Whether it’s foreign dignitaries, rock stars, military heroes, or ordinary people who did extraordinary things, you know you’ve made it when you’re invited for a visit to the White House. From the time of the Founding Fathers, a visit to the White House—particularly one that includes an audience with the president—has been a special honor that guarantees you a place in the history books.
Some people use their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to pitch their pet cause, others to entertain the most powerful person on Earth, and others still are just in it for the photo op. Either way, those who have passed through the gates and onto the White House grounds on a special invitation are instantly in a class by themselves.
Read on to find out about 50 famous visits to the White House.
You might assume that one of history's most famous escaped slaves would be fond of a president nicknamed the Great Emancipator. Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, however, was an early critic of Abraham Lincoln—until, that is, Lincoln penned his famous Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass visited the White House in 1863 and 1864, first to argue for equal pay for black Union troops and a year later upon the request of the president himself.
Abraham Lincoln was one of America's tallest presidents, but in 1863, he hosted the wedding reception of one of the country's tiniest celebrity couples. P.T. Barnum was history's greatest showman and promoter, and it was Barnum who organized the wedding of 3-foot-tall Charles Stratton, better known by his stage name General Tom Thumb, and his 32-inch bride Lavinia Warren. The event drew massive publicity and was topped off with a White House reception hosted by the 16th president of the United States.
Few White House visits have ever stirred more controversy than that of civil rights pioneer Booker T. Washington, who accepted Teddy Roosevelt's invitation to the presidential mansion in 1901. Other African-Americans had visited the White House before Washington, but none had ever sat down and eaten dinner with the president. This was the dawn of the Jim Crow era when it was forbidden for whites and blacks to dine together because it implied social equality. The affair sparked outrage in the South and led to a barrage of inflammatory press cartoons and articles, which shifted the national discussion on race.
The meeting between Hawaii's King David Kalākaua and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874 signaled the beginning of one of the White House's most time-honored traditions—it was the first state dinner. Ever since Grant's meeting with the island king, the state dinner has been an ultra-fancy way for presidents to honor important heads of state when they visit the White House.
Enshrined in history as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the famed Polish scientist Marie Curie visited the United States twice, both times to receive radium. On her second visit in 1929, President Herbert Hoover invited her to the White House, but the trip was overshadowed by much larger and more dire global events. Two days earlier, history's worst financial crash obliterated the stock market, which rang the opening bell of the Great Depression.
In 1941, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy had conquered most of Europe while their Japanese allies were conducting their own imperialistic campaign of terror in the East, which included a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. An angry and anxious American population was soothed when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill braved a Nazi U-boat-infested Atlantic Ocean to meet with FDR in the White House. It was there that Roosevelt and the White House staff witnessed firsthand Churchill's famous drinking habits and legendary eccentricities, which included walking around naked in his room while smoking a cigar and drinking sherry.
During World War II, hero general and French Resistance leader Charles de Gaulle missed a chance to meet with Franklin Roosevelt because of simmering tensions between the two men. By August 1945, however, the war was won, celebrations filled the streets in both countries, and Harry Truman sat in the Oval Office. That year, the plain-spoken, modest Missourian and the grandiose general who by then was the president of France, made up for lost opportunities when they met in the White House.
President Eisenhower and pioneering author, educator, and advocate for the disabled Helen Keller were both admirers of each other. When they finally got to meet at the White House in 1953, they didn't shake hands. Instead, Keller touched the unsuspecting president's face to “see“ him while her assistant “wrote“ Ike's words in sign language in the palm of Keller's hand.
In 1959, the Cold War was raging full force. That year, there was a brief—very brief—thaw when Dwight Eisenhower honored Nikita Khrushchev with a state dinner. Eisenhower was scheduled to visit Moscow the following year, but that trip was called off when the U-2 spy incident moved the two superpowers ever closer to a state of war.
JFK was one of the most glamorous presidents in history, and in 1961, he hosted the power couple that embodied the word. By that time, movie star Grace Kelly was Princess Grace of Monaco, and that year, JFK welcomed her and her royal husband Prince Rainier to the White House.
In 1962, entertainers Richard Adler, Carol Burnett, and Danny Kaye joined “The Wizard of Oz" star Judy Garland for an invitation to the White House from John F. Kennedy. It has long been rumored that JFK sometimes called the star to ask her to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“ to him over the phone.
Few starlets mingled more thoroughly—and occasionally scandalously—with both the Hollywood and Washington elite than Joan Crawford. The actress, who had been close to John F. Kennedy's father Joseph years before, was received by JFK in the White House in 1963. The duo became so close that Crawford was in Dallas on the day Kennedy was assassinated later that year.
In 1970, the King of rock 'n' roll and the president of the United States were at the top of their respective careers. That year, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon met in the White House, an unlikely moment immortalized by a White House photographer. The picture he snapped remains the most requested photograph in all the U.S. National Archives.
By 1972, much of black America was repulsed by Richard Nixon's politics and policies. Among the most famous African-Americans in the world, however, was a conservative and a public supporter of the president. That year, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, alienated legions of his fans when he met with and endorsed President Nixon in the White House.
Sammy Davis Jr. was another unlikely friend of Richard Nixon, who received the legendary Rat Pack star in the White House in 1972. Davis became the first African-American ever to spend the night at the presidential mansion when Nixon invited him to sleep over. Like James Brown, Davis turned off many of his fans and was booed at a concert shortly after he slept at the White House.
In 1969, lifelong pianist President Richard Nixon presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to big band icon Duke Ellington in the East Room of the White House—but he didn't stop there. The president played “Happy Birthday" for his guest—Nixon's first time playing the piano in the White House—while the crowd sang along.
A year after Richard Nixon played “Happy Birthday" for Duke Ellington, he met with a completely different kind of pianist who defined a genre. Blues legend Ray Charles spoke with Nixon in the Oval Office, where the two discussed, among other things, their common love for their common instrument.
Edson Arantes Nascimento is still the most famous, celebrated and greatest soccer player in history—but the world knows him as “Pele." In 1975, the legendary footballer met President Gerald Ford who, to Pele's surprise and amusement, began juggling a soccer ball on the White House lawn.
Pop art icon Andy Warhol was much more than a writer, producer, and famed artist. He was also a man with rare connections to Iranian Royalty. In 1975, those connections earned him an invitation to a White House banquet in honor of the Shah of Iran.
Track and field legend Jesse Owens was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom when he met Gerald Ford in the White House in 1976. In 1979, the Olympian and four-time gold medalist returned to the White House to meet President Carter, who honored him with a different award.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter played host to a Carter by another name. June Carter Cash, not to mention her husband Johnny, the Man in Black himself, visited the White House that year along with their son. The iconic country duo was honored for their participation in HIRE, a Carter jobs program.
When he was received by President Jimmy Carter in the White House in 1979, Pope John Paul II became the first pope history to meet with a sitting president at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Papal visits are now common practice. Both succeeding popes have kept the tradition alive.
It is now customary for professional sports teams to visit the White House after winning a championship, but it wasn't always that way. In 1980, Jimmy Carter became the first president to welcome an NFL Super Bowl-winning team to the presidential mansion. It was the Pittsburgh Steelers, and since the Pirates won the World Series the year before, the city's baseball team tagged along, too.
In 1979, conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited the White House and met with Democratic President Jimmy Carter. The tension between the two political opposites was clear. When she returned two years later in 1981, however, feelings were decidedly warmer between Thatcher and the president. That's because by that time the president was Ronald Reagan, widely considered to be her political soul mate.
Few human beings in history have ever been more famous and more instantly recognizable around the world than the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. In 1984, at the height of his global celebrity, Jackson was received by President Ronald Reagan, who reportedly peppered his welcome address to the singer with more than a few references to Jackson's music including, “Well, isn't this a thriller?“
Also in 1984, President Reagan welcomed—and walked arm-in-arm with—the reform-minded Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang to the White House. Zhao was open-minded and wildly popular among those who wanted change in his country. China has worked to erase Zhao's name and contributions from the communist country's memory ever since he was stripped of his titles and placed under house arrest for siding with student protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.
Many celebrities go to the White House to visit presidents, but sometimes, the first lady is the main attraction. This was the case in 1983, when rough-and-tumble, no-nonsense, tough guy “A-Team“ actor Mr. T paid a visit to his most unlikely friend, the stylish and cheerful Nancy Reagan, who actually sat on the hulking “Rocky III" actor's lap. Their peculiar friendship began when Mr. T joined the first lady's famous “just say no" anti-drug campaign—and the relationship lasted until her death. Mr. T was one of the notable invited guests at her funeral in 2016.
In December 1987, one of the most consequential White House visits in history took place when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev visited Washington D.C. and met with President Ronald Reagan in the White House. It was the first visit of a Soviet leader to the United States since 1973. Almost exactly four years later to the day, the hammer and sickle flag would be lowered over the Kremlin as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Princess Diana is the most famous and beloved princess in the modern era, and in 1985, her charm was on full display in Washington, D.C. The princess and her husband, Prince Charles, danced and dined throughout a gala held in their honor during Diana's first trip to the United States. The usually composed President Reagan was so clearly enamored with the princess that he botched her name twice during his address.
When the AIDS epidemic swept the country and the world during Ronald Reagan's presidency, his administration ignored the epidemic publicly, joked about it privately, and cozied up to religious fundamentalists who preached that it was God's just wrath on homosexuals. In 1982, however, just one year after the first cases were discovered, Reagan had an unlikely meeting in the Oval Office with Elton John, who would go onto become one of the world's most prominent AIDS activists.
George H.W. Bush was Ronald Reagan's vice president when he informed Massachusetts teacher Christa McAuliffe in 1985 that she was selected out of 11,000 applicants to become the first private citizen to go into space. She returned from the White House as a hero to her students, but the White House meeting sealed her fate. The doomed shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986 killing all on board.
Nelson Mandela was known worldwide as a civil rights leader in apartheid South Africa. Before he became president of the newly liberated country, however, the civil rights hero met with President George Bush for a joint statement on the White House lawn.
Few women have broken thicker glass ceilings than Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to become a leader of a Muslim country in modern history. She served two terms as the prime minister of Pakistan and was assassinated in 2007. In 1989, she was honored with a state dinner by President George H.W. Bush.
Johnny Carson brought laughter into American living rooms for generations, and in 1989, he was awarded for his comedic styling with the country's highest civilian honor. George H.W. Bush presented Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony that was surprisingly solemn, considering the guest of honor.
In modern history, few societies have had a more bitterly contentious relationship than Israel and the Palestinians. For a brief moment in 1993, however, it seemed like peace in the Middle East might actually be within reach. In September of that year, after months of secret peace talks, Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands next to President Bill Clinton after signing the Oslo Peace Accords.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal when the two met at the White House. A survivor of the Holocaust, Wiesenthal dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals and founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is tasked with fighting bigotry.
Some foreign dignitaries are more dignified than others, and in 1994, Boris Yeltsin set the bar pretty low when he visited Bill Clinton at the White House. The Russian president reportedly got so drunk that he tried to flee the premises in search of a pizza before being stopped by baffled Secret Service agents. The very next night, Yeltsin did the exact same thing, only this time he put himself in serious danger as Secret Service agents at first mistook him for a hostile intruder.
In an effort to defuse growing donations-for-access accusations, President Bill Clinton released a list of people he'd invited to sleep over at the White House. Among the celebrity names on the list was that of famed Hollywood director—not to mention Clinton financial contributor—Steven Spielberg.
Thirty-five years after the Apollo 11 crew defied the boundaries of human exploration by walking on the moon, George W. Bush welcomed the remaining members of the mission to the White House. It was not the first time Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were honored at the presidential mansion, and it wouldn't be the last.
Rockstar U2 frontman Bono made no bones about publicly advertising his many disagreements with the policies of the George W. Bush administration. In 2005, however, the pair met for a full hour and 40 minutes, discussing the many topics that stirred both of their passions, including global poverty, AIDS, and debt relief.
It's hard to imagine that anyone can boast more White House visits than Billy Graham, America's most famous and influential Christian preacher. President George W. Bush met with Graham at the White House, but then again, so did all 10 presidents before him starting with Harry Truman and both presidents who followed him until Graham died in 2018. For roughly 70 years, every single president with no exception sought Graham's pastoral guidance, or at least his massive political clout. Bush credited Graham with his decision to quit drinking and for guiding his path to the presidency.
President Barack Obama's friendship with music superstar power couple Jay-Z and Beyonce is so strong that Obama made a via-satellite appearance when Jay-Z became the first rapper ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The couple visited the White House on Obama's invitation several times during his eight years in office.
Although many members of the Golden State Warriors visited the White House after winning the NBA Championship in 2017, it was Steph Curry who stood out the most thanks to his cozy, if not peculiar, relationship with President Barack Obama. The pair erupted a volcano science project together and, at one point, the basketball-fanatic president tried to help the NBA superstar with his jump shot.
President Obama boasted one of the most celebrity-laden White House visitor logs since JFK, and near the top of A-list heap were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The famous do-gooders used their face time with the most powerful person in the world to discuss the effect of war on civilian populations and the rebuilding of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
The first time Barack Obama met Bob Dylan at the White House in 2010, the president gushed about how little reverence and interest the legendary songwriter showed for the pomp and circumstance of the venue. Dylan's low-key authenticity so impressed Obama that the president invited him back again in 2012—this time to give him the Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.
In 1913, the last war chief of Montana's Crow tribe was born. His name was Joseph Medicine Crow, and a little less than a century later in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded the aging chief from a bygone era the country's highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Few White House visits in history have been more bizarre, more unlikely, and more controversial than the appearance by Kanye West at the request of President Donald Trump. The unpredictable rapper went on a stream-of-consciousness rant that included coarse language and a reference to “iPlane 1.“
Kanye West's better half is Kim Kardashian West, and she met with President Trump at the White House, as well. Unlike the appearance by her occasionally coherent husband, however, she kept the conversation professional and focused on one of her passion projects: prison reform.
2008 vice-presidential candidate and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin couldn't conjure up the votes needed to make the White House her residence. However, as an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and detractor of all things Clinton, she did have enough clout to earn herself an invitation to the presidential palace. Along with fellow conservative darlings Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, who tagged along for the presidential visit, Palin caught some flak for mocking a portrait of former First Lady Hillary Clinton.