October 18 2013
The partial government shutdown has left the White House garden overrun with weeds, with fewer gardeners to maintain first lady Michelle Obama’s pride.
Regular maintenance has stopped on the garden and only periodic watering is being done, a White House official confirmed to CNN. That’s consistent with landscaping being performed on all National Park Service areas crippled by the shutdown throughout the country.
Of course, if the garden were something truly beloved of the First Lady and not just a stick with which to beat us over the head, she didn’t have to sit by and watch her garden go to ruin. It is a known fact: Gardens can be maintained without the federal government.
There is something telling about the image of the First Lady marooned in the White House, helplessly fretting that her garden is going to seed, waiting for government to do something before it’s too late. My grandfather, also vain of his vegetable garden, plowed it until he was in his nineties. Papa would hang his jacket on the fence by the parsley bed and spend happy hours maintaining a garden that was bigger than my apartment. Garden maintenance without federal aid is possible.
Did it never occur to Mrs. Obama to ask her daughters to help out in this dire emergency? Even Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II, helped out by volunteering for the Girl Guides during World War II. The future monarch was a driver and mechanic—she was behind the wheel of a military truck. Why didn’t Mrs. Obama call Sidwell Friends, the prep school attended by her daughters, and invite young people over to help in the garden? It would have given them an appreciation of why it is important to pitch in when there is an emergency. I can think of just the pitch for Mrs. Obama when inviting Sidwell students to help in the garden: “Let’s move!”
What does it say that the First Lady took no action to save her garden? Well, of course, when you’re trying to make the government shutdown (so called—only around 15 percent of the government was closed) as hard as possible, you’ll take your sob stories where you can find them. There is that. But the episode shows that, even at the highest echelon in the U.S., self-reliance has taken a hit. Even the First Lady wanted the feds to come riding and tend her garden.
The failure to do what could be done to save the garden also, I think, shows how pampered the upper echelon of American society has become. The idea that one could weed the garden, even if only a small portion of it, never seems to have crossed anybody’s mind. The idea that this might be a nice, public-spirited task for children also seems not to have occurred to anybody at the White House. And if the notion of our First Family gardening when there are no cameras around strikes you as beneath their dignity, then let’s bring back George III (except of course that he did garden — that’s why he was called Farmer George).
But mostly, I think, what this revealed is that the White House garden is just a weapon to make the rest of us feel bad for not eating the way Mrs. Obama tells us to eat. It is, in short, a show garden. So was my grandfather’s. He was proud of his garden. Visitors to our house often had to go to the garden to pay homage to what Papa and Burpee seeds had wrought. But we really did eat what he grew and he really did love the garden. He would never have let it go to seed to score points. Now we know the truth about the White House garden. It’s a soapbox, not a garden.
— Charlotte Hays is author of the upcoming When Did White Trash Become the New Normal?: A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question and director of cultural programs at the Independent Women’s Forum.