March 28 2014
The Snake Pit: Michelle Obama’s hell hole of an East Wing
While Michelle Obama was communing with the Terracotta Army from the Tang Dynasty on her most recent taxpayer-funded spring break in China, Reid Cherlin, a former White House press aide, was blowing the whistle in the New Republic on what an overbearing control freak Mrs. Obama is.
He did so in an article headlined “The Worst Wing: How the East Wing Shrank Michelle Obama,” which, as the title implies, doesn't really blame Mrs. Obama for turning the First Lady's offices in the East Wing into a hell hole. Indeed, Mrs. Obama—surprise! surprise!—is a victim of the spirit-squelching job of being first lady.
While the article isn’t especially revealing about Mrs. Obama—she only really likes to hang with Valerie Jarrett, last seen sporting a super-sized "Ban Bossy" button (just kidding) it speaks volumes about the kind of people who go to work for the first family.
What is most apparent from Cherlin’s article is that the Obama courtiers are very different from you and me. They live in their own special world. Only people who live in such an insular environment could believe, for example, that Pajama Boy—who, come to think of it, looks a little like he could be Mr. Cherlin’s cousin—of the ObamaCare ad would be a convincing advocate for enlisting young people to follow his lead into adulthood by signing up for government-approved insurance.
One also notices that Mrs. Obama's staff truly are courtiers, never looking beyond the Obama façade. They also misunderstand the role of the First Lady—at least as it was understood up until Hillary Clinton—believing that they should be directly involved in policy from the East Wing. Before Mrs. Clinton, whose portfolio included healthcare, the first lady was separate from the policy arena.
Now it is a hybrid job, with vestiges of the past, when the first lady adopted a ladylike cause. Nancy Reagan’s project was getting people to say “no” to drugs, for example. I remember how amusing it was when Second Lady Marilyn Quayle’s adopted as her cause relief from natural disasters. Big mistake. Natural disasters don't happen on schedule, so Mrs. Quayle had to get a new cause. Mrs. Obama’s causes on the surface are “first lady” causes—childhood obesity, the need for exercise—but with a twist: there is always the specter of government regulation to enforce her vision. So it is to be expected that she would attract staff members who are more ideologically-driven than did previous first ladies (except for Mrs. Clinton).
Cherlin writes of the particular challenge that confronted Mrs. Obama: “Perhaps no first lady in recent memory has entered the stately recesses of the East Wing under a higher burden of expectation than Michelle Obama. From her earliest appearances on the 2008 campaign trail, it was clear that she possessed rare political gifts.”
Without quite seeming to grasp the magnitude of her insult to the country her husband was seeking to lead, Cherlin recalls a particularly famous instance of Mrs. Obama's manifestation of her rare political gifts. “For the first time in my adult lifetime,” she memorably said, “I’m really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.” Cherlin is not dredging this up to admit that Obama might have had a tin ear or failed to appreciate the country pre-Obama. No, Cherlin focuses on “the backlash,” which was “predictable and swift.” Fancy that.
“When Michelle Obama entered the White House in 2009, she attracted staffers eager to bring about the policy prescriptions that she had so forcefully advocated on the trail,” Cherlin writes. One of the most gifted, in Cherlin’s telling, is a woman named Kristina Schake, a California political operative who had worked for Maria Shriver and against Proposition 8. The tone of the story leaves me wondering if it was written solely to promote Schake, who was “out the door” two and a half years later, ignominiously replaced by an Estee Lauder executive.
But she did manage to do some important work. “It was Schake who recommended that the first lady appear with celebrities like Jimmy Fallon for what have become familiar bouts of silliness: feeding kale chips to Fallon and Will Ferrell, or dunking a mini basketball on LeBron James as Dwyane Wade reads healthy-eating tips,” Cherlin writes approvingly. “Those appearances won important attention for the first lady’s signature issues.” Am I the only one who doesn’t think it’s ironic that feeding kale chips to Jimmy Fallon is seen as a good thing? But, if Ms. Schake is looking for a job, I wish her all the best. She now has the Cherlin piece as a glowing recommendation, no doubt.
Despite such magic moments as when the first lady kale chip fed Jimmy Fallon, however, all was not well in the East Wing. While only briefly a Schake pit, the East Wing remains a snake pit. The first lady’s office, according to Cherlin, “can be a confining, frustrating, even miserable place to work. Jealousy and discontentment have festered, as courtiers squabble over the allocation of responsibility and access to Mrs. Obama, both of which can be aggravatingly scarce. Fueling these sentiments, according to former East Wing insiders, is the exacting but often ambivalent leadership style of the first lady herself.”
Translation: it’s not really that pleasant to work for Mrs. Obama. Of course, the atmosphere described is not atypical in a high-powered office. What is noticeable is that Cherlin doesn’t hold Mrs. Obama accountable. The reason she is Teflon is…she is a lawyer, she has credentials. She’s not an unpleasant control freak. She is “really disciplined,” says a former staffer.
But how really disciplined is she when it comes to intellectual matters? For those of us who struggled through her Princeton thesis, Cherlin appears blinded. It was a shallow document on “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” and not the work of a highly-disciplined person. “To describe it as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be ‘read’ at all, in the strict sense of the verb,” said the late Christopher Hitchens. But in the Obama world of credentials and right ideology, none of this is even noticed. That Mrs. Obama is a horrible boss is overlooked—or even unrealized in this unreal universe.
Cherlin writes as a disappointed lover. Nowhere is this more poignant than at the end, when he recalls what might have been. It is worth quoting at some length:
And yet it’s hard not to harken back to the Michelle Obama of the early 2008 campaign. Just a few days before her speech in Madison, Mrs. Obama headlined a rally in the old music hall in downtown Cincinnati. As an itinerant campaign staffer assigned to the event, I watched from the back of the hall and was struck by the palpable force of her argument. She talked for an hour about race and inequality in frank, critical terms. At one point, she told a story about a young African American girl who had approached her at an event and told her that, if Barack Obama won the election, it would mean that she could be whatever she wanted when she grew up. Then the girl had burst into tears, Michelle told the crowd, because she knew that her country was already leaving her behind.
Just as Cherlin fails to come to grips with Mrs. Obama’s hell hole of an East Wing, he fails to recognize that there is even less opportunity for young African American girls today than when President Obama took office. Mrs. Obama comes across so negatively at Cherlin’s hand that I only have one question: is Mr. Cherlin willfully blind or passive aggressive?