On Halloween, just as Americans nationwide plan parties, wear costumes and dole out trick-or-treat favors, so do American presidents. In fact, some of the Halloween celebrations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have been eye-opening, and quite telling about our leaders.
In 1962, for example, the Kennedys celebrated Halloween in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The successful resolution of that crisis left the White House in a festive mood, and Kennedy even joked that they could not place a Jack O'Lantern on the Truman Balcony lest people mistake it for Cuban leader Fidel Castro. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy took the children out trick-or-treating in Georgetown, stopping at the homes of Arthur Schlesinger, Dean Acheson and Joseph Alsop. Jackie was wearing a black garment bag with eyeholes over her head, and Schlesinger did not even realize that the First Family had come seeking candy until he heard Jackie's voice from behind the mask.
Presidents have been known to dress up as well – and their costume selections tend to reflect their personalities. Lyndon Johnson was known to have no shortage of ego, so much so that his favorite film was "In the President's Country," a Gregory Peck-narrated movie about Johnson that he screened more than a dozen times in the White House theater. In fact, he was such a narcissist that his Halloween costume one year was a red and white "Halloween suit" emblazoned with the words "Super President."
At other times, White House costumes could be awkward or even cause possible problems. Vice President Al Gore, perhaps in keeping with his last name, tended to favor monster-themed outfits on Halloween. In 1994, Gore wore an elaborate Frankenstein costume to his vice presidential Halloween party, held on Saturday, October 29. The getup included green skin and even had the requisite bolts in his neck. (Gore, of course, came by the stiffness naturally). Unfortunately, that was the same night a deranged individual fired 29 shots from an SKS rifle at the White House itself, hitting the building but not causing any injuries. Nevertheless, when word of the incident spread, the guests were of course worried that some kind of harm might have come to President Bill Clinton. After it was clear that everyone was OK, the late Helen Thomas asked White House aide Mark Gearan about the incident. Gearan's reply: "All I could think of was Al Gore being sworn in as president dressed as Frankenstein." Another Halloween accoutrement that generated no attention at the time but became embarrassing later was a pumpkin pin that Clinton wore to celebrate one Halloween. This particular pin was later listed in the Starr Report as one of 30 gifts White House intern and presidential love interest Monica Lewinsky gave Clinton.
At other times, important decisions get made on Halloween. Richard Reeves reported that Ronald Reagan made the decision to run for president on Halloween night, 1975. His son Ron, however, was less than fully interested in this important family moment; all he could think of was getting to a Halloween party to which he had been invited. Similarly, George W. Bush, frustrated by the failure to get his friend and White House Counsel Harriet Miers appointed to the Supreme Court, made the announcement to go with Samuel Alito on Halloween morning of 2005.
One of the most important presidential decisions to coincide with Halloween came in 1974. Gerald Ford, concerned about the loyalties of some Nixon holdovers, decided to make some major changes in his administration over the Halloween week. He put Chief of Staff Don Rumsfeld in as secretary of defense, replacing James Schlesinger; elevated a young Dick Cheney to White House chief of staff; took away Henry Kissinger's national security adviser title, although Kissinger remained secretary of state; put George H.W. Bush at the CIA instead of William Colby; and announced that he would be dropping Vice President Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket in 1976. Collectively, these moves came to be known as the Halloween Massacre. Later, Ford thought that he might have acted rashly, saying, "It was the biggest political mistake of my life."
Regardless of how presidents choose to celebrate Halloween, it is important that they not overdo things. In her book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor reported that the actor Johnny Depp and the director Tim Burton threw an extravagant "Alice in Wonderland" costume party at the White House, but the White House communications apparatus covered it up so that the president would not appear uncaring during a period of economic difficulties. The White House press corps cooperated, at least until Kantor's book came out a few years later. Obama was fortunate that interest in the story was short-lived, but other future presidents may not be so lucky.