White House throws 2009 Halloween party down the rabbit hole

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The Obamas’ secret and incongruously extravagant White House Halloween party is being pushed further down the rabbit hole.

The sumptuous “Alice in Wonderland”-themed Halloween party, featuring actor Johnny Depp and decorations by filmmaker Tim Burton, was covertly held in late 2009, but White House officials are still trying to keep it hidden because it clashes with efforts to portray the administration as a modestly run establishment amid a bitter, government-created recession.

“This wasn’t a publicity event for the outside. This was for military children and their families,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

“We do a lot of these things” for military families, he said, adding that the administration’s decision to not highlight the party “is different from trying to hide anything.”

The White House published no pictures of the event, and neither Depp nor Burton were recorded on the official White House visitor’s log.

The event, according to a new book, included a makeover for the White House’s state room. It was redecorated in Burton’s “signature creepy-comic style,” according to author Jodi Kantor. Burton’s “film version [of Alice in Wonderland] was about to be released, and he had turned the room into the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with a long table set with antique-looking linens, enormous stuffed animals in chairs, and tiered serving plates with treats like bone-shaped meringue cookies.”

Carney insisted the White House made no effort to hide the event, but veteran reporters said they never knew of the party, which was described in the new book about President Barack Obama and his wife, first lady Michelle Obama.

“It’s just sully– it’s irresponsible reporting,” Carney said, without challenging the book’s description of the party.

The administration’s secrecy matches the book’s description of White House infighting, with senior aides struggling to reduce, downplay and conceal extravagant events that could damage the president’s populist standing, such as the hiring of a new florist, or shopping trips by the first lady.

“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,” according to Kantor’s book.

Democratic aides have sought to downplay the White House’s luxuries because they had already seen how apparently isolated events could shape a politician’s image and create a reliable laugh-line for late night comics.

In 2007, for example, John Edwards’ run for the Democratic presidential nomination was damaged by news that he paid for a $400 haircut. In 1993, President bill Clinton’s p.r. was upset when the media ran with a story that he had delay flights in Los Angeles International airport while he waited for a hair stylist to arrive.

In contrast, the public expects the White House to host some expensive and stylish ceremonial events, such as dinners for foreign leaders.

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