Elizabeth Lauten and the ‘kids are off limits’ canard

On Monday, the media claimed a scalp.

A formerly obscure staffer for a still relatively unknown Republican congressman was outed in the press over the slow holiday weekend after she had the temerity to notice (and be offended by the fact) that the Obama daughters were not especially thrilled to join their father for the annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey. In an ill-conceived post on her Facebook page, communications staffer Elizabeth Lauten observed that the daughters should show more “class,” might have dressed more appropriately, and indicted their parents for their girls’ distasteful behavior.


She apologized for her post, but that was not enough. On Monday, Lauten revealed that she would “resign” from her post.

These were not intelligent criticisms. They were, in fact, rather gauche, and many have noted that the firestorm her comments sparked suggests that public relations may not be Lauten’s strong suit. These are valid contentions. Further, criticizing children for their parents’ actions is almost always unwarranted.

Others, however, have embraced a form of moral preening by claiming that this criticism of the Obama daughters was a violation of respected norms of behavior. The children of public figures, many have said, should always be “off limits.”

This is a selective interpretation of codes of conduct that govern criticism of political figures.

On Monday, CNN invited a guest onto the morning show New Day – “cultural critic” Michaela Angela Davis – to discuss this incident. She predictably used it as a jumping off point to indict the entire Republican Party, and insisted that the Obama family is subject to a unique brand of animus from the president’s opponents which is illegitimate due to its basis in emotion.

Furthermore, in defending the media’s intense reaction to Lauten’s comments, Davis insisted that even the loathed children of the even more despised former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin never had it as bad as the Obamas. “And the Palin girls are a hot mess,” she insisted. “They had that party dragging people around and pregnancies.”


If you’re paying attention, this “cultural critic” just indicted the Palins because one of the daughters once brought a child to term and was physically assaulted outside of a bar. That is some cultural sensitivity right there.

CNN anchor Carol Costello remains gainfully employed after similarly dismissing – even taking a measure of delight – in one of Palin’s adult children’s mugging by a male attacker. The newswoman was quoted apologizing for her remarks in Politico, but she did not issue a similar expression of regret on the program where she made the initial remarks. If only Lauten had apologized, as she did, but in a press outlet popular among media elites perhaps all would have been forgiven.

Whole reams of parchment could be devoted to the derangement that the Palin family inspires inside the Acela Corridor, and Davis’s double standard is not unique or unprecedented. Many who demand today that kids be “off limits” did not observe those limits in the recent past.

“Of course, many of us would have provided lively tabloid fodder in college if we’d been subjected to the scrutiny Barbara and Jenna Bush must endure,” Salon editor-at-large Joan Walsh wrote in 2001 following a 19-year-old Jenna Bush’s citation for using a false I.D. to purchase alcohol. “Still, their recklessness in the first months of their father’s presidency suggests their parents screwed up by downplaying and even denying President Bush’s own drinking problem.”

Walsh renounced her impeachment of a teenager for the behavior of her parents 12 years after the fact, but only to defend her insistence that the Obama daughters should not be subject to the press’s scrutiny or criticism.


The Daily Mail has compiled a useful retrospective on the myriad ways in which Jenna Bush was criticized for her behavior – ranging from yawning at public events to flashing a “devil horns” sign while appearing with her father at a black tie event. All of this has conveniently evaded the media’s collective recollection over the past several days.

As for Lauten’s critique of the way in which the Obama daughters were dressed for that event, I agree that this was a spiteful criticism that reflected her disdain more for Barack Obama than for the girls’ reasonable attire. This, though, is also not an uncommon criticism of the children of political figures. Take, for example, a 2005 column in The Washington Post which was highly critical of the reserved and demure way in which the family of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s family was dressed.

“Separate the child from the clothes, which do not acknowledge trends, popular culture or the passing of time,” The Post’s Robin Givhan opined. “They are not classic; they are old-fashioned. These clothes are Old World, old money and a cut above the light-up/shoe-buying hoi polloi.”

“In their attire, there was nothing too informal; there was nothing immodest,” she concluded. “There was only the feeling that, in the desire to be appropriate and respectful of history, the children had been costumed in it.”

Roberts’s two adopted children, Josie and Jack, were aged five and four respectively at the time of this fashion evaluation.


Is the media arguing in Lauten’s case that political professionals should be held to a higher standard than the press? If so, that is a rare self-criticism from the Fourth Estate.

Observing the behavior above is distinct from condoning it. I am not endorsing Lauten’s ill-considered criticism of the Obama daughters, but merely remarking on the world as it is rather than the idealized version in which commentators are forbidden from projecting their dissatisfaction with political figures onto their children. That has not been the case for some time.

In many ways, Lauten’s behavior was foolish and crass. The media’s selective outrage and mob mentality is inexcusable.

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David Strom 5:20 PM | February 22, 2024