Snob reader Nonny posted an interesting question and observation about First Lady Michelle Obama and her first appearance since the Inauguration where she hosting the reception for the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter law Thursday.
During the signing, I couldn’t help but wonder how Michelle Obama felt to be sitting in the audience while all these power women – Clinton, Pelosi, and others – were up front and center around her husband as he signed the Ledbetter document into law and passed out the signing pens.
Michelle Obama is as intelligent and accomplished as any of them, and yet here she was, sitting politely and quietly in the front row, America’s first ‘hostess.’ It really made me uncomfortable that she may be relegated to the background no matter what she does. It was nice that she got up to speak later, but that was an introduction of Lilly L. mostly.
I hope there’s an important active role for her in the future because while I love her first mom shtick and her fashion sense etc, I don’t want to see all that intelligence and power sidelined for 4-8 years.
And I thought she looked tired, too, not so vibrant.
Nonny asked me what I thought of this and as I started to write a book for an answer I realized I could sum up Michelle’s “damned if she does/damned if she doesn’t” situation as the wife of the president in one sentence:
First Ladies lose (if they’re interesting).
Very early on in the presidential campaign, before Barack Obama secured the nomination, Michelle Obama was peppered with questions and surrounded with murmurs that she could be the second coming of Hillary Clinton, the highly educated, controversial, brilliant yet determined, politically ambitious wife of President Bill Clinton. People projected on Michelle the image of an angry, over-educated careerist and you could say she’s been combating that image ever since.
In the real world, there’s nothing wrong with being an ambitious woman. But in the world of politics things are still in a 1950s mindset for the role of the wife of a powerful man.
Michelle has repeatedly told the press her children are her first priority and that she’s not going to take on any policy role in her husband’s administration. She is far more likely to recede to the background like past First Ladies and will not be anything remotely like Clinton.
Before she even became First Lady, Michelle was chastised for being “too frank” about her husband’s flaws. In a 2007 column, Maureen Dowd famously poo-pooed an “emasculating” Michelle for sometimes knocking off the halo people place on her husband’s head.
I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal — a comic routine that rests on the presumption that we see him as a god.
The tweaking takes place at fundraisers, where Michelle wants to lift the veil on their home life a bit and give the folks their money’s worth.
At the big Hollywood fund-raiser for Senator Obama in February, Michelle came on strong.
“I am always a little amazed at the response that people get when they hear from Barack,” she told the crowd at the Beverly Hilton, as her husband stood by looking like a puppy being scolded, reported Hud Morgan of Men’s Vogue. “A great man, a wonderful man. But still a man. …
“I have some difficulty reconciling the two images I have of Barack Obama. There’s Barack Obama the phenomenon. He’s an amazing orator, Harvard Law Review, or whatever it was, law professor, best-selling author, Grammy winner. Pretty amazing, right?
“And then there’s the Barack Obama that lives with me in my house, and that guy’s a little less impressive. For some reason this guy still can’t manage to put the butter up when he makes toast, secure the bread so that it doesn’t get stale, and his 5-year-old is still better at making the bed than he is.”
She said that the TV version of Barack Obama sounded really interesting and that she’d like to meet him sometime.
Many people I talked to afterward found Michelle wondrous. But others worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband — under fire for lacking experience — as an undisciplined child.
(Source: “She’s Not Buttering Him Up,” Maureen Dowd, New York Times)
Dowd called Michelle the “princess of South Chicago, a formidable Princeton and Harvard Law School grad, (who) wants us to know that she’s not polishing the pedestal.”
And I’ve heard many women, white and black, complain over perceived “disrespect” in interviews when Michelle sometimes talks over her husband. Cries that misfires in her wardrobe are “embarrassing” to her husband and his presidency. Accusations of phantom militancy from peanut gallery (“Stokely Carmichael in a dress,” said Mr. Williams) and condemnations of racism from the dead-enders.
With two young children who must now adjust to life in a media bubble, I’d imagine she’s telling the truth when she says they are her number one priority. So unless something changes, she’ll probably have more in common with First Lady Laura Bush, in terms of exposure, as compared to Clinton. She may move on to some of the activism of an Eleanor Roosevelt, but in a far, far more low-key way. (Like Lady Bird Johnson, who was just as instrumental in pushing for Civil Rights as LBJ, but let her cheating heart husband do most of the tub-thumping.)
First Lady is a very “traditionalist” position where Americans, despite their progressiveness, like their political wives viewed through the “Stepford-like prisms” of mother and helpmate, not activist, politician, leader, careerist or policy wonk. When you consider that one of the biggest controversies Cindy McCain had to endure in her race for First Lady was whether or not she created her own cookie recipe should tell you how antiquated the overall mood is.
The woman is an heiress who sat on the board of her family’s company. She’s probably never even seen the inside of a kitchen, let alone baked. Yet there she was, robotic and smiling, never an unkind word, even when her tin eared husband offered her up the indignity of “Miss Buffalo Chip.”
And as you may recall, as First Lady, Hillary Clinton was eviscerated for being ambitious. To this day, whether she is being very good or very Machiavellian, she is almost always seen through a scanner darkly for donning the headband of perceived feminist angst and declaring she would not stay at home and bake cookies.
(T)here is really no aspect of our collective fears or furies that cannot be grafted onto her character. Did she refuse to meet with mothers of dead soldiers? Did she kill Vince Foster? Did she get two Black Panthers off on murder charges? Did she cause the Enron scandal? Despite their proven falseness, such accusations are routinely made because it’s easy to mold the facts and fictions of Hillary’s life into any kind of argument you like. Even her body has become a public landscape that most Americans feel quite comfortable trekking across in search of cultural clues about ourselves and our politics. Edwards’ sculpture merely makes literal this national impulse.
It all began when the nation had regular debates about her hair, but now we’re comfortable in our kitchens and on our talk shows presuming any damned thing we want to about her. Is she gay or straight, closet conservative or secret liberal, snarling she-wolf or one smart cookie baker? It isn’t only her career as a public figure that’s clay in our hands. No part of her life, however sacred, is off-limits. John McCain once got a lot of laughs cracking this joke: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno.” Chelsea was still in high school at the time. In 2003 Americans happily participated in a cnn/USA Today/Gallup poll to determine whether Hillary should get a divorce. In the spring of 2006, the New York Times ran a front-page story that employed investigative journalism tactics to extrapolate the potential number of conjugal visits the Clintons’ marital bed hosted each month. Using “interviews with some 50 people and a review of their respective activities,” the author concluded: “Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple’s schedules. Sometimes it is a full day of relaxing at home in Chappaqua; sometimes it is meeting up late at night…. Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together. The aides declined to provide the Clintons’ private schedule.”
(Source: “Harpy, Hero, Heretic: Hillary,” Jack Hitt, Mother Jones)
Now for Clinton everything is coming up roses (even though she lost her bid for the Democratic nomination to Obama), but she was loathed for refusing to yield to what the public wanted on out of a First Lady — a gracious, quiet, retiring, supportive, but dull, woman. Preferably attractive, but not too attractive, lest she would spur jealousy and be accused of stealing attention. To be well-dressed, but not too well-dressed, lest she be seen as vain. To be well-mannered and subservient to her powerful husband and a throw-back to “The Way We Never Were” fantasy of the homemakers and debutantes of the 1950s. This was one of the reasons why both Democrats and Republicans and nearly all Americans had a high opinion of Laura Bush despite who her husband was.
She accepted the Stepfordization. Even if it was a smile wrapped in a cloying Texas accent and a lie. She embraced it as her ballast against the prying eyes of the world.
Laura Welch Bush was “perfect” as a First Lady in the respect that she never had anything controversial to say. Obviously using her mother-in-law’s stealth First Lady campaign as a model. (Who knew Barb was such a belligerant firecracker?)
Laura dressed nice, but not too nice. She had a folksy accent, was shy and overly polite. And she was a good little Tammy Wynette who just sang “Stand By Your Man” for eight years.
She adopted a “safe” First Lady cause — reading — and later, when she got a touch “bolder” in the second term, women’s rights in foreign countries and the people of Burma. With nothing to complain about people were able to project a traditionalist view on Laura, seeing what they wanted to see (NICE LADY!) and nothing else.
But in reality, the woman was an enigma.
Award-winning “Angels In America” playwright Tony Kushner wrote a piece where he tried to find the “true” Laura Bush. It became an anti-Iraq War, anti-Bush Administration political play, wildly performed in 2004. It was entitled “Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy.”
TONY KUSHNER: Maybe all liberalism and progressivism and left-leaning politics are pathological but I would argue less maladaptive and delusional than, say, well, your politics, or rather your husband’s — since no one knows what yours really are, which is why I find you so fascinating, it’s——
LAURA BUSH: Oh you know what mine are, don’t be so fascinated, you snoop, mine are just a whole lot like his are, maybe not so, not so, well that’s none of your business.
Source: New York Times
Being an enigma will be harder for Michelle to pull off because of her past as such an outspoken, successful careerist with a pedigree education and the fact that she is the first black First Lady, but she can easily become a wallflower if she chooses. America is already encouraging her to do so, begging that she simply wear nice clothes, smile and trot out her cute daughters once in awhile.
(Or get knocked up and indulge in our patriarchal, presidential dynasty fantasies by producing a son.)
If she does these things for the next four-to-eight years (while taking on some benign First Lady cause like military families and child welfare), all the Michelle-hate talk will almost disappear. (And I say almost because some Bush haters will still bring up that Laura was an enabler to a drunk and she once accidentally killed a guy when she was a teenager in a tragic vehicular accident. Oh, and she smokes.) So, First Lady’s can’t win. (Unless you’re dull as toast.)
I don’t know if Michelle can pull off “toast.” There might be some butter on that slice and some jam on the side and maybe a cup of coffee from time-to-time, but the push to put her “in her place” will be overwhelming. It is likely, she will play the game in public just to maintain her sanity, but still be her true self with her family and friends. For the sorority of the First Wives is about Stepfordization by choice. No one says you have to read stories to kindergartners and host teas, but, believe me, the next four years will be much smoother is she drops in, tunes out and invests in Valium.
Or whatever Laura Bush was popping. That woman never looked like she had a bad day.