The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The dust-up about Biden’s White House wedding misunderstood the history

White House weddings are neither fully public nor private, and press access has never been guaranteed

President Biden's granddaughter Naomi Biden and her fiance, Peter Neal, are married on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Nov. 26. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
8 min

It wouldn’t have been a White House wedding without “something old” — a dust-up between the press and the president.

There have been 19 such events and there has been one constant across eras: The first family historically has to balance the personal, the political and the patriotic in weddings attended by world leaders, lawmakers and diplomats — but not always journalists. That stems from the gray area occupied by these occasions. As syndicated columnist Louise Hutchinson noted with regard to Luci Johnson’s 1966 nuptials, a White House wedding is “not a state occasion” but “not necessarily a private one” either.

And yet, whether it’s the president himself getting married (as Grover Cleveland did in 1886) or a distant relative or valued employee, White House weddings are newsworthy, if only because they happen so infrequently.

Naomi Biden was the first grandchild of a sitting president to wed at the White House. There was no real precedent for how much privacy she could expect on her wedding day. Some reporters complained when they didn’t receive an invitation, and cried foul when it was later revealed that Vogue had scored an exclusive pre-ceremony interview and photo shoot. (The Washington Post covered the wedding from the outside, by talking to attendees, scouring social media — and using binoculars.)

While press access to White House weddings has varied over time and differed depending on who is getting married and the happy couple’s proximity to the executive office, the media had expectations for access to Biden’s wedding that simply weren’t rooted in historical precedent.

When it comes to the White House weddings, the border between public and private has never been satisfactorily mapped. When first daughter Alice Roosevelt married Rep. Nicholas Longworth in 1906, her father, Theodore, angered the press by refusing to release any details of her “trousseau” — the wardrobe traditionally assembled by a new bride, including but hardly limited to her wedding gown. The New York Times pouted: “These precautions are puzzling, because in the only cases that can be used as parallels — the weddings of feminine members of the families of the heads of other nations, whether these be royal or those of citizen Presidents — public interest is regarded not only as a matter of course, but as entirely legitimate.”

It was especially confounding given that “Princess Alice,” as she was known, was a celebrity in her own right. But the president’s reticence may have said more about his ego than his relationship with the press. It was Alice who coined the phrase “the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral” to describe her attention-seeking father. And the Times published a long description of her trousseau anyway, based on interviews with in-the-know friends and family members.

The Roosevelts’ uncharacteristic press shyness didn’t stop Princess Alice’s quasi-royal wedding from dominating the headlines. The Washington Post devoted the entire front page to the affair, with the gifts, guest list and the couple’s clothes described in lavish detail. The New York Times took a different angle. The headline blared: “NO ORIENTAL GOODS USED.” The administration was in the midst of a trade war with China, a major exporter of textiles, and what the bride and groom didn’t wear was as newsworthy as what they did wear.

Under intense pressure to throw the press a bone, the White House revealed that the couple would honeymoon at Friendship, the John R. McLean estate (now McLean Gardens). This belated attempt at transparency backfired miserably. As the New-York Tribune reported, the announcement sated the press’s demands for details. But it also enabled some of Longworth’s friends to play a prank. They “obtained the services of a section of the Marine Band” to serenade the newlyweds for “the greater part of the night.”

In contrast to Alice Roosevelt’s 1,000-person-strong guest list, first daughter Jessie Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 wedding was “rather small — distressingly so to many persons in the official and social circles of Washington who had expected to receive invitations, but were disappointed,” one wire service noted. Journalists grew so desperate for scoops that they tailed some of the lucky 400 invitees as they shopped for gifts. Having learned their lesson from Roosevelt’s wedding, the White House kept the couple’s honeymoon plans strictly under wraps. The Washington Post devoted several column inches to the thrilling tale of how its reporters chased their getaway car in taxis but eventually lost it due to a police roadblock.

By the time the next White House wedding came around in 1966, as historian Karen Dunak has suggested, modern media exposure created a familiarity with the first family that left Americans hungering for details about Johnson’s wedding — and feeling entitled to them — to a far greater extent than they had for either the Roosevelt or Wilson weddings.

Johnson received angry letters after she refused to allow television cameras inside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for her wedding ceremony, though the arrivals, departures and parts of the White House (and, more specifically, the East Room) reception were broadcast to an audience of 55 million. Many Americans felt it was the bride’s duty to “invite” them to the ceremony, and their right to “attend” vicariously. Others were uncomfortable that Johnson had converted to Catholicism, her fiance’s faith. The Hiroshima World Friendship Center complained about the choice of date: Aug. 6, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

Just as Teddy Roosevelt had tried to keep details of his daughter’s trousseau out of the papers, Lady Bird Johnson went to great lengths to keep Luci’s wedding gown a secret from the press and public.

When the bride and her bridesmaids scheduled dress fittings in New York, their hotel became “a sort of embattled fortress with the press stationed downstairs at every entrance.” As the first lady remarked in her diary, their cameras captured what little they could, including when “gown firm of Priscilla’s of Boston slipped some entries into the suite on two hangers covered with muslin.”

When Luci inadvertently chose a gown made by a nonunion manufacturer, President Lyndon B. Johnson had to intervene to avoid a scandal; the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was a powerful lobbying force in Washington. And Lady Bird banned Women’s Wear Daily from covering the wedding after its reporters broke into Priscilla’s premises and published an unauthorized sketch of the long-sleeved white lace gown embroidered with pearls, leaving Luci “woefully distressed.” The first lady confessed, “Personally, I didn’t think it was any great matter.”

Nevertheless, when Tricia Nixon married in the Rose Garden in 1971, Priscilla of Boston gave the first daughter’s gown “extra-cautious, top-secret handling,” Life reported in its cover story on the wedding. The magazine pointed out that the gown was entirely American-made in Priscilla’s workrooms, appropriately situated near Bunker Hill. In an echo of Alice Roosevelt’s wedding, the designer boasted, “We never even send our embroidery to the Orient.” Though Life had behind-the-scenes access to the wedding preparations, an estimated 300 reporters covered the ceremony itself.

Nixon’s wedding was unusually well-publicized; for four months leading up to the big day, the White House issued breathless news releases with details about the ring, the gown, the cake and more. One even itemized the bride’s “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” At a time when many people of her generation were espousing free love or protesting the Vietnam War, Nixon’s ultratraditional wedding reassured an anxious nation that it was safe in her father’s hands. It was a fiction, but one the press and public were happy to embrace in exchange for a front-row seat.

Biden’s relatively hush-hush wedding irked some journalists who were already frustrated by what they see as the administration’s evasiveness, and who had to resort to binoculars, drones and social media stalking to get their stories. However, the bride herself emerged from the controversy not only unscathed, but elevated. Her wedding planner released a handful of handpicked photos, and Biden received glowing coverage in America’s leading fashion magazine while keeping the ceremony itself truly private. She might not be an elected official or even a public figure, but she’s clearly inherited her pop’s talent for deft political maneuvering.