That Lady in Red

I think Rachel Maddow and I were feeling the same level of comfort/discomfort and curiosity about Michelle Obama’s dress the night of the Inauguration.  I say this because when she announced the designer as Jason Wu she said something like “I know you want to know” and then giggled a little.  Plus I think both of us were dying of anticipation before Mrs. Obama appeared.  But this morning I read Amy Davidson’s piece about the dress in the New Yorker and the light went on.  Her dress that night and what she wears in public are a political statement and she understands that.

Then there she was, the First Lady in red.

We only got a glimpse before Obama started dancing with his wife, getting in  the way of our view of the dress, but it was clear that she had  succeeded—gathered halter straps, v-shaped back, and all. The worst one could  say was that it was a little flouncy and not as striking as the  dress that Naeem Khan designed for the India state dinner. And then a  greater revelation: Was a journalist ever as unabashedly excited about anything  as CNN’s Alina Cho was about Michelle’s “extraordinary decision” to turn to the  same designer twice—Jason Wu, who had, as an unknown, designed her dress for the  first inaugural. Then, as now, Wu was surprised; the First Lady had a number of  possibilities assembled, whether out of indecision or arranged as decoys. She  had managed to suppress leaks without putting anyone in jail.

Inaugural dresses  are not just casual cultural relics; not for any First Lady, and especially not  for Michelle Obama. If her husband is a transformational figure, so is she. The  dress worn to a first inaugural goes to the Smithsonian, and the one worn to a  second goes to the National Archives. This is unfortunate for Hillary Clinton,  since  the dress she wore in 1993 was less nice than 1997’s, and represented a low  from which the inaugural gown has only slowly made the steep ascent back. It involved  purple lace, and otherwise defies description. (Clinton wore a pants suit on  Monday.) Looking at that dress now makes one wonder about the nineties—or about  how long the eighties lingered. It was worse than the dress that Rosalynn  Carter recycled from a Georgia gubernatorial inaugural ball in 1977: that  one has some retro appeal, a bit of Leia in Cloud City. Laura  Bush, in red lace and then moony sparkles, wasn’t awful, but that’s all.

The dress that Michelle Obama wore last night represented the full return of the  inaugural gown from the realm of oddity—from being the high-necked, political  version of whatever Cher or Jennifer Lopez wear to the Oscars. Her 2009 dress  looked too much like a lesser, puffier version of Nancy  Reagan’s, in 1981, to be a redeemer of the form. (In the spirit of  bipartisanship, Nancy looked great.)


And this is why the dress – and everything she wears is political.

And so Michelle Obama’s inaugural dress is an important subject. To disagree  is to dismiss the idea that politics involves theatre. But that is just for a  start: fashion is also a field (and a business) that matters, and one that has  reacted to the First Lady as a force rather than just as a customer. This is why  the choice of Wu was a surprise, and, in some quarters, a disappointment:  Shouldn’t someone else get a chance to attract investors? At the same time,  there was, in the fashion press, something of a thrill at the definitiveness of  it all: she believed in fashion, and she was committed.

Although it can be harder to talk about—if easier to feel—there is also the  question of how she has confronted images of black women in American culture.  Her first term was so successful that, unless one is a regular viewer of Fox  News or a listener of Rush Limbaugh’s show—which still give her regular doses of  hate—one could forget the resistance to having her in the White House. When her  husband ran for President in 2008, there were barely veiled insinuations about  whether the role of First Lady was really right for her—whether she was too  angry, or could really feel comfortable. (One suspects that a sense of the  pressures on her may explain why she is not taken to task as much as she might  be for the price of these clothes.) Once, when she wore a red dress to a state  dinner, she was accused of sympathizing with Communist China. Michelle might  have responded to that, as many women in similar, if less prominent, situations  do, by being flawlessly proper—some unchallenged idea of ladylike, wearing  dresses and suits and jewelry indistinguishable from Cindy McCain’s or Ann  Romney’s. Or she could have affected dowdiness until getting to the point where,  as Justice  Sotomayor put it, ““They just can’t fire me over the earrings anymore.”

Not being a fashionista, when I saw the red dress, I thought she was flaunting victory.  That the color was celebratory and rightly so.  And she looked fabulous!  But I’m still not sure about the bangs.

Are the Obamas the real life Huxtables?

The Cosby show Huxtable family was never the “typical” African American family or really a typical American.  For one thing, they lived in a New York brownstone had a doctor father and lawyer mother (who were happily married to each other), and they had, with five kids, a larger family than most.  The Cosby Show which premiered in 1984 was revolutionary in depicting through a sit-com format, a happy and successful black family.  Yes, it told America, black people are successful and have the same goals and the same problems as other families.  Whether we were like a sit-com family or not, all of us of a certain age secretly wanted to be like the Nelsons or grow up like the Beaver.  Then we had the Huxtables.

I ran across this story in the Guardian this morning wondering if the Obama family were not somehow the real life Huxtables.

Americans have always been fascinated by the lives of first families, much as Brits are with the royal family. The people who live in the White House however, unlike the occupants of Buckingham Palace, are meant to reflect ordinary lives and hopes and dreams. It rarely happens, of course. Nobody would say the Kennedys, the Reagans, the Clintons and the Bushes were normal folks. But many Americans do recognise themselves in the Obamas.

“From the kids with braces and basketball games to the Portuguese water dog and the date nights, the Obamas are right out of central casting as an upper-middle class American family with, of course, the very big exception that they live in the White House,” says Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer prize for journalism and the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, a book that documents the migration of black Americans across their own country.

“I think they’ve exposed the country and the world to a slice of African-American family life that is larger than many people realise – college-educated people with high ideals for their children. They’re like The Cosby Show come to life. They have endured an intense amount of attention and scrutiny and come out about as normal and quintessentially American as anyone might hope to see.”

I think the Obamas have worked hard to make life in the White House as normal as possible.

…Michelle Obama is the “mom-in-chief” but she expects the president to do his share.

When the children were younger, she has said she would rise early to go to the gym and her husband would feed and dress the girls. The family sits down to dinner at 6.30 most days when he is in Washington, and on Sunday afternoons the president has a standing date to play basketball with his daughters. They try to make their White House quarters as much like a normal home as possible. The girls have to clean their rooms and make their beds, and Malia does her own laundry. There is no TV until homework is finished.

With four more years in the White House, the Obamas are aware that their daughters will spend their formative teenage years in the spotlight. The press corps in Washington has agreed not to routinely write about the girls unless they are with their parents at formal events. Both girls are regularly spotted around town with their friends and they have been allowed rite-of-passage experiences such as attending summer camp – though with secret service agents in tow.

I know the President has joked about the moment his daughters start to date saying he won’t be too worried because they have men with guns with them.

“I think they are the first kids in the White House growing up where everybody’s got a cell phone and everybody’s watching,” Michelle Obama told the women’s website iVillage last month. She has warned her daughters not to be “bratty”. “You may be having a moment but somebody could use that moment and try to define you for ever,” she told them.

So far, it seems the girls are making their parents proud. There was a touching moment on stage last week when 11-year-old Sasha nudged her father several times as he celebrated his win. “Turn around, Daddy!” she said, urging him not to forget the people on the other side of the stage. He duly heeded her advice and the crowd roared its approval.

We Americans should be proud that we have a real family in the White House.  Whether the Obamas are the Huxtables or not, the girls are fun to watch grow up.

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, right, and their daughters Malia and Sasha, left.

The Obama family on November 7.  Photography by Jason Reed/REUTERS

Remembering Betty Ford

It was November 1977 in Houston, Texas at the huge somewhat chaotic American celebration of International Women’s Year: The first National Women’s Conference.  I was a delegate from Virginia.  Things hadn’t gone well when I arrived to a lobby full of women looking for rooms only to be told that people hadn’t checked out and we had to spend one night at another hotel.  For a young woman traveling on a limited budget and knowing no one in Houston except other members of my delegation who were to be my roomies (who I couldn’t find), it was pretty traumatic.  If the same thing happened today, I would have demanded taxi and meal vouchers at the very least.  But the next day things improved immensely.  I found my room, my roommates and the Virginia caucus.  I spotted famous women all over.  It was hard not to be star struck.  But we all had work to do.  It was the first time there was an Asian women’s caucus and we ended up at a Chinese restaurant trying to hammer out a statement that accounted for the  so called model Asian as well as the brand new immigrants working service jobs.  It was all exhilarating.  Women were on the rise.  But the picture I carry with me to this day is this one.


Prominent American women

A line up of prominent women. From L to R are: Bella Abzug, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Linda Johnson Robb, Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, and Judy Carter.  (From Jo Freeman)

I was reminded of this moment when I saw the pictures of the First Ladies at Betty Ford’s funeral in California.

Eulogists at service recall Ford and convey her bipartisan message

(Carter, Obama, Clinton and Reagan)

And here where you can see Charles and Linda Johnson Robb and three of the first ladies.  Linda is in white in front of her husband and I think that may be Maria Shriver next to Chuck.

Betty Ford's funeral


The news today is that the Westboro Church is going to protest at Ford’s service in Michigan.  I think Mrs. Ford would be proud.




The politics of Presidential vacations

If we want to go away for a long weekend, Bob and I just pick the place and book a place to stay or more likely, just tell my sister we are coming up to Vermont.  No politics involved.  But where and for how long a President vacations becomes grist for the political mill.

The Obamas walked along a trail with their daughters Sasha, left, and Malia on Cadillac Mountain.

The first family picked Bar Harbor, Maine and Acadia National Park.  But the big flap is that they didn’t go to the Gulf.

In a New York Times “White House Memo”, Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote

Mr. Obama arrived here Friday for a summer weekend getaway with his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9 — a precursor to a longer family vacation they are planning next month on Martha’s Vineyard. But what sounds like a much-needed family escape from the literal and political heat of Washington to some sounds like hypocrisy to others, given recent statements by both the president and first lady urging Americans to spend their vacation time and money along the shores of the oil-stricken Gulf of Mexico.

“Michelle Obama: Take your Vacation in the Gulf, America — If You Need Us, We’ll be In Maine,” blared the headline on the Web site of Michelle Malkin, the conservative commentator, on Monday, the day Mrs. Obama toured the gulf. ABC News served up similar, if more muted fare: “First Lady Encourages Americans to Vacation on Gulf — But Obamas Head to Maine Instead.”

A trip to the Gulf Coast, of course, would hardly be much of a vacation for Mr. Obama, whose political fortunes were undercut by the spill. But the flap does point up how politically fraught the modern presidential vacation — or, for that matter, presidential leisure time in general — has become.

Of course, if they did go to the Gulf Coast for a vacation scheduling no public events, everyone would be upset by their not having helped clean up a beach or visiting fishermen who are not working because of the spill.  It would not, as the Memo points out, have been a vacation.  This is a trip with their children, Ms. Malkin.  Remember family values?   Both the President and First Lady have gone often to the Gulf and they will be returning many times, I’m sure.

The Memo continues

Bill Clinton and his family traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the summer of 1996 after polling showed that Americans viewed Martha’s Vineyard as too elitist. George W. Bush caught so much flak for spending a month at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., in the summer of 2001, said his former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, that his staff printed T-shirts listing all the work-related side trips he had taken. Mr. Fleischer may disagree with Mr. Obama’s policies, but he said he was protective of the president’s right to “recharge his batteries” wherever it suited him.

“I just think that people should leave the president alone and not make a political issue of where he takes vacation or how he takes vacation,” Mr. Fleischer said. “He and his family are perfectly entitled to do whatever works for them.”

President Obama greeted people after walking along a trail on Cadillac Mountain.

One thing I have noticed is that President Obama likes ice cream.  He seem to gravitate to ice cream shops wherever he goes.

Once last thing:  While looking through  pictures of the trip to put in this entry, I kept  spotting Reggie Love.  Does he ever get to go on a vacation by himself? 

The pictures are from the Boston Globe and the New York Times.

The State Dinner

Last night there was a State Dinner at the White House, the first given by the Obamas. 

First Lady Gursharan Kaur of India, First Lady Michelle Obama, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, and President Obama arrived for the state dinner.

The dinner for the Prime Minister of India was attended by over 300 guests including two women with the first name Maya (one being the President’s sister), General and Mrs. Powell, and Governor  Bobby Jindal and his wife.  Governor Deval Patrick attended with his wife, Diane.  But where were the Republican Congressional Leadership?  Not there.

While the Washington Times reported that neither John Boehner not Mitch McConnell were invited, it turns out that is not true. Keith Olbermann reported last night on Countdown that both had been invited and had declined.  

I have several questions for the Republicans.  Are you so fixated on bringing down this President that you can’t spend an evening being civil at a State Dinner?  Are you afraid that because this was a dinner given by an African-American President for an Indian Prime Minister that somehow your whiteness would be threatened?  Notice that two of the Republicans (I don’t know if any of the Indian American attendees are Republican.) were black and Indian.  Are you letting your racism out do your civility?  The lame excuse of having to go home for Thanksgiving doesn’t cut it. Most Americans travelling for Thanksgiving will do so today. 

Too bad you didn’t see your way to attend.  It looks like it was a wonderful occasion.  And you missed Jennifer Hudson singing.  Oh, I forgot.  She’s African-American.

Michelle as Catwoman

I know there is a lot of serious stuff to write about:  The war in Afganistand, the progress of the health care bill, the election tomorrow, people who expected instant change when President Obama was elected, etc. etc..  But when the the last time the First Lady donned a costume to greet trick or treaters at the White House?  I don’t think it has ever happened.

According to the White House Historical Association,  Tricia Nixon was probably the first to hold a Halloween party in the White House.  She invited kids to a party.  No mention of Tricia donning a costume.  The Fords and Carters linked Halloween to charitable giving to groups like UNICEF.  Bush 1 held an anti-drug youth rally int 1989.

This appears to be the first all out White House party.

 Michelle and Barack Obama hand out candy to trick or treaters.  Pictures from

The first family members took to the front steps for about half an hour, passing out treats including White House M&Ms, a sweet dough butter cookie from the White House pastry shop and dried fruit (cherries, apricots, pears, apples and papayas).

 The children aged 6 to 14, some with younger siblings in tow, came from 11 area schools — five in the District, three in Maryland and three in Virginia chosen by the Department of Education. One toddle burst into tears upon seeing the president, who said “happy Halloween” to each child as they passed.

 Also out front, red and yellow butterflies inside giant bubbles, two giant orange and black eyes peering out from first-floor windows, a giant black spider and cobwebs hanging over the North Portico, walking “trees” on stilts. Also Star Wars and other characters handing out candy. Most of the characters came from theatrical groups, including the Red Moon Theater in Chicago and D.C. companies.

The President stuck with tradition:  No costume.  There was also a party inside.

Inside, a couple hundred military families and White House staffers and their children roamed the first floor of the White House as an old-fashioned turntable played actual albums. Among those making the scene were Robert “Lord Vader” Gibbs and son Ethan; and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice as Goofy.

 As the pool was being ushered out, the president spoke briefly. He told the military families “We are so grateful to you,” especially those who are separated from family members. He thanked staffers and their children, at which point FLOTUS piped in, “They’re so cute!”

 “They’re adorable,” POTUS said, “as is, by the way, my wife — a very nice-looking Cat Woman.”

But almost topping the First Lady was press secretary, Robert Gibbs.

Robert Gibbs dressed as Star Wars' Darth Vader, while his son Ethan sported a Boba Fett costume.

What I did on my vacation

If I were President Obama, I would have to write something like this “I was going on vacation but there was a hurricane so I was late.  Then my advisors said I had to make an announcement about reappointing the Fed Chairman.  Then one of my best friends died and I had to write his eulogy and attend the funeral.  All I really wanted to do was to spend a week more or less out of the public eye and hang out with the family and the dog, maybe some friends.  Oh, well.”

Obamas on Vacation

I think we should actually be concerned that the President didn’t really have a vacation.    Here the First Family is arriving, full of hope for a fun time. 

Barack Obama goes biking with his daughters.

Then one of the few times he did something fun in public, he got criticized for not wearing a helmut. 

We need to lighten up.  There is a happy medium between the, to my mind, excessive vacationing done by George W. Bush and Obama’s measly, not quite a week.  There is also a medium between Bill Clinton many public times when he was on the Vineyard and W. hiding on his ranch.

As Susan Jacoby wrotes in the introduction to her discussion blog in the Washington Post

Why would a president, having just had the delightful experience of speaking at town hall meetings to which some upstanding citizens saw fit to carry loaded guns, need a vacation with his wife and daughters? Incredibly, President Obama is being criticized by the political right for his decision to spend a few more days on vacation with his family at Camp David next week. Of course, no president is ever really on vacation; his day always begins with a lengthy national security briefing and he is always out of touch with advisers on important issues. In this case, the family’s five days on Martha’s Vineyard have already been shortened by the inevitable political and personal duties associated with the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. It seems to me that there is an ethical blindness about this country’s obsession with working—or appearing to work—24/7.

I, for one, an suspicious of anyone who never takes a vacation.  Everyone needs some time away from the world in which they reside most of the time – a different location, a different rhythm to the day, a new experience.  I just do not understand those who think that President Obama should not vacation while there is a deficit or whatever the person’s issue is. 

I hope the President enjoys his few days a Camp David this week despite his daily briefings.  Come back and we will tackle health care, Mr. President.  With a public option.