The press to Michelle Obama -- be more like Laura Bush!

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

You see, it was really all about "optics."

The whole controversy about Michelle Obama's recent private vacation in Spain with her daughter was really just about "optics," the pundits decided. It didn't look good. Bad politics, dontcha know.

"In politics and pop culture, optics are all," wrote The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, as she embraced the right-wing attack on the First Lady as an out-of-touch elitist. "And Michelle's optics sent a message that likely made some in the White House and the Democratic Party wince."

That "optics" word as everywhere as Beltway sages conceded the vacation in and of itself was not inherently evil, but that it looked bad and that every First Lady has to understand that she's always under scrutiny and that "optics are all."

Right. And how were the "optics" when First Lady Laura Bush got a $700 haircut for the 2005 Inauguration? Or when Laura Bush went on vacation with her girlfriends along with an entourage of 25 in tow? And how were the "optics" when the taxpayers spent more than $20 million flying the Bushes back and forth to their vacation retreat in Crawford, Texas?

How were those "optics"? They were just fine because nobody in the Beltway press corps ever cared about Laura Bush's "optics." Instead, for eight years she was, without question, deemed off-limits to any sort of sustained scrutiny. First Lady Bush was off-limits in a way that her Democratic predecessor, Hillary Clinton, was not. And she was off-limits in a way that her current Democratic successor most certainly is not.

Yes, the press uses a different, snarkier standard when covering Democratic first ladies. And frankly, all hell would've broken loose on the Right if anyone in the press even thought about putting Laura Bush under a partisan lens, let alone questioning her intentions.

The truth is, the press barely paid any attention to Laura Bush. At this point in President Bush's first term, the Times' Dowd had referenced Laura Bush in just seven columns. But already Dowd -- deeply, deeply disturbed by the Spain vacation -- has mentioned Michelle Obama in 18 different columns. (Kind of obsessive, right?)

Don't get me wrong. By all indications Laura Bush was a decent, lovely and caring first lady, which is how she was routinely portrayed. But I'd suggest those terms also applied to Hillary Clinton and currently apply to Michelle Obama, and the press just doesn't seem to buy it. The press did not extend to the Democrats the same zone of privacy with which they blanketed Laura Bush. Instead, prompted by unhinged right-wing attacks, Hillary and Michelle were instantly put under a microscope by the mainstream press and forced to defend themselves and their "optics."

But wait, Hillary had a hard time because she was so ambitious, right? She was part of a two-for-one deal with her husband and she stuck her nose into all kinds of policy pursuits, so of course the press treated her tenure differently. Or so went the argument at the time.

Even if you buy that line, it doesn't explain the press treatment for Michelle Obama, who has adopted a very traditional approach to her first lady status. After all, is trying to get kids to eat healthy any more controversial than trying to get kids to read more, which is what Laura Bush did for eight years? And yet Obama gets tagged with the aggressive, partisan Clinton-type coverage, not the Bush-style laissez faire approach.

Just look at the headline for Andrea Taranto's column in the New York Daily News last week that kicked off the Spain vacation frenzy:

Material Girl Michelle Obama is a modern-day Marie Antoinette on a glitzy Spanish vacation

That kind of sneering, flippant headline about the First Lady would have been inconceivable during the Bush years, no matter what the specific topic in play. I doubt there was a single mainstream newspaper in the country that would have published such a nasty, disrespectful headline about Laura Bush. By contrast, I doubt editors at the Daily News thought twice about peddling the right-wing hate. Why? Because Michelle Obama, after less than two years in the White House, is now considered fair game for political sniping. She's a fair target, just like her husband.

And that's how the right-wing media, with the help of the corporate press, have moved the goal posts so that everything Michelle Obama does is now in play and seen through a political lens and is subjected to the same type of sniping that elected public officials are. It's the same standard the press used for Hillary Clinton, and it's a standard the same press corps absolutely refused to apply to Laura Bush.

Maybe that's because liberal partisans pretty much left the First Lady alone during the Bush years. By contrast, conservative blogger and columnist Michelle Malkin, for example, has been running down Michelle Obama for years, portraying her as an arrogant, corrupt, and conniving you-know-what, and doing so in a way no A-list liberal voice ever did during Bush's eight years in office with regards to the First Lady.

For whatever reason, an obvious media double standard exists, and it was on full display for the Spain vacation kerfuffle as the Beltway press bought into a right-wing lie: Michelle Obama and 40 of her friends were staying at luxury hotels billing taxpayers for their $75,000-a-day jaunt.

None of that was true. None. Of. It.

But instead of turning the misinformation into the story (who lies about a First Family vacation?), the press looked past the falsehoods and embraced the underlying narrative; a nasty little tale pundits seemed anxious to amplify. And that narrative was this: Who the hell does Michelle Obama think she is? And yes, nearly two decades ago that was the exact same question pundits put to Hillary Clinton upon her arrival in the White House.

Egged on by professional Obama haters, the press pretended the Spain vacation was a story, but note how reporters had to strain to prop it up with slippery phrasing [emphasis added]:

  • "As the economy endures high unemployment and a jittery stock market, President Obama has preached sacrifice and fiscal discipline. But the pictures coming out of a sun-splashed Spanish resort this week may be sending a different message." [Los Angeles Times]
  • --"Michelle Obama's vacation to southern Spain has seemed inappropriate" [Mediaite]

Meanwhile, the Associated Press stressed that, "In a time of nearly double-digit unemployment and economic uncertainty, that sounded more than a little off-key to many in the U.S." It's just that the AP never substantiated the "many" part. (Just take the AP's word on it, OK? It knows.)

Did anyone care about the Obama vacation? Republican members of Congress certainly did not. I don't think I saw a single one quoted all week criticizing the summer Spain trip. Still, the press did its best to stress that the nation was upset about the situation. (Or technically, may be upset.) Since we haven't seen any formal polling data, how did pundits and reporters know for sure? Well, they were annoyed about the vacation, and so of course that meant Americans were, as well, right?

Oh, brother.

In terms of un-scientific data, though, the New York Daily News included a reader poll with Tarantos' attack on the First Lady, asking if people thought "Michelle Obama should ditch high life for more down-to-Earth image: A whopping 72 percent said no, and agreed that she "she promotes positive living and the American dream of prosperity."And in truth, this press-sponsored kerfuffle had nothing to do with the first lady being in Spain because she has routin

ely been the subject of press sniping when she was stateside -- like last summer, when far too many people in the presswasted everybody's time "debating" whether the shorts Michelle Obama was wearing while on vacation were too short. Todayhost Matt Lauer conceded the topic was "crazy," but then hosted a debate on the issue anyway. (FYI, the results from a viewer survey conducted by Today were overwhelmingly in favor of Michelle Obama being able to wear whichever shorts she wants. Spot the trend?)

Please keep in mind that last summer the painfully dumb media debate revolved around whether Michelle Obama was dressed too casually while on vacation. (Those darn shorts!) Fast-forward one year and part of this summer's painfully dumb media 'debate' revolved around whether Michelle Obama was dressed too nicely while on vacation.

Try to imagine why a sentence like this would ever appear in a news article from one of the country's largest newspapers:

Earlier in the week, the first lady was photographed walking through the streets of the Costa del Sol region wearing a one-shouldered Jean Paul Gaultier top.

That was from a straight news story in the Los Angeles Times. Obvious implication: The first lady was caught flaunting it.

But remember, it's all about "optics," and Michelle Obama's have been awful lately. Luckily for Laura Bush, she never had any.

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