WASHINGTON — The past couple of weeks have marked a turning point in American ugliness as the mob has turned its full fury on first lady Michelle Obama.
From criticism of her trip to China to a recent “tell-all” by former White House assistant press secretary Reid Cherlin writing for The New Republic about Mrs. Obama’s allegedly tyrannical behavior, the gloves have been removed.
As described, she was a perfectionist — super-attentive to detail and laser-focused on advance planning. And this is bad because? Worse, according to a former (anonymous) staffer, there was no barometer for meeting Mrs. Obama’s high standards.
“The first lady having the wrong pencil skirt on Monday is just as big of a (mess-up) as someone speaking on the record when they didn’t mean to or a policy initiative that completely failed,” said the former aide. “It just made you super anxious.”
Yes, high-pressure jobs are often like that. And the wrong skirt isn’t nothing when every scarf, sweater or sneaker is analyzed as though Vladimir Putin’s next move hinged on a hemline.
Other criticism sliming the Internet has been leveled at Michelle’s China trip, which to some seemed like just another vacation for the first lady, her two daughters and her mother, Marian Robinson, who was described by a single disgruntled Chinese hotel staffer as “barking at the staff.” All other staff commented on how nice everyone was, but a British reporter managed to find one ticked-off person.
As for vacations, Hawaii may be an enviable destination, but China? (Please don’t feel compelled to share your China vacation. I’m sure it was great.) Moreover, goodwill exchanges are among our most effective instruments in diplomacy, soft or otherwise. What is more humanizing than a mother, her daughters and their grandmother?
As for the conduct abroad, a snapshot doesn’t tell the story. Mrs. Obama’s no-press stipulation is problematic, to be sure, but I can confidently report that the Obamas are recognized for their superior attention to protocol. Witness Mrs. Obama when she met Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and national security adviser Susan Rice during the president’s recent visit with Pope Francis. Both ladies wore black attire, including mantillas.
This is proper dress for women at the Vatican and I’m told they were observed appreciatively. Aren’t proper conduct and decorum what we really want from our presidential spouse?
Instead, the haters prefer to focus on a frame here and there in which Michelle Obama is either not wearing the happy-wife smile or dressed too casually for their taste. Those in the public eye for any period of time will fail to present their best face in every instance — or they’ll have perfectionist minders micro-managing any potential downside.
When I traveled with then-first lady Laura Bush to the Middle East in 2007, members of the media were asked to turn their backs (and cameras) as Mrs. Bush climbed into a dug-out area in Petra, Jordan. At all times, we were told to position ourselves well ahead of the first lady. This was mostly for security but also ensured the most flattering camera angles.
Who besides Kim Kardashian wants a photographer snapping one’s hind quarters as you climb a hill or hoist yourself into a camel saddle, as Mrs. Bush gamely did.
Is this contrived and, therefore, dishonest? Who cares? Honesty is about capturing the subject as she is — a lady with dignity who holds one of the most important positions in the world. Wouldn’t we want our first lady seen at her best?
Every first lady faces trials, and Hillary Clinton’s years in the White House were certainly no picnic. Even Laura Bush felt the sting now and then. But the harsh barrage against Mrs. Obama, often in the most personal terms, is in a class of its own.
To what do we owe this fresh venom?
Some might say it’s all about race — and though surely true in some cases, this seems too facile an explanation. Perhaps with President Obama’s approval ratings in the low 40s, it is our animal nature to pile on the weakened leader. How better to hurt Obama than to attack his family? Perhaps there is a kernel of truth to the East Wing as the “worst wing,” as Cherlin called it.
Alternatively, maybe some staffers weren’t up to the job and, lacking the maturity or self-awareness (not to mention loyalty), to accept their own responsibility, they turned to the dubious consolation of dishing dirt.
The thing about dirt, however, is that it’s dirty. And the used-to-be-somebody holding the shovel usually gets dirtiest of all.
Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.