The much-publicized face-off between the cast of Hamilton and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, when actor Brandon Dixon read a brief statement from the stage urging Pence to protect the rights of all Americans, set off a debate between those who thought Pence had been treated disrespectfully and those who praised the cast for upholding free speech and diversity.
Friday’s dustup on Broadway was hardly the first incident of its kind. Here are key occasions in the past when members of the arts and entertainment community directly confronted a high government official:
Eartha Kitt vs. Lady Bird Johnson
In 1968, the singer and actress was invited to a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson and had blunt words for the first lady about the Vietnam War. “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” Kitt said. “No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” Johnson reportedly cried in response and Kitt’s career suffered for years. She did return to the White House in 1978, at the invitation of President Carter.
The Ray Conniff Singers vs. President Nixon
It seemed like the last occasion to expect a political protest — a 1972 White House ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary Reader’s Digest and featuring entertainment from the bland chorale group whom President Nixon introduced as proud symbols of his own “square” taste. But as the singers lined up on stage, one member, Carol Feraci, held up a banner that read “STOP THE KILLING” and talked about Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia: “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation,” she said, resisting Conniff’s efforts to pull the banner out of her hands. “You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.”
The Conniff singers went ahead with their performance, but after one song there were shouts from the audience to throw her out. Conniff asked her to leave and apologized for her behavior. Feraci was escorted to a room downstairs from the ceremony, chewed out by White House counsel John Dean and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and sent home in a taxi.
“Shameful,” said one guest, Bob Hope, after the ceremony. “She ought to be torn limb from limb,” added Margaret Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell. Feraci, a native of Canada who eventually settled in Toronto, later said she joined the group just for the chance to protest Nixon. Like Kitt, she struggled to find work, but said recently she never regretted her remarks.
Elie Wielsel vs. President Reagan
The Holocaust survivor and future Nobel laureate had come to the White House in 1985 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement. The timing was raw and poignant: The White House had been criticized for days since announcing that President Reagan would visit a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where some Waffen-SS soldiers, members of the elite Nazi guard, were buried. “May I, Mr. President, if it’s possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site?” Wiesel said, looking directly at Reagan. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes said at the time that Reagan was “obviously moved” by Wiesel, but the president went ahead with his scheduled trip.
Stephen Colbert vs. President George W. Bush
The then-Comedy Central star was a guest at the 2006 White House Correspondent Dinner, traditionally attended by the president. With George W. Bush seated nearby on the dais, Colbert mocked everything from his decision to launch the Iraq War to his low approval ratings, joking, “We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
Bush grimaced, some audience members walked out and some initial press reports either ignored Colbert or emphasized the cold response to his speech. But a video went viral and helped confirm Colbert’s stature as a leading satirist. Observed Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik: “Colbert wasn’t playing to the room, I suspect, but to the wide audience of people who would later watch on the Internet. If anything, he was playing against the room.”