White House statement on Robin Williams: Did Obama write it personally?

Actually, a speechwriter did, but President Obama approved it personally. When does a celebrity earn a message of presidential condolence? The record is murky.

Reed Saxon/AP/File
This 2007 photo shows actor and comedian Robin Williams posing to promote his film, 'License To Wed' in Santa Monica, Calif. Williams, whose free-form comedy and adept impressions dazzled audiences for decades, has died in an apparent suicide.

Monday night, when word broke that actor-comedian Robin Williams had passed away, social media lit up. Pretty much any other news – Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine, Ferguson, Mo. – was eclipsed by the terribly sad news of his apparent suicide.

Soon, the White House put out a presidential statement on Mr. Williams – crystallizing one of those Zeitgeist moments when folks can put aside partisan differences and unite in appreciation of a cultural icon.

“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between,” the statement read.

“But he was one of a kind.  He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”

Did President Obama really write that? Of course not. His chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, composed those words, but “they were approved by the president himself,” Jeff Zeleny of ABC News reported. That suggests Mr. Obama may not personally approve all statements on famous deaths, giving the eulogy for Williams an extra something.

Which leads to the next question: When does the White House – any White House, really – decide when to memorialize the passing of a prominent person with a presidential statement? Over the years, the Obama White House has honored plenty of departed historical figures, mostly without controversy. But when it comes to celebrities, the record is murkier.

“Earning a presidential message of condolence is a pretty rare honor for an entertainer,” writes Margaret Hartmann at NYMag.com. “The president regularly issues tributes to world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, as well as notable Americans such as Neil Armstrong and Steve Jobs upon their death, but his remarks about deceased celebrities aren't as consistent.”

Lena Horne, Ray Bradbury, and Andy Griffith got statements. But Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston didn’t. Perhaps it was because of personal behaviors by the pop stars that were less than admirable – namely, substance abuse and, with Jackson, allegations of child molestation. Williams, too, had his struggles with drugs and alcohol, addictions he freely admitted and fought till the end. But no one is questioning the White House’s decision to put out a statement.

In 2009, the lack of formal White House comment on Jackson’s death raised eyebrows. Instead, then-press secretary Robert Gibbs shared Obama’s impressions of the King of Pop at the daily briefing.

“I talked to him about it this morning,” Mr. Gibbs said. “Obviously, Michael Jackson was a spectacular performer and a music icon. I think everybody remembers hearing the songs, watching him moonwalk on television during Motown’s 25th anniversary.”

Gibbs also noted “aspects of Jackson’s life that were sad and tragic.” Still, if given a chance to do it over, the White House might have, upon reflection, put out a statement on his death. But for Williams, there was no need to qualify the accolades pouring in from around the world, including the president of the United States.

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