If Johnny Depp and Tim Burton came to your party, think you might mention it?
Of course you would — heck, you’d probably tweet the minute they walked in the door. But the White House didn’t say a word, which explains the tempest in a teapot over the 2009 “Alice in Wonderland” Halloween party.
In her new book “The Obamas,” author Jodi Kantor describes the first family’s trick-or-treat extravaganza in Washington: More than 2,000 military kids and local students received treats from the president and Michelle Obama (fetchingly dressed as a leopard) while dancers and acrobats roamed the North Lawn. Inside, there was an invitation-only party for about 200 people — mostly military families and White House staffers. “Star Wars” characters mingled with the crowd, and the State Dining room was decorated like a crazy tea party by Burton, whose “Alice in Wonderland” was a few months from release. His star, Depp, greeted the guests in his Mad Hatter costume.
The two-page account of the party has become the most buzzed-about excerpt of the 347-page book, officially released Tuesday.
“White House officials were so nervous about how a splashy, Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans — or their representatives in Congress, who would soon vote on health care — that the event was not discussed publicly and Burton’s and Depp’s contributions went unacknowledged,” writes Kantor.
On Monday, the White House hit back, saying the party was anything but secret, citing extensive media coverage of the trick-or-treaters on the North Portico.
“This was an event for military children and their families inside the White House, where the press came, photographs were taken,” said press secretary Jay Carney, who called Kantor’s account “an example of the kind of hype and sensationalizing that books like this do.”
“We may not have alerted folks that Johnny Depp was coming,” another White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, told us, “but we didn’t announce Chewbacca was coming either.”
But the White House never put out any detailed word about what went on inside the mansion that night or even hinted about the Hollywood stars.
Which is weird, because it’s not unusual for celebs to show up at the White House — either performing for guests or teaming up with the first family for do-gooding. Happens with every administration at state dinners, July 4th picnics and other events. Nothing rare about fancy Halloween parties, either — although getting a straight answer about the cost of any White House party is almost impossible.
Concerns that this one was a little too fancy seem plausible: The Obamas put their first Halloween in the hands of then-Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, who took the mandate for the White House to be the “people’s house” to new extremes. It was Rogers and her team who planned the party, brought in the lawn performers and likely invited Burton and Depp. Rogers’ extravagant personal style was out of sync with the political mood; Kantor writes that “her fate was effectively sealed” by the Halloween party. (Rogers, now head of Johnson Publishing, did not respond to requests for comment.)
But it's clear that — for some unknown reason — the White House downplayed Depp and Burton’s presence. There was a detailed pool report by USA Today reporter Richard Wolf, who watched the Obamas hand out candy and greet guests in the East Room — but, he told us Monday, he never saw Depp or Burton. The White House never mentioned them at all; of the dozens of stories on the event at the time, only a Depp fan site and the Nashville Tennessean noted that the actor and director were there. And a photo of the Obama family with the two stars is circulating on the Web — but it’s not on the official White House Flickr account. Schultz said he doesn’t know who took the photo.