Obama’s Statement on Robin Williams’s Death Is Rarer Than You’d Think

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Photo: JIM WATSON/2011 AFP

On Monday, President Obama added his voice to the outpouring of grief over the death of Robin Williams, praising the comedian as a "one of a kind" talent who "arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit." Earning a presidential message of condolence is a pretty rare honor for an entertainer. The president regularly issues tributes to world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, as well as notable Americans such as Neil Armstrong and Steve Jobs upon their death, but his remarks about deceased celebrities aren't as consistent. While Obama commented on the passing of science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury and movie critic Roger Ebert, he said nothing following the deaths of Lou Reed, James Gandolfini, Nora Ephron, and Elizabeth Taylor.

At times, Obama's eulogizing, or lack thereof, has gotten him into trouble. Some criticized Obama for weighing in on the death of Michael Jackson, though he made no official statement. Robert Gibbs, his press secretary at the time, reported that Obama called Jackson, "a spectacular performer and a music icon." Gibbs added, "I think everybody remembers hearing his songs, watching him moonwalk on television during Motown’s 25th anniversary. But the president also said [Jackson] had aspects of his life that were sad and tragic. And his condolences went out to the Jackson family and to the fans that mourned his loss."

Similarly, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said of Whitney Houston's death, "It's a tragedy to lose somebody so talented at such a young age." While there was no official statement, Obama's indirect expression of sympathy for Houston's family gave rise to the rumor that he ordered flags to be flown at half-staff for the singer while ignoring the death of former child star and U.S. ambassador Shirley Temple Black. According to Snopes, that's only half true: The White House never released a statement about Black's death, but it was Chris Christie who ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in New Jersey.

Here's every statement Obama has made about the writers and performers who passed away during his administration.

Lena Horne

"Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Lena Horne — one of our nation’s most cherished entertainers. Over the years, she warmed the hearts of countless Americans with her beautiful voice and dramatic performances on-screen. From the time her grandmother signed her up for an NAACP membership as a child, she worked tirelessly to further the cause of justice and equality. In 1940, she became the first African-American performer to tour with an all white band. And while entertaining soldiers during World War II, she refused to perform for segregated audiences — a principled struggle she continued well after the troops returned home. Michelle and I offer our condolences to all those who knew and loved Lena, and we join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country."

Ray Bradbury

"For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury's death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age.  His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world.  But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values.  There is no doubt that Ray will continue to inspire many more generations with his writing, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."

Andy Griffith

"Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Andy Griffith this morning. A performer of extraordinary talent, Andy was beloved by generations of fans and revered by entertainers who followed in his footsteps. He brought us characters from Sheriff Andy Taylor to Ben Matlock, and in the process, warmed the hearts of Americans everywhere. Our thoughts and prayers are with Andy’s family."

Roger Ebert

"Roger was the movies. When he didn’t like a film, he was honest; when he did, he was effusive — capturing the unique power of the movies to take us somewhere magical. Even amidst his own battles with cancer, Roger was as productive as he was resilient — continuing to share his passion and perspective with the world. The movies won’t be the same without Roger, and our thoughts and prayers are with Chaz and the rest of the Ebert family."

Pete Seeger

"Once called 'America’s tuning fork,' Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community – to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.  Over the years, Pete used his voice – and his hammer – to strike blows for worker’s rights and civil rights; world  peace and environmental conservation.  And he always invited us to sing along.  For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.  Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Pete’s family and all those who loved him."

Harold Ramis 

"Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Harold Ramis, one of America’s greatest satirists, and like so many other comedic geniuses, a proud product of Chicago’s Second City. When we watched his movies — from Animal House and Caddyshack to Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day — we didn’t just laugh until it hurt. We questioned authority. We identified with the outsider. We rooted for the underdog. And through it all, we never lost our faith in happy endings. Our thoughts and prayers are with Harold’s wife, Erica, his children and grandchildren, and all those who loved him, who quote his work with abandon and who hope that he received total consciousness."

Gabriel García Márquez

"With the passing of Gabriel García Márquez, the world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers – and one of my favorites from the time I was young. Affectionately known as 'Gabo' to millions of his fans, he first won international recognition with his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. I once had the privilege to meet him in Mexico, where he presented me with an inscribed copy that I cherish to this day. As a proud Colombian, a representative and voice for the people of the Americas, and as a master of the 'magic realism' genre, he has inspired so many others – sometimes even to pick up the pen themselves. I offer my thoughts to his family and friends, whom I hope take solace in the fact that Gabo’s work will live on for generations to come."

Maya Angelou

"When her friend Nelson Mandela passed away last year, Maya Angelou wrote that 'No sun outlasts its sunset, but will rise again, and bring the dawn.'

Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time – a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman.  Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things – an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer.  But above all, she was a storyteller – and her greatest stories were true.  A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking – but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.  In fact, she inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.

Like so many others, Michelle and I will always cherish the time we were privileged to spend with Maya.  With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer.  And while Maya’s day may be done, we take comfort in knowing that her song will continue, 'flung up to heaven' – and we celebrate the dawn that Maya Angelou helped bring."

Ruby Dee

"Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of actress, author, and activist Ruby Dee. In roles from Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun to Mama Lucas in American Gangster, Ruby captivated and challenged us—and Michelle and I will never forget seeing her on our first date as Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing. Through her remarkable performances, Ruby paved the way for generations of black actors and actresses, and inspired African-American women across our country. Through her leadership in the civil rights movement she and her husband, Ossie Davis, helped open new doors of opportunity for all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ruby and Ossie's three children, with their friends and family, and with all those who loved them dearly."

Robin Williams

"Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams."