Like much of America, the White House celebrates Christmas with glittering decorations, festive parties and hopeful messages. Yet despite the merriments, Christmas can be a stressful time for presidents. Political intrigue and a dangerous world never take a holiday. That’s why presidents have tended to greet the season with great joy, but also with contemplation and even sadness.
Some presidents faced challenges from within. Richard Nixon owned a colorful smoking jacket he donned for Christmas festivities, but the season did little to mute his raging insecurities. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Last of the President’s Men,” during Nixon’s first Christmas Eve as president he walked through the White House and was depressed by the abundance of John F. Kennedy pictures displayed. Nixon demanded that they all come down: “Down from the walls and off the desks. Jesus Christ!” Nixon is quoted as saying. “If we’ve got this kind of infestation imagine what [Secretary of State] Bill Rogers has in the State Department.”
Nixon was a unique character. But even the normally upbeat Gerald Ford became somewhat touchy at Christmas. Ford was mocked in the media as a klutz, even though he was an excellent athlete. (A “Saturday Night Live” sketch in December 1975 had Chevy Chase as Ford knocking over the White House Christmas tree.)
According to Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen, however, the only time he saw the president upset about his media treatment was on a Christmas break in Vail, Colo. As recounted in Kenneth T. Walsh’s 2005 book, “From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of Presidents and their Retreats,” Mr. Nessen heard the president “ruefully” say: “You know, those reporters get most of their exercise on the bar stool.”
Sometimes, the holiday spirit is displaced by unexpected events. One disastrous Christmas took place early in Bill Clinton’s presidency. On Dec. 20, 1993, the American Spectator released its famous article “His Cheatin’ Heart,” which told of Mr. Clinton’s shenanigans with women in Arkansas and started the chain of events that led to the Clinton impeachment and Senate trial.
In his 1996 book “Boy Clinton: The Political Biography,” American Spectator editor Bob Tyrrell claimed the article made Mrs. Clinton scream so violently that she “alarmed the White House staff and sent the president scrambling down the elevator from the family quarters in a state of dreadful agitation.”
Our current president has had his own Christmas challenges. Shortly before the 2011 holiday, Mr. Obama waited in the White House to see if the administration and Congress could agree on another must-pass spending bill. New York Times reporter Mark Landler wrote that Air Force One was “sitting on the tarmac while the White House press corps and the staff wondered whether Mr. Obama would end up padding around the residence alone on Christmas morning.” He eventually got to Hawaii in time for the holiday.
Presumably, every president wants to have a restful holiday. Dwight Eisenhower, who listed his three favorite Christmas songs as “Silent Night,” “Adeste Fideles” and “The First Noel,” saw Christmas as a time to watch movies with family and friends. Such moments satisfy the universal human needs for rest, reflection, family and, when the time is right, prayer—even if, in the case of presidents, duty calls every day of the year.