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10 Bizarre Stories Involving Visitors To The White House

by Alex Openshaw
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We often think of the White House as a place that’s strictly business. Sinister Secret Service agents watch over the 132 rooms that host government staff as well as the president and his family. However, the presidential residence has seen thousands of visitors in its 222-year history, some of whom have caused quite a stir. Here, we look at some of the more downright bizarre stories of visitors that passed through the White House gates, only some of whom were invited.

10Teddy Roosevelt Uses Judo On The Swiss Minister

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You won’t find many presidents tougher than Theodore Roosevelt. He loved riding, swimming, and hunting and was always up for a good fight. He once informed his son that he believed in “rough, manly sports” so long as they did not “degenerate into the sole end of one’s existence.” In particular, he loved boxing and judo, the latter of which he started to train for in 1904 using a downstairs office in the White House.

Like any sports enthusiast, Roosevelt was keen to practice his newfound skills whenever he could. Among his sparring partners were his private secretary, the Japanese naval attache, Secretary of War William Howard Taft, and Secretary of the Interior Gifford Pinchot. On one occasion during a state luncheon, Roosevelt demonstrated his techniques on a Swiss minister, throwing him to the ground and placing him in a judo hold. Apparently, the onlooking crowd loved the show, although nobody knows whether the minister had volunteered to be a sparring partner or not.

9A Rock Star’s Plan To Drug Nixon

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In 1970, President Nixon’s daughter Patricia graduated from her small, all-girl college in New York. To celebrate his daughter’s achievement, Nixon invited the whole of the college alumni to the White House for a celebratory tea party. Among the alumni was Grace Slick who, since graduating 10 years earlier, had gone on to join the psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane.

Upon receiving the invitation, Slick jumped at the offer and invited her friend and left-wing activist Abbie Hoffman. The duo devised a fiendish plan to sneak in 600 micrograms of LSD which, at the opportune moment, would be slipped into Nixon’s tea. While the plan was brilliant, the execution was not. Slick and Hoffman weren’t exactly inconspicuous. Slick arrived at the White House in a fishnet top, mini skirt, and long black boots, and Hoffman wore a full suit and tie with slicked-back hair. Even though they both had invitations, security refused entrance to Slick, who was on an FBI watch list for her rock-rebel status.

One can only imagine what would have happened if they had succeeded in their plan. Alas, Nixon remained acid-free, and one year later he launched the hugely unsuccessful “War on Drugs” policy.

8Andrew Jackson’s Rowdy Inauguration Party

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Photo via Wikimedia

These days, the White House is heavily guarded by FBI agents and iron fences. But back in the days of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, citizens were allowed to roam freely around the gardens that surrounded the house. On March 11, 1829, the day Jackson was inaugurated, hundreds of citizens took advantage of this relaxed security by following the president en masse from the capitol to the White House. What followed can only be described as an archaic version of Project X as people partied in and around the White House. One Washington local, Margaret Smith, described the scene:

“But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob. We came too late.”

The president was forced to retreat from his own residency as he was almost crushed to death by a jubilant crowd. The only way the limited police officers could disperse the rabble was to lure them away from the property by dragging the tubs of punch and liquor out onto the lawn. Like any house party worth its salt, thousands of dollars worth of china was broken, along with quite a bit of wear and tear to the decorative interior.

7The Kung Fu Intruder

CNN: White House fence jumper arrested on air

Not all visitors to the White House are invited. In its history, there have been 30 recorded cases of civilians illegally entering White House property, and four of these managed to get into the house itself. One man who successfully scaled the White House fences in 1978 was Anthony Henry, a 35-year-old from Dayton, Ohio.

Kitted out in a white karate uniform and armed with a knife, Henry marched across the lawn toward the White House. Security quickly spotted the breach and approached Henry. Upon discovering that he was armed with a knife, the security guards were unable to do anything other than surround him and wait for backup. For an unbelievable few seconds, which were caught on film, Henry took up a defensive stance and began repelling waves of attacks by the dozen or so security personnel surrounding him. Eventually, one guard managed to get close to Henry and threw him to the floor. He was quickly cuffed and led way. As he was being taken away, Henry was heard shouting “I don’t know why they put ‘In God We Trust’ on the money!”

6Lyndon B. Johnson’s Unexpected Gift

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Throughout the years, the president has received a variety of strange diplomatic gifts. In 1972, Nixon was given two pandas by the Chinese government, Andrew Jackson received a 635-kilogram (1,400 lb) block of cheese from a dairy farmer, and George Bush Sr. was given a Komodo dragon by the Indonesian government. Perhaps the most bizarre gift, however, came in the form of a Chinese chef who was sent to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The book Inside the White House by political journalist Robert Kessler describes how a “Central American dictator” sent the cook, known only as “Mr. Wong,” as a gift to the president. The unusual anecdote comes from Bill Gulley, a White House aide during the 1960s and ’70s. According to his story, Mr. Wong arrived at the White House with a straw hat and a suitcase, unable to speak a word of English. He was taught to cook the president’s favorite meals of tapioca and chili and was given his own bedroom in the White House.

Gulley describes how, on one occasion, Mr. Wong was supposed to go to the president’s ranch for the weekend but held up the president by playing hide-and-seek in the East Room. Despite being in his late twenties, he was “like a child.” One of the housemen, Catalino Minor, recalled that Mr. Wong did very little while at the White House apart from wander around the building. Who knows, perhaps Mr. Wong was acting as a spy for the Chinese government. Either way, it is hard to believe that someone could just arrive at the White House and be allowed to stay there.

5Unarmed Civilian Strolls Into The White House

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One of the more famous instances of intrusion into the White House is also one of the Secret Service’s most embarrassing. A 45-year-old meter reader from Denver named Robert Latta managed to walk into the White House unchecked. It was the day of President Reagan’s second inauguration in January 1985, and Latta had traveled from Colorado to see the event.

Latta had been standing by the White House gates on Pennsylvania Avenue when he decided that he would like to get a closer look at the ceremony. He spotted the Marine Corps band filing in through the gates and just tagged along behind the line. Because the Marine Corps Band has “top secret” security clearance, they did not have to go through metal detectors or any other stringent security checks. The band led Latta into the White House and up a staircase to a hall.

For 14 minutes, Latta was allowed to wander around the halls among guests, staff, and Secret Service agents. Eventually, he was stopped by a member of security who asked him if he had been invited. After calmly replying that he had not, he was apprehended and led away for questioning by the FBI.

After spending a week in a Washington jail, Latta, who had no history of mental illness, called the escapade “an adventure—a real adventure.” After the attempted assassination of Reagan four years earlier, the FBI were understandably embarrassed by the incident.

4Willie Nelson Gets High On The White House Roof

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Photo via Wikimedia

It’s not usually a huge deal for a musician to openly smoke marijuana. In fact, many artists are known for it. However, only one can say that they lit up on the roof of the White House. In 1980, serial toker Willie Nelson was invited to play a private concert for President Jimmy Carter. Nelson and Carter had struck up an unlikely friendship over the years—both of the men grew up in rural communities in the South during the Great Depression, and despite their different career choices, there was a deep mutual respect between the two.

Following the concert, Willie and his family were invited to stay the night in the White House. In his autobiography, the singer describes how he and an unnamed companion hung out on the roof of the White House with “a beer in one hand and a fat Austin torpedo in the other.” According to the singer, nobody from the Secret Service was watching him, but ” . . . if they were, it was with the intention of keeping them out of trouble instead of getting us into it.”

It seems almost certain that security knew what Nelson was doing but, due to his closeness to the President, they decided not to act. When asked about the incident, the president claimed to know nothing about it, saying that he and Willie never talked about his drug use.

In July 2014, hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg claimed that he smoked up during a visit to the White House. However, instead of having an aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue like Willie Nelson, Snoop had to make do with the white ceramic tiles of a White House bathroom.

3Dropping In With A Stolen Helicopter

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Photo credit: Rlandmann/Wikimedia

Most intruders attempt to gain access to the White House from the ground, but one memorable occasion saw someone infiltrate the airspace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In an audacious breach of security in 1974, 20-year-old Robert Preston, a helicopter repairman working for the US Army, stole a helicopter from his base in Maryland and headed to the White House.

In a bizarre joyride that took place at around 2:00 A.M., Preston hovered the helicopter over the south lawn about 150 meters (500 ft) from the West Wing. He then flew the helicopter toward the Washington Monument with two police helicopters hot on his tail. After a few minutes, Preston decided to return to the White House complex, where security forces were now in position to fire on him. The helicopter was riddled with shotgun and machine gun fire. Despite being wounded, Preston managed to land the helicopter on the south lawn and exit through the pilot door. He attempted to flee but was quickly apprehended by guards. As he was led away by authorities, Preston was supposedly “laughing like hell.”

During his court martial, the pilot said that he was upset that he had flunked helicopter pilot school and wanted to prove that he was able to fly a helicopter competently. While he certainly demonstrated capable flying skills, he was sentenced to one year in prison for his actions. Following 9/11, the White House now has a state-of-the-art laser detection device to monitor the surrounding air space, so it’s highly doubtful that anything like this could happen again.

2British Troops Invade The White House And Raid The Dinner Table

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Photo via Wikimedia

Because the US and Britain have been allies for such a long time now, people can be forgiven for forgetting the war between the two nations which lasted from 1812 to 1815. The reasons for the war were seemingly trivial. The US government was frustrated at a lack of trade with France due to the Napoleonic wars, and many Congressmen felt that there were scores to be settled from the War of Independence. It is not considered a particularly bloody war—the Americans lost 2,200 while the British lost 1,600—and in the end, neither side did enough to claim victory.

However, the conflict did produce an important historical event. In 1814, British troops became the only force in history to capture the White House. On August 24, 1814, nearly 4,000 British swept through Washington, D.C. with little resistance and set about destroying everything related to the US government. Both the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress were set ablaze, along with a number of military buildings.

Around 150 troops managed to gain entrance to the White House. The president, James Madison, was not in the White House at the time, but the First Lady, Dolley Madison, had to flee from the advancing army, pausing only to remove a portrait of George Washington from the wall, which she took with her. Upon entering the White House dining room, the British came across a large dinner that had been prepared for 40 guests. The dinner, which was supposed to be for the president and his officials, was more than any soldier could have hoped for. After their resounding victory, the men decided to tuck into the spoils before continuing their orgy of destruction. Following the meal, the soldiers set fire to the White House, which smoldered through the night.

1Boris Yeltsin’s Drunken Escapades

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The 1990s were an important decade for US–Russian relations. The communist Soviet Union had broken up, and by 1991 the Cold War was officially over. This paved the way for regular dialogue between the two countries. In 1995, the president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, made a diplomatic visit to the White House to meet with Bill Clinton. Yeltsin stayed overnight in Blair House, the government guest quarters adjacent to the White House.

In President Clinton’s memoirs, he recalls how Yeltsin was located by Secret Service employees on Pennsylvania Avenue, drunk and apparently without his pants on. It was late at night and Yeltsin was attempting to hail a cab so he could go and grab a pizza after a drinking session. The next night, Yeltsin gave the Secret Service another scare as he was caught scaling the back stairs of Blair House in an attempt to get into the basement. The Secret Service believed that the shadowy figure was an intruder and rushed to Yeltsin, who was, once again, drunk.

Yeltsin admitted in his memoirs that he had a weakness for alcohol, citing that it was the easiest way to eliminate the stress of being president. For many, his drinking was a sign of presidential weakness, with one of his allies stating, “After he’s had a few drinks, Yeltsin would sign anything.”

fact checked by Jamie Frater