The issue of whether President Obama uses an official “food taster” tiptoed into a pool of controversy this week after a report that he had to refuse lobster salad at a lunch in the Capitol because his taster was not available. Whether that was in fact the case has not been resolved, but a former White House executive chef, Walter Scheib, has stepped forward to try to clear the air. The orginal report was on the Daily Caller, quoting Republican senator Susan Collins, who was at the lunch.
“There is no presidential food taster,” says Scheib, who ran the White House kitchen for 11 years for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He claims the distinction of bringing “American contemporary cuisine” to White House menus after he was hired by First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1994. It caused quite a stir at the time, he recalls, after years of White House menus abiding to a code of mostly “continental” cuisine.
Scheib says that while there is no “taster” there is still a lot of protection and security involved in what the President eats. “Nothing gets to the President that hasn’t fallen under somebody’s jurisdiction," he says. “If the President is just grabbing a pretzel randomly at the table, it’s been screened.”
It’s been widely reported that President Obama hosted a dinner at the Jefferson Hotel on Wednesday night for a group of 12 Republican senators. Here are some of the behind-the-scenes details we’ve learned about the dinner from a few good sources, showing that much was involved in putting the evening together.
• It lasted about two hours, from approximately 6:30 to 8:30.
• A few of the senators grabbed a glass of wine in the hotel’s bar before dinner. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina picked up the tab for the drinks.
• All food and drink was prepared under the watchful eyes of Secret Service agents.
• All staff who interacted with the President were pre-screened and cleared by security.
• The group dined in the Parlor Boardroom at one long table. The room can seat as many as 28, has its own wi-fi and a hook-up for a table phone, if needed. There was a computer set up in the room during dinner. The room also has special glass windows that can be “fogged” at the push of a button. In addition to the fog-effect windows, the room was screened off with draping.
• The senators entered and exited through the hotel’s front door on 16th Street, while the President used a private back entrance that led directly to the private dining room.
• Though the meal was served in one of the hotel’s private dining rooms, it was prepared by chef Chris Jakubiec and his staff at Plume, the Jefferson’s highly regarded signature restaurant.
Typically, once the President of the United States gives his State of the Union speech, the next day he embarks on some travel and appearances to bolster the points he made before Congress and the national television audience. It’s essentially big audience wholesale turned into smaller audience retail. Michelle Obama’s appearance on the Oscars broadcast Sunday—with an audience of 40 million—seems like her own version of the same formula, because this has been one very busy week for the First Lady. Is she running for something? Not that we’ve been told, but she’s been on the move all over the country, especially on behalf of her anti-obesity campaign.
Let’s break it down.
Forget gun control. Never mind a grand fiscal bargain. In March, there’s only one urgent national question facing Washingtonians that really, truly matters: How can President Obama help us win our NCAA men’s-basketball office pool?
Call it Baracketology: For the last half decade, Obama has made his March Madness bracket picks public. Some years, he has shown a winning touch (correctly picking 29 of 32 first-round games in 2011); other years, not so much (incorrectly picking the entire Final Four in 2010).
What can the rest of us learn from our commander in chief? After crunching the numbers, we identified four key lessons.
Final Four picks
First-round upset picks
Elite Eight picks
1. Be Conservative
Obama may be a Democrat, but he’s hardly a bracket liberal. In predicting a tournament renowned for its downright progressive upsets (when number-15 seed Lehigh knocked off number-2 seed Duke last year, it was college basketball’s answer to the 99 percent rising up against the 1 percent), the President prefers a cautious approach. To wit: Over five seasons, Obama has picked just one team seeded below number 3 (number-4 Pitt in 2008) to reach the Final Four. He also has predicted an average of 10.6 total upsets per bracket, roughly one game in which the higher seed loses per six games played. The President is similarly conservative in the wild and woolly 32-game first round, picking an average of only 6.4 upsets per year.
Turns out this is a wise approach.
Since 1985, the tournament has averaged just 8.1 first-round upsets. Moreover, only seven schools seeded below number 12 ever have made it to the Sweet Sixteen, while more than 70 percent of the Elite Eight has been composed of teams seeded between numbers 1 and 3. The upshot? Play it safe with the bulk of your bracket—particularly in the early rounds—and don’t bet on small-school underdogs to make deep runs. Practice Obama’s audacity of nope.
2. Don’t Be Too Conservative
If you want to win your pool, you’ll still have to pick a few early surprises. And you need to get them right. After all, Obama hasn’t posted a solid 74-percent first-round winning-pick percentage over five seasons by simply selecting higher seeds to win every game—favored teams won only 73 percent of their first-round games over the same span. The President was particularly prescient in 2011, hitting on five of his six upset picks and going 29-32 in the first round, a mark that reportedly would have placed him in the top 1 percent of the tens of thousands of fans who participated in a Yahoo online bracket contest.
In the pool-points-rich Elite Eight and beyond, however, you’re better off breaking with Obama’s play-it-safe strategy. On one hand, high seeds have a better chance of advancing; on the other, everyone else in your pool is likely picking the same handful of schools to reach the Final Four and the same 1-2 top teams to win it all. Make the same selections and the best you can do is tie your competitors. So look at the later rounds as an arbitrage opportunity: Double down on an undervalued high seed—such as number-3 seed and eventual national champion UConn in 2011—and give yourself a higher probability of winning your pool if your pick comes through.
Remember Obama’s scorching 2011 first-round performance? None of his Final Four picks—number-1 seeds Duke, Kansas, Pitt, and Ohio State—panned out. His bracket was utterly busted. Meanwhile, number-4 seed Kentucky reached the Final Four, while UConn and number-8 seed Butler (the previous year’s national runner-up) played in the championship game. Less presidential prudence would have gone a long way.
The White House has opened an online lottery for parents and guardians who want to obtain tickets for the 135th annual Easter Egg Roll, which is held on the Monday after Easter on the mansion’s South Lawn. This year it will be Monday, April 1. The lottery runs through the weekend and closes at 10 AM on Monday, February 25. Enter online.
The principal restrictions are that children must be 13 years of age or younger. Tickets are free and cannot be sold.
The Easter Egg Roll is the largest event held at the White House each year, featuring live entertainment, sports and cooking activities, storytelling, and celebrity appearances along with the rolling of commemorative wooden eggs. This year’s egg will come in four colors—purple, blue, yellow, pink—and be embossed with the signatures of the President and First Lady.
First Lady Michelle Obama will have 25 special guests joining her in the House chamber Tuesday evening for the President’s State of the Union address at the Capitol. In the official realm they include the Vice President’s wife, Jill Biden, and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, but the remainder of the guests span a diverse range of professions, experiences, ages, and personal stories. The list includes two people from Arlington, Virginia, and one from Crownsville, Maryland. Together the group will sit in a special box assigned to the First Lady.
From the White House, here’s the list of who will be sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address.
• The Vice President’s wife, Jill Biden
• Presidential senior adviser Valerie Jarrett
• Sergeant Sheena Adams of Vista, California, a team adviser and lead instructor for the Marine Corps Female Engagement Team
• Alan Aleman of Las Vegas, Nevada, a beneficiary of the Obama administration’s DREAM program
• Jack Andraka of Crownsville, Maryland, winner of the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his creation of an early detection for pancreatic cancer
• Susan Baumgarner of Norman, Oklahoma, an early childhood educator
• Deb Carey of New Glarus, Wisconsin, a small business owner who founded the New Glarus Brewing company
• Sergeant Carlos Evans, USMC, of Cameron, North Carolina, a wounded warrior who is recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center from injuries received in Afghanistan during his fourth overseas deployment
• Tim Cook, of Cupertino, California, the CEO of Apple
• Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr., of Chicago, Illinois—the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, who was murdered in Chicago on January 29, eight days after she participated in the inaugural parade
• Menchu de Luna Sanchez of Secaucus, New Jersey—a registered nurse with the Langone Medical Center of New York University
• Bobak Ferdowsi of Pasadena, California—flight director for the Mars Curiosity rover team at NASA
• Bradley Henning of Louisville, Kentucky—a machinist with the Atlas Machine and Supply company
Spotted Thursday morning at the White House: a team from Vogue moving cameras into the residence. What could that be about? Well, it turns out it’s a photo shoot of First Lady Michelle Obama for the magazine’s cover, most likely the March issue. Also the President’s public schedule is clear for the day, which could indicate he may be involved in the photography session. On the other hand, he may just be staying off the radar as Congress begins confirmation hearings for former Republican senator Chuck Hagel, who has been nominated for Secretary of Defense.
Either way, what we hear is that noted celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz is doing the shoot. What we don’t know is what Mrs. Obama will be wearing, though she has been actively involved in making the choices. Typically, when Vogue does a shoot, they bring a number of fashion options—clothes, shoes, accessories, plus experts for hair and makeup—and that’s just for “regular” people. For the First Lady the project is probably comparable to a small military deployment.
Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour, was one of the Obama reelection campaign’s most prolific fundraisers, so much so that she was rumored to be in the running to be named ambassador to the United Kingdom, always considered a plum reward for individuals who bring a lot of dough to the candidate’s coffers. The New York Times recently reported that the post will likely go to Matthew Barzun, who was the campaign’s finance chairman. Through a spokesperson, Wintour, who was born in England but is a US citizen, said she was happy with her job at Vogue.
This would not be Michelle Obama’s first Vogue cover or Leibovitz photo. The photographer’s portrait of the First Lady appeared on the cover of the March 2009 issue. In that photo Mrs. Obama wore a dress by designer Jason Wu, who designed her gown for both inaugurations.
We asked the Vogue press department for confirmation of Thursday’s goings on, but director of communications Megan Salt would say only, "We never comment on rumors about future editorial."*
*This post has been updated from a previous version.
A week after the inauguration and a week before the Super Bowl—meaning a Sunday with not much to do—both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton, and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were spotted enjoying typical Sunday pursuits, and their paths nearly crossed.
The Obamas, with daughter Malia, showed up Sunday morning at a recreation center in Bethesda to watch Sasha’s Sidwell Friends School team compete against the North Bethesda Middle School. Sidwell won 15-11. A North Bethesda parent posted an amusing message with pictures on Facebook: “Just a typical Sunday morning in Washington, DC at (the) basketball game and then the President of the United States walks in & Michelle, too.” Many Sidwell parents will tell you that’s not unusual of the President and First Lady.
Later, when the President was returning to the White House, his motorcade passed a couple walking along Massachusetts Avenue, according to a White House pool report. The couple were the Clintons, walking a dog. Someone else who spotted the Clintons said they were holding hands and described the dog as a “brand new fluffy golden retriever puppy.” Secretary Clinton was wearing a “long red coat.” They were followed by “several agents.”
Bill Clinton’s dog, Buddy, a chocolate lab, died in 2002 after it was hit by a car outside the family home in Chappaqua, New York. A few years later, Clinton got another chocolate lab, which he named Seamus.
When she unveiled the White House Christmas decorations on Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama paid special tribute to the volunteers who did the decorating and who represent all the states, with 11 from Virginia, 2 from Maryland, and 1 from DC. “This would not be possible if it were not for the 85 volunteers who took time out of their busy lives to come from all parts of the country to help us decorate this house,” she said in the East Room to her guests, an audience of military families and members of the press.