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

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.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

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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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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iStock

Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Space
More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in own solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last week, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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