Robert De Niro has had to apologize for a joke he made at a fund-raiser attended by Michelle Obama, issuing a statement saying ,"My remarks, although spoken with satirical jest, were not meant to offend or embarrass anyone -- especially the first lady."
Playing off of the sentiment of 2008 that America was not ready for an African American president, De Niro had mentioned the names of the GOP candidates' wives and remarked, "Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?" The White House was not happy and distanced itself from De Niro. President Obama apparently did not want to fuel the fires of racism possibly emanating from a backlash against the joke, which came immediately from Newt Gingrich.
According to Fox News, Gingrich said the joke that truck in "racial terms" was inexusable" and De Niro should be "ashamed of himself."
De Niro is the latest celebrity to commit a political snafu involving a president or a presidential candidate. Since the time that Eddie Cantor campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt, politicians have sought celebrity endorsements for the publicity. As in De Niro's case, the results haven't always been positive.
The most famous incident involving a celebrity at a campaign fundraiser was Marilyn Monroe's appearance at John F. Kennedy's 45th "birthday party" at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Sewn into a body hugging dress, Marilyn was the star attraction at the event, which raised money for the Democratic Party. The movie legend's crooning "Happy birthday, Mr. President" is part of American history. While many reporters and politicians knew that JFK and MM's relationship went well beyond the president listening to her warbling birthday tunes, the mores of the time meant that their affair was not revealed by the press. According to filmmaker Keya Morgan, "The Secret Service had specific instructions not to photograph President Kennedy and Marilyn together because it would have been a national scandal."
By 1972, American mores were looser as was the public behavior of celebrities. Barbara Streisand, the superstar singer and movie actress, created a scandal at a George McGovern fund-raiser when she mimed smoking a marijuana cigarette. Streisand was appearing in a "4 for McGovern" concert with Quincy Jones, Carole King, and James Taylor. As she smoked her fake joint, she pretended to get high while saying people didn't need drugs or alcohol. The incident helped portray McGovern as a radical.
Sometimes, a snafu took place in the White House itself. Eartha Kitt, the African American chanteuse and actress, was blackballed after she criticized the Vietnam War while attending a luncheon at the White House given by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. The subject of the lunch was to draw awareness of the problem of juvenile delinquency. Kitt attributed the misbehavior of kids to the fact that "our involvement in Vietnam is not honorable. We have no business being there, and they want to know why we're there." She had trouble finding employment after the incident.