The White House on Friday released a small list of visitors to the White House since President Barack Obama took office in January, including lobbyists, business executives, activists and celebrities.
No previous administration has released such a list, though the information out so far is incomplete. Only about 110 names —and 481 visits —out of the hundreds of thousands who have visited the Obama White House were made public. Like the Bush administration before it, Obama is arguing that any release is voluntary, not required by law, despite two federal court rulings to the contrary.
Under the Obama White House's policy, most names of visitors from Inauguration Day in January through the end of September will never be released. The White House says it plans to release most of the names of visitors from October on, and that release is due near the end of the year. There are limitations there as well, including potential Supreme Court nominees, personal guests of the First Family, and certain security officials.
The names released Friday include business leaders and lobbyists with a lot to gain or lose from Obama policies. They include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (whose foundation is pushing for changes in teacher pay), former AIG chairman Maurice Greenberg, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Chevron CEO David O'Reilly, Citigroup's Vikram Pandit, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, JP Morgan's James Dimon, Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis, John Stumpf of Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley's John Mack, State Street bank's Ron Logue, BNY Mellon's Robert Kelly, labor leader Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (22 visits), American Bankers Association CEO Ed Yingling, community bankers president Camden Fine, and lobbyists Heather and Anthony Podesta, whose brother John Podesta led Obama's transition team.
Besides Gates, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt are also on the list. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC. One of NBC's parents is GE.)
Advocates and nonprofit leaders include National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy, and Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is interested in health policy.
Democratic donor and businessman George Soros visited with White House aides twice.
Political figures include former Sen. Thomas Daschle, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, former Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. Al Franken, former Vice President Al Gore, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.
Celebrities at the White House include Oprah Winfrey, actors Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Denzel Washington, and tennis star Serena Williams. Journalists include Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in economics.
Religious and civil rights figures Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson also visited. (Correction: An earlier version of this article listed conservative religious leader Gary Bauer among the visitors, but the middle initials don't match. The famous Bauer's middle initial is L., but the visitor's initial is W.)
Not that Bill Ayers
The White House warns that many names that may appear familiar — and controversial — do not in fact refer to the most famous people to carry those names. Jeremiah Wright is on the list, but it's not the president's former pastor. This Michael Jordan is not the basketball player. This Michael Moore is not a filmmaker. The William Ayers who took a group tour of the White House isn't the former radical from Chicago who figured so prominently in the 2008 campaign. And the Angela Davis on the list has a different middle initial than the activist and former fugitive.
The White House could have avoided some of that sort of confusion by providing more information on the visitors, such as an employer name and the city they hail from. For example, is the Shawn Carter who attended a poetry reading the same one who goes by Jay-Z and had campaigned for Obama?
"This unprecedented level of transparency can sometimes be confusing rather than providing clear information," a White House special counsel, Norm Eisen, wrote on the White House blog.
If you spot a name on the list that bears investigating, please drop us a note.
Despite the accompanying White House claim of "transparency like you've never seen before," the Obama White House continues to take the same legal position as the Bush White House, arguing that the records are not public records subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Only limited "voluntary releases" are being made to settle a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group, though a federal judge has twice ruled that all the visitor logs are public.
Yet there are severe limitations to the transparency:
Most of the visitors from Inauguration Day to September will never be released by the White House under this voluntary disclosure — unless the public can guess their names. The White House policy doesn't allow members of the public or press to ask for "everyone who visited health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle," or everyone who visited on May 4, or everyone from the American Medical Association. Only individual names can be checked.
The list released at 4:30 p.m. Friday includes just about 110 names with 481 visits. Those names were among those requested by members of the public so far, for visits during the period from Inauguration Day through July. (That's why we know of visits by the wrong Bill Ayers, the wrong Angela Davis, etc., but we don't know of visits by countless unnamed lobbyists.) Members of the public who used the White House online form to check names did not receive a personal reply indicating whether or not the request was received, or whether the name appeared on the list, so the system provides no feedback. Does the absence of Bill Clinton's name on the list mean that he has not been to the White House, or that the request wasn't received by the White House online system?
A request for the complete records of all visitors from the first months of the administration, filed by msnbc.com, was rejected by the White House, and an appeal is pending. The news organization requested the names of all visitors to the Obama White House beginning with Inauguration Day. Msnbc.com has filed an administrative appeal with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service.