I’d seen hints of this over the weekend, but really didn’t know what was going on until I read this piece by Nile Gardiner in the Telegraph. He quotes from another Telegraph article about Jody Kantor’s new book, The Obamas, to show how the New Versailles partied as the nation suffered outside its doors:
The party was staged by Hollywood director Tim Burton and his leading actor Johnny Depp ahead of the release of their Alice in Wonderland film. Alex reports:
“Depp greeted guests in the costume he had worn in a film version of the Lewis Carroll story released around the same time by Burton, who was given carte blanche to transform the state dining room into a Mad Hatter’s tea party in “his signature creepy-comic style”.
A long table was “set with antique-looking linens, enormous stuffed animals in chairs, and tiered serving plates with treats like bone-shaped meringue cookies”, writes New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor in The Obamas, which is released on Tuesday. Fruit punch was served in blood vials at the bar, she adds.
… The president’s aides decided the party would send the wrong message at a time when the Tea Party was on the rise with its message against Washington’s excesses and unemployment had risen sharply to ten per cent.
“White House officials were so nervous about how a splashy, Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans or their representatives in Congress, who would soon vote on health care that the event was not discussed publicly and Burton’s and Depp’s contributions went unacknowledged,” Miss Kantor writes.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US unemployment in November, 2009, when the party was held, was 9.9%. I can see why Obama’s flunkies were worried about how this would look to the public, especially those on the dole.
Now, I’m old enough to remember when the Reagans were criticized by the sanctimonious media early in his first term for throwing a lavish state dinner for a visiting dignitary, complete with some of their Hollywood friends in attendance, during a bad recession. But that at least was part of the president’s normal duties as Chief of State. I didn’t begrudge Reagan then for doing his job, nor would I do so for Obama for throwing a lavish reception for, say, a visit by the Prime Minister of India.
But this was not a state dinner; it was a private party thrown by a powerful couple who wanted to revel in their power and hobnob with their elite friends. It was like the dance from Poe’s Masque of the Red Death:
But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
Gardiner goes on to point out that the British Prime Minister would never do something like this:
For starters, the robust British press would have a field day showcasing the vulgarity of it all – in contrast to the Establishment US media, which is typically ignoring the Obama story (even though it comes from a New York Times source). More importantly though, David Cameron would probably have the good sense not to turn Downing Street into a ghoulish theme park, and would be sensitive to both the perception and actual cost of this kind of lavish event, especially at a time when the general public is being called upon to make sacrifices as the government wrestles with a towering national debt.
Nor, to reverse the now-shopworn comparison “What if Bush had done this,” do I think you would ever have seen George and Laura Bush being so self-indulgent. They may have been from Texas and spoke with a twang, both things anathema to the urban elite, but at least they had some class.
UPDATE: J. Christian Adams in a related article quotes the words of President John Adams, which are engraved on the fireplace in the state dining room, where the party was held:
May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.
Mr. Adams must be spinning in his grave.
(Crossposted at Public Secrets)