Green Room

Of First Ladies and big … ideas

posted at 10:01 am on December 23, 2011 by

Right up front we should point out that the story of a rather public “oops” episode by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wi) this week would probably go down as one of the top moments of political stupidity for 2011 were there not so much competition for the title in Washington on a weekly basis. According to a report from Fishbowl DC, the congressman was overheard speaking a bit too loudly on his cell phone while commenting on First Lady Michelle Obama’s figure.

Sensenbrenner was overheard saying that after buying all their “crap” (his word) a woman approached him and praised first lady Michelle Obama. He told the woman that Michelle should practice what she preaches — “she lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.”

This guy has been around long enough to know that you can’t be saying things like that in a public place. And it’s not a very smart line of attack, either, given that Sensenbrenner isn’t particlarly svelte himself. Predictably, he did the right thing and quickly issued a public, formal apology to Mrs. Obama. But what about his complaint regarding the First Lady’s push for young people to be more healthy?

It’s true that Michelle Obama has been very publicly active in health initiatives, particularly regarding children. Whether it’s organizing a record breaking jumping jacks event, visiting school lunch programs or pushing her Let’s Move initiative, she always seems to be up to something. But none of these really affect legislation or carry any power of the long arm of the government over individual citizens. Even the much maligned “My Plate” program – replacing the food pyramid – was a product of the Department of Agriculture who were under no obligation to adopt her ideas.

Also, she’s far from first First Lady to get involved in such activities. Until the second half of the 20th century the wives of presidents largely acted as hostesses for social events in addition to taking care of their husbands and children. Jaqueline Kennedy was quoted as saying her major role was, “to take care of the President” and added that “if you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” She did have an extensive interest in culture and the arts though, and is credited with adding a large number of sculptures and paintings to the White House collection.

After Kennedy, First Ladies seemed to get a lot more involved. Lady Bird Johnson created a Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, with the intent of planting lots of flowers and plants and generally beautifying Washington. (And later, the rest of the country.) Pat Nixon had an initiative to encourage people to perform more volunteer work and Betty Ford traveled the country raising awareness about breast cancer. Nancy Reagan used her time in the White House to lead an international push against drug and alcohol addiction among young people, while both Barbara Bush and Laura Bush actively pushed education in America as their own personal agenda items.

But, again, none of these were areas where the presidents’ wives were actively sticking their noses into the machinery of the government and the business of the people. The only high profile exception to this (and a notable, odious one at that) was Hillary Clinton and her ham handed attempts to insert herself into the health care reform legislative process. And we all know how that worked out.

So for any other members of Congress who may be considering it, no matter how much you like your double bacon cheeseburgers, (and I’m with you 100% on that) going after the First Lady in any fashion is probably a pretty bad move. It’s bad politics and it’s weak in terms of any sort of legal argument. And, most obviously, making remarks about the dimension of her “posterior” is totally off the menu. (Pun intended.)

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And, most obviously, making remarks about the dimension of her “posterior” is totally off the menu. (Pun intended.)

Ah yes, another lecture by a conservative regarding being “nice” yet again.

When will we ever learn? If we would just be nice, then Democrats would vote for GOP legislation and voters would support the GOP in droves

The GOP would never lose an election again!!

Spliff Menendez on December 23, 2011 at 10:11 AM

Get back to me when the Dems start exercising some “decorum.”


gryphon202 on December 23, 2011 at 10:47 AM

I’m more worried about her mouth. It seems to be doing a pretty good job of getting her posterior in trouble.

Elric on December 23, 2011 at 10:47 AM

I think the fact that she is spending tax payer money on lavish vacations and parties is what draws people’s ire more than her well intentioned “think about the children” programs. And of course the hypocracy of pushing healthy eating while scarfing down whatever she wants, often on the tax payers dime.

Flange on December 23, 2011 at 12:34 PM

And it’s not a very smart line of attack, either, given that Sensenbrenner isn’t particlarly svelte himself.

Jazz, as I wrote here, Sensenbrenner’s weight is a non-issue since he is not the one failing to practice what he preaches.

Having said that, I hasten to add that I don’t subscribe to the practice-what-you-preach argument either in cases like this. If the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative were less dictatorial and more advisory, I would have no serious qualm with it. In any case, my problem with it is not that she fails to follow her own lofty standards.

Howard Portnoy on December 23, 2011 at 2:28 PM