Turning the White House into an Icon with Purpose

Soon after joining the Office of Communications at the White House in 2007, Meteorite principal Steven Max Levine observed the lack of media attention devoted to the unprecedented U.S. commitment to combating the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. In fact, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, commonly known as PEPFAR, contributed more funds to combat the disease than any other health effort had received in history. And though significant progress was being made on the ground in the years after President George W. Bush signed PEPFAR into law in 2003, the cause was going largely overlooked on newscasts and media outlets around the country.

To bring more attention to the American people’s extraordinary commitment, Levine proposed that the White House itself be transformed into its own powerful visual communications vehicle. He developed a plan to construct a 28-foot AIDS ribbon and display it on the White House’s iconic North Portico on World AIDS Day. Levine knew that such a sight would be impossible to ignore, particularly for the news crews that report daily from their position on the North Lawn.

Nothing had been displayed on the White House since the 1860’s during the Lincoln Administration, when banners were hung off the South Portico. Given the highly unusual request, it required several layers of review and approvals. Confident in the power of such a symbol on the country’s most recognized building, Levine presented his plan to leadership across divisions of the White House, ultimately gaining the approval of President and Mrs. Bush, whose support ultimately green-lit the project.

Levine led the execution of the project under a tight deadline and on December 1, 2007 – World AIDS Day – the sun rose to reveal the inaugural White House AIDS Ribbon. Images of the red ribbon appeared on every network television newscast and on the front pages of dozens of newspapers worldwide – each story highlighting PEPFAR and educating millions about the hard-fought progress that was finally being realized thanks to the U.S. support.

Recognizing the statement such a display could make, Levine and his colleagues in the White House Office of Communications identified another strategy that would become a new White House tradition.

As the most common form of cancer among American women, breast cancer was a priority for First Lady Laura Bush, who is also the daughter of a breast cancer survivor.  In an effort to promote breast cancer awareness, Levine and his colleagues proposed illuminating the White House in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 2008.

On the evening of October 7, 2008, after Mrs. Bush made remarks on the North Lawn, she pushed a button that illuminated the White House in pink -- the first time such a display had been made for any cause. Not only did the display garner substantial media attention for the cause and Mrs. Bush's efforts to promote awareness around the world, it also began a tradition of how the White House commemorates causes.

As President Barack Obama took office, Levine worked with members of his administration to continue the tradition of using the White House to serve as a vehicle to commemorate causes. In fact, the White House AIDS Ribbon has been displayed annually for over a decade on World AIDS Day, and the White House has also been lit pink for breast cancer awareness each October since 2008. In recent years, the tradition has grown further with the lighting of the White House in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court made marriage equality national law in 2015, and for the lighting of the White House in blue to mark support for those living with Autism in 2017. 

Steven Levine