white house M&Ms
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Why the White House Is Obsessed With M&M's

When you envision JFK's White House, you don't see the former president and his advisors grabbing handfuls of candy-coated chocolate while discussing plans to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. No, instead -- if Thirteen Days was even half true -- it conjures up images of men chain-smoking their way to diplomacy. This is because for a long time, the presidential snack of choice was cigarettes.

"The Kennedy generation was raised to smoke," says Matt Costello, senior historian for the White House Historical Association. Every room in the White House was brimming with cigarettes. And naturally, when Air Force One became the president's mobile office and means of transport under JFK, the plane came stocked with plenty of cigarettes and matchbooks on board. Each item, stamped with the presidential seal, was given away as a present to visitors. Since this was still over half-a-century away from selfies and puppy-face Snapchat filters, leaving Air Force One with a souvenir became a tradition. After all, how else could you prove you just flew with the president?

For a long time, the presidential snack of choice was cigarettes.

Presidents and their in-flight guests puffed away until the beginning of 1981. With the new year came a new administration, and with a new administration came a new vice. Ronald Reagan, a former smoker himself, emerged as a president that was staunchly anti-drug, launching a steady stream of initiatives and campaigns to create a "drug-free America." That didn't mean he didn't have an addictive habit of his own -- eating a Guinness World Records-worthy amount of jelly beans.

One of his first orders as president -- after all, the nuclear arms race could wait a little longer -- was to make sure that his favorite brand of jelly beans was always within stress-eating distance. To ensure this, Reagan asked for the White House to be stocked with a whopping 3.5 tons of his favorite brand, Jelly Belly, when he entered office. He also had a standing order for 720 bags of the candy per month -- an amount that almost makes you question whether Reagan was secretly a stoner.  He was unable to "just say no" to the candy. While many people probably would have filled a giant swimming pool with all of those jelly beans, Reagan had them scattered throughout various rooms in the White House in elegant crystal jars.

The reality is that there are only so many jelly beans one human can eat in a lifetime.

There were so many jars of jelly beans sitting around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that the jars he wasn't snacking from became gifts to hand out to diplomats and other visitors. Jelly Belly even developed a special jar just for the White House, complete with the presidential seal for Reagan's administration, making the candy extra-official. But little did they know that the sugary tides would eventually turn in favor of something more chocolaty.

No matter what you think about his politics, Reagan deserves props for staying so loyal to one candy for seven whole years. (Can you imagine the last time you didn't get sick of a snack after eating it seven times in a row?) But dedication can only take you so far: The reality is that there are only so many jelly beans one human can eat in a lifetime, especially after working through well over 3.5 tons of the candy. Reagan's taste buds -- and probably his digestive system -- were ready for something new.

presidential m&ms
Flickr/dennis crowley

In 1988, his final year in office, Reagan decided it was time to change things up. He wrote to the M&M Mars Company requesting custom boxes of the popular candy, a full 16 years before the candy maker introduced customized M&M's to the general public. Reagan asked that the boxes be ready in time for the Moscow Summit -- a four-day meeting with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss human rights and nuclear weapons. What better than small candy-coated chocolate pieces to oil the gears of nuclear disarmament? First Lady Nancy Reagan disembarked off Air Force One in Russia and handed out the patriotic boxes of M&M's to Russian children. (An added benefit of switching to M&M's, Costello points out, is that they're something you can give to children, unlike cigarettes.) Today, you can bid on a box still filled with the original M&M's for a cool $12.99.

The first lady, who coined the anti-drug phrase "Just Say No," also saw the Moscow Summit as the perfect moment to just say no to cigarettes entirely and banished them from Air Force One. A woman on a mission, she also managed to make the White House and other places the president frequented, such as Camp David, smoke-free environments. The country's future would no longer be decided in the proverbial smoke-filled room.

All of the cigarette packs on the plane and on the ground were quickly replaced with boxes of M&M's. While not exactly a nicotine fix, eating handfuls of M&M's gave smokers something to do on Air Force One. "If you were on a flight and you were a smoker, you wanted a pack of cigarettes," says Evan Phifer, research historian at the White House Historical Association. "To pass time on the flight, or while you were working on something else, now you would eat M&M's instead of smoking."

When you think about it, Reagan picking M&M's as a replacement for Jelly Bellys made perfect sense. Like jelly beans, M&M's are colorful and can be eaten by the fistful. During Reagan's era, M&M's were also the No. 1 leading candy brand in the country (and still are today). The candy choice is also a very patriotic one: M&M's were invented during World War II for soldiers. They needed a dessert that wouldn't melt during transport -- it's hard to fight off the enemy with your hands covered in goopy chocolate. The solution? Chocolate pieces wrapped in a candy-coated shell.

What better than small candy-coated chocolate pieces to oil the gears of nuclear disarmament?

While Reagan eventually left the White House, the M&M's boxes remained. George H.W. Bush, Reagan's VP and the next person to occupy the Oval Office, continued many of Reagan's traditions during his term. These included handing out boxes of the special presidential M&M's, not just to guests, but to employees as well. One Redditor says he got a few boxes from a relative who was in charge of the maintenance on Air Force One during the first Bush's administration. "He also told me that every time Bush's dog had an accident inside the plane that it cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 dollars to replace the presidential seal in the plane’s carpet." That amount would buy a lot of M&M's.  

The next president, Bill Clinton, was from the opposite side of the political aisle than Bush and Reagan, but that didn't stop him from continuing the practice of keeping boxes of presidential M&M's. (At least candy is bipartisan.) Clinton, a notorious junk-food fiend and Big Mac aficionado, actually took the tradition one step further during his presidency: The boxes now came stamped with the president's signature instead of just a presidential seal so there was no mistaking where the box came from. His administration also introduced peanut M&M's to the mix. Though somehow, arguably the two best M&M's flavors -- crispy and peanut butter -- got left behind.

President Obama riding Marine One with presidential M&Ms to his side
President Obama riding Marine One with presidential M&M's to his side | Flickr/The White House

The White House's penchant for customized M&M's continued throughout Barack Obama's presidency -- the candy could have easily ended up on the chopping block even though he is a former smoker himself (Obama kicked the habit in 2010). Turns out that Obama is not a personal fan of M&M's, according to his former personal assistant Reggie Love. "[Obama] opened the bag of trail mix I'd bought and proceeded to pick out every M&M, holding them all in his palm like pieces of candy-coated toxic waste. 'I'm not going to eat these,' he said while pushing his hand in my general direction." The candy also managed to survive First Lady Michelle Obama's giant healthy-eating initiatives.

"Obama opened the bag of trail mix I'd bought and proceeded to pick out every M&M, holding them all in his palm like pieces of candy-coated toxic waste."

While Obama likely did not personally indulge, the presidential M&M's -- which are dyed red, white, and blue -- were often earmarked for a small token of gratitude. He frequently handed out boxes to government employees, like park rangers, to thank them for their service. (Who needs medals when you can have chocolate?) Journalists covering Obama and the White House were also guilty of grabbing boxes of the candy if they could get them. "One or two might have fallen into my bag," admitted BBC's Jon Sopel. But if you aren't a ranger, a journalist, or someone who gets to hang out on Air Force One on the regular, the best way to swipe a box is to go trick-or-treating at the White House. Michelle Obama was known to hand out the M&M's on Halloween -- in spite of her reputation as a champion of health food -- making hand-stitching that David S. Pumpkins costume actually worth it.

So, will this candy-coated tradition continue with the upcoming Trump administration? The Trump family doesn't exactly have the smoothest relationship with M&M's parent company, Mars, Inc. In September, the president-elect's son, Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles with the comment, "If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem," to the ire of many, including Mars, Inc. The company quickly retorted by reminding the world that "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people."

Even though the Trump family has a shaky history with M&M's parent company, the custom presidential box tradition will likely continue, especially given his predilection for junk food and vending machine-friendly treats. He is not shy about being photographed with fast-food burgers, fried chicken, and soda. His former attorney Jay Goldberg gave The Washington Post insight into the future president's eating habits. "Give him a Hershey's bar and let him watch television," said Goldberg. "I only remember him finishing the day [by] going home, not necessarily with a woman but with a bag of candy... not Godiva, just something from the newsstand." One can only imagine how many packs of M&M's Trump will probably eat through.

As long as Mars, Inc. still wants its federal contract, chances are the M&M's aren't going anywhere and future administrations would likely "see no reason to discontinue the tradition," Costello says. And why would they? As Trump might say, that would be a "huuuuge" mistake.

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Leah Prinzivalli is a journalist who mostly eats cheeseburgers, just like all those supermodels. Follow her on Twitter @leahprinz.