get to work on their own projects,” said Mark Hatch, TechShop’s chief executive. “People learn visually, auditorily, kinetically. The best way to get someone into phyiscs: have them build a trebuchet.” (For non-engineers, that’s a siege weapon from the Middle Ages.)

Hatch says TechShop fosters the creation of new products by offering far less expensive fabrication and testing processes than traditional industrial practices. TechShop also boasts among its achievements the prototype for Square, the credit card-reading device developed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey that attaches to smart phones.

Washington’s recent tech scene is largely software-driven—think of the developers at startup hubs like 1776 in downtown DC or AOL’s Fishbowl Labs in Reston—but there’s a growing appetite for hardware made by people with fresh ideas, but who might not be engineers by training. Besides TechShop, General Electric has a 3-D printer lab on Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, and Navy Yard is about to get Ideaspace, another membership-based tech shop.

Even the DC Public Library is in the maker game; last summer, it opened its Digital Commons at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, featuring 3-D printing and do-it-yourself bookbinding.

“It started out with computer hackers, now it’s all different kinds of making,” said Gareth Branwyn, an Arlington-based writer who’s been fidgeting around with robotics since the 1980s. “It’s the same basic impulse, confluence of readily availible tools, and the collaborative power of the internet.”

Posted at 04:45 PM/ET, 06/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
It was pretty nice out on Wednesday morning. So the President took a walk along the Ellipse. By Benjamin Freed
It was pretty nice out. Why wouldn't you take a walk? Photograph by Pete Souza via the White House.

“Are you real?”

That’s what a young woman walking along the Ellipse said yesterday upon meeting President Obama when he took an unscheduled stroll among the public from the White House to the Interior Department. The President assured the startled woman that he is, indeed, very real.

“I’m not made out of wax,” Obama told the woman, who introduced herself as Anna.

Obama, trailed by a few dozen Secret Service agents, stopped to shake hands, take photos, and give out boxes of the White House’s special M&Ms to kids. And yet, he seemed to have trouble convincing some he wasn’t a wax idol come to life.

“Oh, my gosh, someone’s going to think you’re, like, wax,” a woman visiting with her family said when Obama offered to pose for a photograph.

Although Madame Tussauds could ask for no better endorsement, the woman was in fact meeting the real-life President—with the bonus of not having to shell out more than $20 for a museum ticket.

Posted at 05:02 PM/ET, 05/22/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()