Here’s how big Michael Jackson is: Even the White House staff, usually so blasé about rubbing shoulders with world leaders and other, distinguished visitors, fell over itself when Himself came to visit. Phones went unanswered as entire offices emptied out to see Michael doing a South Lawn star turn with President Reagan in behalf of a new campaign against teenage drunk driving.
White House staffers hadn’t whooped it up with such enthusiasm since the hostages came home from Iran. When Jackson, flanked by the President and First Lady, waved his rhinestone-gloved hand, guards and ushers could be seen leaning out of the White House windows, screaming and cheering. The din inside the White House gates all but drowned out the chants of “We want Michael!” from the hundreds of kids waiting at the perimeter, and the applause from the Ellipse beyond, where crowds enjoyed the ceremony over a massive sound system. “Well, isn’t this a thriller,” the President said. “We haven’t seen this many people since we left China.” Michael smiled. In all, he spoke 13 words. The crowds cheered again when Reagan asked Jackson to include D.C. on his concert tour—a remark that alone may enable Reagan to carry Democratic Washington in November.
If Jackson thought that being on the White House grounds was insurance against fan hysteria, he was sharply surprised. Despite Chief of Staff James Baker’s decree that no one could bring guests, many did—including Chief of Staff James Baker (his 6-year-old daughter, Mary Bonner). As Jackson and Reagan walked to the Oval Office, one middle-aged White House office worker standing across from the Rose Garden shrieked, “I saw his foot!”
A special metal detector was set up in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden to check Jackson and his party of eight, who were then given a tour of the White House. Jackson was particularly taken with a portrait of Andrew Jackson wearing a jacket curiously similar to Michael’s blue-sequined military-style outfit. In the East Room, Jackson played a few bars on the piano.
Things turned strange, however, when he arrived at the Diplomatic Reception Room where he was to meet with Reagan. He had been told only that there would be a few children of staff members who wanted to see him. In fact, horror of horrors, there were some 75 adults. Michael hastily beat it for the men’s room off the Presidential Library. He wouldn’t come out. An advance man tried to coax him out, promising that there really would be children to meet him. Another advance person, fearful that Nancy—who was due to arrive any minute—would see that there was a crisis in the works, immediately ordered the senior staff and Cabinet members out of the reception room so that the grownups and their children could meet the superstar in small groups.
Pleased with that compromise, Michael agreed to come out of the lavatory. Awaiting him were several of the government’s highest ranking personages and their children. Transportation Secretary Liddy Dole thrust out a copy of the Thriller album for him to sign.
For the final event, Reagan led Jackson into the Roosevelt Room to meet more aides and their families, who swooned as Michael shook their hands and told them how proud he was to be there. How must he really have felt about his White House reception? Ashe was being driven away toward the Southwest Gate, the White House pass-holders besieged his car. Sizing up the visit, an aide close to the President said: “It’s really kind of embarrassing the way everybody’s acting.”