Why you should care
Because the fruits of serving in the highest office can sometimes become bitter pills.
It may not be the White House, but the posh mansion in the exclusive Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where the Obama family is moving is certainly not hurting in the size department. Nor will the first family be pinched in terms of finding items to fill the house’s eight bedrooms and 8,200 square feet.
The Obamas, like other former first families, have been showered with gifts from admirers, suitors and diplomats — foreign and domestic alike. They have received everything from ceremonial Algerian daggers to Saudi diamond jewelry collections valued at more than $1 million. Of course, such items are rarely kept by their recipients; they usually go straight to the National Archives warehouse and may later be transferred to a presidential library to avoid any impression of impropriety. In some cases, as when George H.W. Bush received a Komodo dragon from the president of Indonesia, the White House Gift Office needs to get a little creative in the regifting department (that particular present found its way to the Cincinnati Zoo).
Many first families throughout U.S. history have closed out their terms with some lovely parting gifts, along with the occasional controversy.
Still, while presidents cannot by law accept gifts from foreign leaders or citizens — or those intended for the White House itself (and today must purchase any keepsakes for their full market value) — many first families throughout U.S. history have closed out their terms with some lovely parting gifts, along with the occasional controversy.
- James Monroe, America’s fifth president, upgraded the furnishings of the White House during the early 19th century in a lavish manner that would set the standard for future presidencies. But his extravagant use of the newly established Furniture Fund for the Executive Residence (on expensive French furniture) and his decision to sell his own furniture to the White House, for over $9,000, to raise funds for his tours of the nation caused quite a stir.
- President Millard Fillmore would later leave the White House with a coach and six bay horses (that he subsequently sold), and Ulysses S. Grant and his family took with them Asian ceramic urns, tables inlaid with precious metals and other treasures.
- Jackie Kennedy packed up two antique tables when she left the White House, while the Reagans took more than $1 million worth of dresses, jewelry and accessories — not to mention a $2.5 million home in Bel Air, California, for which they would ultimately reimburse donors. Reagan’s successor, George Bush, opted to bring a few dozen fishing rods along with him to his retirement in Kennebunkport, Maine.
- The most recent, and perhaps largest, controversy surrounding presidential parting gifts, however, dogged Bill and Hillary Clinton in early 2001. The Clintons sought to leave the White House with approximately $190,000 in gifts — everything from golf clubs to a pair of boxing gloves from Sylvester Stallone — but landed in hot water when they tried to take about $28,000 worth of furnishings, including two sofas, an easy chair and an ottoman. The original donors insisted those were meant as gifts to the White House collection, not the Clinton themselves. The Clintons returned the furniture, but the whole debacle, says Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman, reinforced people’s worst feelings toward the materialism and tackiness associated with the first baby boomers to occupy the White House.
It is little wonder that several presidents in American history, including Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler, directed their families not to take any gifts with them. After all, perhaps the most valuable gift a president can receive from an adoring public is its trust — something that’s worth a lot more than any pricey antique.