The First Lady’s Sitting Room

WaPo couches First Ladies' meeting too delicately

Press and public alike watched intently as the Obamas visited the White House Monday afternoon. But unlike The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe, The Washington Post devoted a separate article detailing Michelle Obama’s visit with Laura Bush. And while it’s an interesting read, it’s also a bit of a throwback:

Meeting privately with Laura Bush while her husband conferred with the president in the Oval Office, the incoming first lady was participating in a century-old Washington ritual that represents the softer side of the serious business of a presidential transition.

“Softer side” is an apt phrase for the article, written by reporters Richard Leiby and Valerie Strauss. And it’s worth pointing out, without faulting the story too much, that it aptly highlights the conflict between the need to justify measuring-the-drapes coverage and the desire to swoon wholesale before evergreen, romantic interpretations of White House lore.

The story of Michelle Obama’s visit with Laura Bush is, by its nature, a bit of a fluff story—not because First Ladies are unimportant, but because there’s not very much real news involved in their meeting. Sure, people want to read about it. And that’s absolutely fine. But that should mean that reporters can write the story with historical gravitas (the Post article is titled “Future First Lady, Finding Her Home in History”), sweet humor (a fourth-grader at Georgetown Day School, where Michelle Obama paid a visit, is quoted as saying, “Our teachers told us not to get excited but to show Michelle it was a regular school day and that we aren’t crazy kids”), or something similar—and without having to run a justifying explanation for the story.

Here’s some of that justification: “It’s a tradition that may not rank with the passing of secret nuclear-launch codes, but the White House visit by Michelle and Barack Obama was no less freighted with significance.” Sigh—let’s unpack that. Say the Barack-George meet-and-greet involved the, ahem, passing of secret nuclear-launch codes (Bush’s mnemonic devices to remember them?) or some such. The NYT account, for instance, notes that in the two men’s meeting “there was as much substance as style.” That leaves the Michelle-Laura meet-and-greet apparently needing defense—while it “may not rank” with the more important points of transition, it was still “freighted with significance.”

The it’s not-as-significant-as-nuclear-codes but still significant explanation feels just a bit dated. Michelle Obama has made it clear that she is unconflicted over her role in the White House; why should reporters rush to validate her portion of the visit?

Similarly, maybe it’s time to dig more deeply to get more relevant quotes from White House historians. The Post article quotes Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has written several books about presidential spouses, describing the first lady’s sitting room, where “windows afford a direct view of the Oval Office below”: “She can really keep an eye on who’s coming and going, who’s meeting with the president.” It’s a harmless comment, but it would seem that if we’re tripping over ourselves to talk about race appropriately—neither treading too softly nor landing with too much of an awkward thud—then we should be able to find (or elicit from sources) some new imagery and different ways to describe the preoccupations of the Woman-in-the-White-House. The image that Anthony offers, at least for me, is one that’s extremely outdated.

Later in the article, we get the following explanatory paragraph—a why we’re talking about this kind of paragraph:

How the Obamas entertain, how they decorate, where their children will attend school — ultimately all first family choices and activities add to an aggregate public impression. Historians now study first ladies as keenly as their husbands.

Can’t we do away with that second line? Such explicitness is no longer necessary, and its existence in this article shows a knee-jerk impulse (while reporting on the non-nuclear-code topics) to whisper the justifying aside “First Ladies are important!” or the more sheepish “we know it’s just about measuring drapes” into Americans’ ears.

But if the First-Lady-to-be is herself comfortable with her role as it matches her priorities, the press shouldn’t feel the need to mince its words in describing her domestic concerns in the White House. In that sense, the ending line of the story (“So yet another evolution awaits Michelle Obama: lawyer, wife, mother, politician — and now, first decorator”) though it may bug a feminist or two, doesn’t need any additional context.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.