Reflections on a Visit to the White House

I spent the morning in the White House, attending the ceremony recognizing this year’s winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Gary Becker was one of the honorees, and he was kind enough to let me tag along as a member of his entourage. Becker became only the second person to win both the Nobel Prize in economics and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The first person to achieve that honor was Becker’s friend and mentor, Milton Friedman.

A few random thoughts on the morning’s events:

1) I knew this was serious business when I saw that both Becker and the economist Kevin Murphy had gotten hair cuts for the event, making me immediately wish I had done the same. Murphy was wearing a suit and no baseball cap … both a first for me.

2) President Bush was very charming. He had something personal and often funny to say about all of the winners. The most striking thing was that he actually seemed to be having fun at the event.

3) Security was remarkably lax. Maybe appropriately so, given that only those whose names had been put on a list by someone winning the highest civilian award could pass through the gates onto the White House grounds. There was a metal detector. Nonetheless, I have little doubt that I could have smuggled a gun into the event with not much difficulty and a very small chance of being caught. I won’t say how, because people tend to get angry when I discuss such details; but I don’t think it would be hard. It is possible that hidden layers of security exist that I’m not aware of, but I can say that it appeared to be no harder to get a few feet from the president than it is to get access to most New York City skyscrapers.

4) The food was delicious. The best dish was scrambled eggs with crab. And the flowers were stunning.

5) Of the eight winners, the crowd favorite was clearly Harper Lee, the octogenarian author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Everyone adored her (even though she didn’t say a word — none of the honorees did). Her book has sold 30 million copies, and yet she never wrote another one. Maybe Dubner and I should take a lesson from her and not bother with a second book?

6) I was delighted to discover that Becker wasn’t the only economist winning the award this year. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, is described by as having earned an economics degree from the University of Colorado.

7) As a child, I idolized John F. Kennedy, mostly because I was born exactly fifty years to the day after he was, and just a few miles apart. I don’t think much about JFK anymore, but I was mesmerized by this portrait of him that hangs outside the State Room in the White House. Even more so in person than in the online image, he looks remarkably young and fragile. For the first time, it dawned on me that I am nearly as old as he was when he became president.


"Everyone adored her (even though she didn't say a word — none of the honorees did)."

No honoree was allowed to speak? I guess that world-class security includes throttling the voices of very bright people. Too bad that none of them refused to show -- as did poet Sharon Olds when invited to the White House. Her beautifully rendered response to Laura Bush's invitation can be read here:


It would be interesting to see online voting tied into social networking. It would decrease barriers to voting, while also increasing the social benefit of voting. I'd vote so that I could have an "I Voted" picture on my "facebook" "myspace" or "linkedin" page.


Sounds like a blast. On the subject of Bush liking the event: I get the impression that the pomp and circumstance of the office is the part he likes best.


Is the US the only country where the Head of State (ceremonial stuff) and Head of Government are the same? Obviously Bush is better at the former. Then again, he's probably not doing as much as think in the case of the latter.

I encourage your second book! And--geez!--I didn't realize you were that young! I was born shortly after JFK took office. I'm going to go grab my cane now....

Bill Henner

It was wonderful to see Harper Lee being honored at this event. I will never forget my first reading of her book while I was in fifth grade. I always hoped that she would write another book.

Bill Henner

Mark W.

To Fritz (#2):

Who wouldn't like that part best?

Jae K.

To Mark W. (#5):

Someone who loves his country.


To Toni (#3):
Wikipedia lists at least sixty such nations.

Ferdinand E. Banks

I wonder if I'm going to be able to accept a Medal of Freedom. Milton Friedman - a mentor of Gary Becker - alluded that Americans who had been drafted into the military were slaves, and although I'm not sure, he received his medal from a man who had been stationed in Hollywood during the war, but informed an audience that he had been in Europe liberating concentration camps. No, I would have to be very hungry to put in an appearance at that circus.

Ferdinand E. Banks


Wow, they now enter into the rank of such distinguished previous winners as George Tenet and Paul Bremer. What an honor.


The hell with getting a gun past security, how did four (by your count) economists get into the White House at the same time? Isn't that some sort of critical mass of “BS” proponents? Two more and we would have had a situation.


To Matt (#7):
US is the only country amongst all developed economies and all major developing countries (except Brazil), "where the Head of State (ceremonial stuff) and Head of Government are the same"

And regarding Toni's (#3) view that Bush is only good at ceremonial stuff... I won't be to quick to say that. Does someone remember his wink at Queen Elizabeth?


To Levitt re: point #3.

Based on your comment, I'm nearly certain that you didn't notice the Secret Service snipers on the roof. I'm also not sure how you think you could get through a metal dector with a gun, but I'm sure anything is possible.


and why would Milton accept such an award?

Mike B.

Unless Truman Capote ghost-wrote Freakonomics from beyond the grave, I doubt your situation is similar to Harper Lee's.

I kid, I kid!!

geoff v

while the scrambled eggs with crab might have been yummy, I think that it would be more delicious to tell Bush "thanks, but no thanks... I think I have to pick up my dry cleaning that day,'' or ''I have to wait at home for the plumber from 10-2, do you think that we could do it say, some other time...''


I loathe Ellen Johnson Sirleaf because she cost me (at least) $28,000, by being the subject of the Final Jeopardy question I missed.

Anthony Vecchio

Having worked at the White House for over 10 years, your thought of being able to get a gun past security is exactly what the USSS wanted you to believe.

There is more security there than any other place in the world. From the moment you were placed on the visitor list until the minute you left the grounds, you were being watched and video taped. I remember a time I was waiting for a guest to arrive. I was near the front where the officers checked the identification of those on the appointment list. One unlucky man was wanted for back child support payments - he was arrested on the spot.


Wow, back child support payments, what an incredible bust that must have been. Your story really proves nothing about security at the White House.


RE: #17:

I have to agree. The less security you see, the more their probably is. And I'm sure they were extra special to watch over rogue economists...