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.


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...


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?