One Hand Clapping
Leon Fleisher isn't the first rude White House guest.
Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By JOE QUEENAN
Some weeks ago the esteemed pianist Leon Fleisher wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post discussing the moral qualms that assailed him when he was honored at the Kennedy Center. Fleisher, a onetime child prodigy who lost the use of his right hand at age 37 and did not perform the two-handed repertory again for three decades, had no problems accepting the Kennedy Center Honors per se. But he was sickened by the idea of attending a White House reception on the afternoon of the event. His presence, he feared, might lend legitimacy to an administration guilty of a "systematic shredding of our nation's Constitution."
Still, not wishing to upstage or embarrass co-honorees Diana Ross and Steve Martin, Fleisher finally decided to attend the reception wearing a peace medallion and purple ribbon, thereby registering his revulsion for President Bush, but doing so in tasteful fashion.
Fleisher, by the looks of it, is unaware that many top-flight classical musicians have found themselves in similar situations over the years. Some followed in Fleisher's steps and showed up at the White House wearing regalia protesting this or that policy: Aaron Copland once wore black pajamas to protest the war in Vietnam, while Rudolf Serkin donned a Zorro costume in a quixotic protest against American support for Franco's regime in Spain. But most musicians, rather than visiting the White House and then wringing their hands about it in the Post, simply refused the invitation outright.
Oddly enough, outrage at the systematic shredding of the Constitution has rarely been the reason cited for staying home. In 1954, when Arturo Toscanini rebuffed an invitation to dine with Dwight D. Eisenhower, many thought he did so out of pique, mortified that a collection of Ike's favorite pieces of classical music had outsold Toscanini's latest release, Donizetti for Young Lovers. But this was not the case. The maestro turned down the invitation because he was fed up with the U.S. tax structure.
"Even in the worst days of Il Duce," Toscanini fumed to the old Washington Evening Star, "taxes on capital gains never exceeded 39 percent. To go out night after night, squeezing every ounce of beauty out of the most beloved classics in the Western canon for a bunch of ingrates, and then having to fork over 90 percent of my hard-earned income, is bad enough. But having to pay an even more outrageous tax when I prune my portfolio is appalling! If I was smart enough to buy Kodak at 6 1/4, why should I get hosed when I unload it at 105?"
Outrage at a confiscatory tax structure was also the casus belli when Eugene Ormandy, Antal Doráti, and the great Serge Koussevitzky turned down invitations to dine at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Vladimir Horowitz, by contrast, gave the White House the thumbs-down in 1949 because of anger at the Security & Exchange Commission's uptick rule. This rule, designed to thwart short sellers, required market makers to sell stocks at a price at least fractionally higher than that of the last sale. Horowitz, who got caught in a short squeeze involving IBM, never forgave Harry Truman for the disaster.
"The philosophical linchpin of any credible securities market is giving the investor the opportunity to purchase a stock at a price that reflects its actual worth," the pianist ranted to the New York Times. "By maintaining this antiquated uptick rule, a sop to the longs, the SEC has created a fanciful market that bears no relationship to reality. Not only will I never come dine at the White House, I will go out of my way to ridicule the president's crummy piano playing at every opportunity. As for his daughter, the aspiring chantoozey, I've heard backfiring trucks that sound better!"
Popular mythology holds that White House invitations have mostly been spurned because of lofty moral considerations, usually involving opposition to a war. But this is not true. Mario Lanza sent back his invitation to a White House Easter Egg Hunt in 1957 because of dissatisfaction with the winner-take-all strictures that govern the Electoral College.
"The policy of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to one candidate may work well from a procedural point of view," the populist singer subsequently explained. "But by disenfranchising a large and sometimes vocal minority, the rule worsens the problem it is intended to solve. So no, Mr. Ike: No canapés, please, for the Singing Truck Driver!"
The list of classical performers who have thumbed their noses at presidents goes on and on. Robert Merrill said ixnay to Richard Nixon in 1971 in retaliation for the administration's onerous wage and price controls. Glenn Gould gave Gerald Ford the thumbs-down because of opposition to his Whip Inflation Now policies. And it was the line-item veto that persuaded Leonard Bernstein that he could not break bread with Lyndon Johnson.
"The war in Vietnam I could tolerate," Bernstein later told Le Monde. "The whole guns-and-butter thing I could hold my nose at. But when Johnson refused to give in on the line-item veto, I didn't want anything to do with the guy. I'd rather die a thousand deaths than show up at the White House for dinner knowing that the president was screwing the whole country with the line-item veto. I'd never be able to show my face on Martha's Vineyard!"
Finally, there is the curious case of Pablo Casals, who was so enraged at Jimmy Carter's draconian energy policies that he left these shores for good.
"It's hard enough to play the cello at my age when the weather's nice," he explained to the New Yorker in 1979. "But the last time I was over at the White House, Carter was going around in his parka and electric mittens, turning all the thermometers down to 62. Chronic arthritis may be not be the most principled reason for turning down an invitation to dine with the president, but in this case, it will have to do!"
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.