If Presidents and First Ladies seem to exclusively spend the Christmas holiday with members of their family, most of those in the last sixty years have celebrated New Year’s Eve with their friends, and almost always away from the White House.
Of course, until eighty years ago, they rarely left Washington at this time of the year, to avoid irritating or infuriating the diplomatic corps, army and navy officers, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the House, the Senate and the general public all of whom had come to expect to meet them at the annual New Year’s Day Reception, a tradition in place since being initiated by first President George Washington
Then, in 1931, Herbert Hoover was conveniently out of town over the hump day between two years and there was no New Year’s Day Reception – and there was no widespread protest (the Great Depression was apparently enough to be angry about).
Repeatedly remaining out of Washington over the New Year’s Day holiday seemed to be the one certain method for dispelling the hope which occasionally arose, time to time, that the New Year’s Day Reception would be revived.
In the 1950s, New Year’s Eve meant Augusta, Georgia for the Eisenhowers.
Dwight D. Eisenhower made his first visit there as the retired Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, in 1948, three years after the end of World War II as a guest of club and Masters Tournament co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts.
When he became President in 1953, a number of his friends and fellow members there, joined forces to build him and the First Lady a special “Mamie’s Cabin,” one of a total of ten white-clapboard cabins on the grounds of the Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia.
As President, he and his wife spent several weeks there each winter or early spring, a total of twenty-nine visits during his presidency.
Built on the number ten tee, it has a wide, broad porch with rocking chairs and a view of a bright green putting green.
Standing three stories, with two bedrooms on the top two floors, a basement used for Secret Service agents and a large dining room and living room, where there was always a bridge table up for cards or a game of Scrabble.
Spending New Year’s Eve and Day there with his friends was a desperately needed break for the older yet overworked President. “Any person enjoys his or her friends; a president needs them, perhaps more intensely at times than anything else,” he remarked after his 1957-1858 stay, where the two photos below show the Eisenhowers ringing in New Year’s Day.
Although Lyndon B. Johnson conceded to his wife’s wishes that they spend the last Christmas during his presidency at the White House, he insisted that they return to their LBJ Ranch in Texas for New Year’s Eve, 1968.
Having become overwhelmed with the Vietnam War nearly a year before, in January of 1968, he had removed his name from the Democratic primary race. One after the other there then came national crises: the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, urban riots, anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention, failed peace negotiations with the Communist North Vietnamese.
Even though he would be retiring to the ranch less than three weeks after New Year’s Day, his expression on welcoming in the new year seemed numbed and saddened. He would only live four years, dying just before President Nixon’s second inauguration.
The Nixons spent New Year’s Eve in a variety of way.
On their first such holiday while White House incumbents, the close family returned to their new home in San Clemente, California. On the first day of the new decade of the 70s, the President signed the National Environmental Policy Act which would set in motion the most substantive environmental protection and renewal in history.
Four years later, was a radically different type of New Year’s Day for Nixon. Both of the President’s daughters and their husbands were in Europe, and First Lady Pat Nixon had flown home to California, to participate in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade. Although it was just two months after his overwhelming re-election victory, President Nixon spent New Year’s Eve 1972 entirely alone, sequestering himself with work at Camp David.
Perhaps the happiest of those spent during his presidency was their third, where the family enjoyed the last day of 1971 and the first day of 1972 together at their “Winter White House” in Key Biscayne, Florida, joined by family intimate Bebe Rebozo.
Rebozo was a Cuban-American banker and real estate developer who had introduced the Nixons to the property several years earlier and owned a home within the compound where theirs was also built.
Even before Ronald Reagan had been elected President in 1980, he and his wife had honored their long-standing tradition of making New Year’s Eve the one annual holiday reserved for their close coterie of friends, many of whom had been loyal financial supporters of his political campaigns since his first run as California Governor.
Most of the husbands were self-made millionaires and their wives were all close friends, the group all within the same generation and residents of southern California.
Perhaps the most prominent of all, outside of Reagan, was the former U.S. Ambassador to England and publisher Walter Annenberg. The annual New Year’s Eve gathering was always held at their Rancho Mirage, California estate, near Palm Springs, (now a restored museum-conference center), known as “Sunnylands.”
Except for one year, the Reagans attended for 18 years, starting in 1973.
For the President, while he still dressed in black tie for the evening dinner dance held as each new year of the 80s was welcomed, the greater gift was being able to simply relax and rest in the sun.
Last year, the former First Lady recalled her memories of the event for Bob Colacello of Vanity Fair: “Ronnie and I were never big New Year’s Eve people. But we loved the New Year’s Eves at Sunnylands. They were wonderful parties. People came from all over: London, Paris, New York—everywhere.”
Before and after he was elected President in 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham had been attending the annual “Renaissance Weekend”at Hilton Head, South Carolina.
The gathering of leaders in science, technology, industry, diplomacy, politics, arts, and business is an informal weekend of panel discussions and networking which occurs over the New Year’s holiday and extend over the closest weekend. In many ways, the participation of President-Elect Clinton, following his 1992 election, and his continuing attendance gave the gathering wider global exposure. Both of the Clintons continued their support of the weekend organization throughout and beyond their White House years.
Over the seventh of their eight New Year’s Eve celebrations as President and First Lady, however, the Clintons realized they would be in their visible positions at a time of global interest as not merely a century but a millennium turned, from the end of the second to the third 1000-year period. To mark it, they hosted one of the most historic parties ever held in the White House. It began with a dinner for Americans of recognition, including Italian actress Sophie Loren whose family had been saved by Americans during World War II. There followed a public celebration of the midnight moment, at the Lincoln Memorial.
After the Lincoln Memorial ceremonies, they returned to the White House to host a party that rollicked from one century into the next, complete with an early breakfast in the wee hours and dancing in tented areas of the East Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and the west Rose Garden. (The author himself was among those in attendance).
- Christmas at the White House: First Families at Home for the Holiday, Part 4 (carlanthonyonline.com)