From NASCAR Drivers to William Faulkner: A Brief History of Snubbing the President

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Four out of twelve NASCAR drivers who were invited to meet President Obama at the White House this evening have declined to attend, citing scheduling conflicts—and sparking a nationwide gossip-fest. Refusing an invitation to visit the most powerful man in the world at his giant white mansion in the middle of the nation’s capital is, after all, not the same thing as, you know, missing your second cousin’s garden party. Saying “no” to the President is widely considered a major snub, a political rebuff and, depending on who you are, an insult of international proportions.

The thing is, it’s happened way more often than you’d think.

It's a Political Protest

Some honored invitees, like Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell, have refused to visit the White House as a gesture of political protest. In Lowell’s case, he wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon Johnson explaining that he deeply disagreed with the president’s Cold War foreign policy: “We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and we may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin,” he wrote.

Winners of the National Design Awards—the Oscars of the design world—pulled a similar stunt in 2006, refusing an invitation to attend an awards breakfast at the White House on the grounds that “the administration of George W. Bush has used the mass communications of words and images in ways that have seriously harmed the political discourse in America,” according to a public letter.

It's Just Too Far

Other illustrious would-be guests have refused to visit the president’s home for somewhat hazier reasons. Take for example Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, who refused a dinner invitation at the Kennedy White House saying, “Why that’s a hundred miles away,” according to an interview in LIFE magazine. “That’s a long way to go just to eat.”

Decades earlier, President Calvin Coolidge’s father refused a direct invitation to come to the White House, but not for any scandalous reason. In 1923, after the premature death of President Warren Harding, the elder Coolridge swore-in President Coolidge at his Vermont farmhouse, and then sent his son packing to D.C. When the president asked his father to come with him, he refused: “There’ll be a funeral down there,” he said, according to the New York Times. “I think that my place is here to take care of the farm.”

Hollywood luminary Angelia Jolie and operatic reality TV star Susan Boyle both reportedly refused invitations to Obama’s White House this year for unspecified reasons. According to gossip rags, Jolie was saving herself for “more important” things, while Boyle was “too nervous” to meet the president.

It's Just Politics

The most popular reason for snubbing a White House invitation is, of course, a matter of straight politics. In 1982, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son—no friend of Reagan’s policies—refused to attend a White House function in honor of his father, saying he was “tied up” all day.

A few years later, Senator Jesse Helms also snubbed Reagan’s White House, saying he didn’t want to attend a dinner that would require him to “socialize” with Mikhail Gorbachev.

More recently, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has set the modern bar for White House snubs. In the last year, Boehner has refused to attend three different functions at Obama’s pad, including a bipartisan service for Representative Gabrielle Giffords and a fancy state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao.

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But perhaps that’s nothing compared to former-President Herbert Hoover's no-show at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. According to news reports, Hoover’s plane circled D.C. a few times and then gave up, citing weather issues, and flew to Miami instead. The former president whipped off a note to Kennedy—“I made a hard try to attend your inauguration”—and then winged off on an impromptu fishing vacation in the Florida Keys.

If Kennedy was insulted by Hoover’s snub, he could have looked for advice to Abraham Lincoln, who was an expert in the matter. A hundred years earlier, during the Civil War, Union General George McClellan didn’t exactly refuse to attend a White House function (Lincoln didn’t live at the White House for much of the Civil War), but did one worse: he refused to meet the President himself, who had been waiting in the general’s parlor for more than an hour. According to the story, McClellan got home, went directly upstairs without greeting Lincoln, and told his servant to tell the President of the United States he’d gone to bed. Lincoln, who McClellan later called a “well-meaning baboon,” shrugged off the insult, saying “better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”

It's Gotten Ugly

As for those NASCAR drivers, their choice to decline a White House function tonight in their honor has precedent. Well, kind of. Nearly two decades ago, a group of golfers representing the U.S. in the international Ryder Cup threatened to boycott an event in their honor at Clinton’s White House. The media, which got itself into a tizzy over the threatened snub, quoted the golfers saying all manner of nasty things about the Democratic agenda, including one celebrated player in particular who reportedly called the president a “draft-dodging baby-killer.”

Unlike the NASCAR drivers, all the golfers eventually agreed to show up at the White House, at which point everyone smiled, sipped drinks and talked about anything but politics.

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September 7, 2011 - 7:38am
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