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.


To Abhinav (no. 7),

You say:

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”

While I agree with you in principle that a fully Presidential system may not be an optimal system, and that most countries using the system are small developing or countries, your assertion above is wrong in fact. Countries like Cyprus (a European Union member state) are both developed and presidential. One could also mention Argentina.


RE: #17 & #19:
Agreed. The more security you see, the more you can study it and find weaknesses. The less you see, the less you can plan for.

George Deljevic

Why are there are often so many crabby, cynical and sarcastic comments on these pages? Why can't the Medal of Freedom just mean something good? Why can't George Bush simply be charming?


Wow. Great portrait. Any country would love to have a leader with that kind of aura.

Blair had it at the beginning, but had to leave in disgrace after getting into trouble with his friend... who was it again?

Everyone seems to agree that Bush is charming at a personal level - but his job requires so much more than that... hence the crabby remarks (I don't think they're cynical, it's not cynical to wish for better).

He'd be bound to like these events - it's an excuse to wear the old presidential-seal belt buckle again.


Becker is the THIRD person receive both the Nobel Prize in economics and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Friedrich Hayek was the second.


i once had the honor to be a guest at the White House and I understand what you mean by the JFK portrait. It stands alone and in contrast to the older more classic portraits. It stand alone and he's looking away and almost doesn't belong there. It's very powerful. The White House in general is amazing, no matter who the tenant is during your visit.


Steven, still hanging around with that Kevin Murphy?


"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.