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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.