Aug. 3, 2012 at 1:52 PM ET
President Barack Obama is celebrating his 51st birthday (Aug. 4) in his hometown of Chicago this year, with a big bash that amounts to a campaign event.
Invites to the party are through a sweepstakes, and the campaign asks for a donation with every entry. According to the invitation, it will be an event that will be “so cool you're almost jealous of yourself.”
According to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, a president’s birthday is a chance to be with family and staff, especially in an election year. "Anything President Obama does that seems too self-congratulatory can get spun," he said. "If there’s ever a year he’s not gonna showboat, it would be this one.”
When George W. Bush was president, he kept his birthdays on the small side too, celebrating his 62nd aboard Air Force One in 2008 en route to Japan. First lady Laura Bush was with him, along with a few White House staff members. The party was in the airplane's conference room and included just a coconut cake and a gift of birthday cards held in a small wooden box with Bush’s initials on it.
It was a markedly more subdued affair than the party that took place during Harry Truman’s time in the White House. On his birthday in 1947, his supporters gifted him with a bowling alley, built right into the Situation Room. Nor does it compare to John F. Kennedy, who held a bash in Madison Square Garden that included an infamous performance by Marilyn Monroe.
Brinkley said that JFK's birthday party, which featured Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” while wearing a dress so tight she had been sewn into it, rates as the historical exception, not the rule. “It’s the one that lives in infamy,” he told TODAY.com.
It’s good to know that a bar has been set, even if it was in 1962. Looks like President Obama has some catching up to do.
Last year, Obama celebrated his birthday with donors and had a barbecue at the White House. Along with friends and family, there were also four kinds of pie -- apple, peach, huckleberry and cherry -- in honor of the pie-obsessed president. Not exactly a birthday to remember.
Doug Wead, a presidential historian who was special assistant to president George H. W. Bush, said that a commander-in-chief's birthday is a different sort of experience than the regular guy's, mostly because presidents receive gifts year-round. "Every day is a birthday," Wead told TODAY.com. "They're getting gifts constantly."
According to Wead, almost everyone he escorted into the Oval Office during his time there, whether the guest was on serious business or not, would bring a gift. “It would be a special kind of fishing pole they knew of, or an obscure baseball card that’s worth a fortune," he said. "One brought in a gigantic oil painting that we had to set up in the Oval Office for the president to look at, and would go in the Presidential Library after he left.” They are always bringing something, he said, like handwritten poems by Longfellow or something similarly precious.
But once their time in office is up, presidents can finally let loose: Bill Clinton, for example, was serenaded by Lady Gaga last year for his 65th birthday. Mead said that it is in the post-White House years that presidents “begin to find a life again.”
George H. W. Bush certainly did. After leaving office, he began jumping out of planes for his birthday. The latest jump was in 2009 for his 85th birthday, and he has said he’ll go again on his 90th. After a jump he said, “Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life.”
Perhaps we should take a page from Bush's book and suggest skydiving for Obama’s 51st birthday. After all, according to the invitation, airfare is included....
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