First Media Gift for Michelle's 50th Birthday: WashPost Hails Her as 'A First Lady for the Ages'

Tuesday’s Washington Post Express tabloid went gooey three days early for Michelle Obama’s birthday. “FLOTUS at 50,” they touted on the cover page. Inside, the headline on the article was “A First Lady for the Ages.” All it was lacking was a smiley-faced emoticon.

The article was recycled from the Sunday Outlook section, where former Post fashion reporter Robin Givhan tried to “correct” five “myths” about Mrs. Obama – except they only ran three, leaving out the least persuasive one, number four -- "She hates Princeton" --  based on Michelle’s Princeton term-paper lamentations of being treated "like a visitor" by the white students and professors.

The Express explained at the article’s top: “Michelle Obama hits the half-century mark Friday, and by her own account, she feels more relaxed now that her husband’s days as a candidate are over. ‘I have never felt more confident in myself, more clear on who I am as a woman,’ Obama told People magazine when asked about her 50th birthday. But in the public eye, misperceptions still linger. What’s true, what’s not, and what will we take away from her days as the nation’s leading lady?

The first “myth” was “Michelle Obama is the most fashion-friendly First Lady.” If that’s a myth, it was actually spread by Givhan!

The second myth was “She is a food tyrant of Bloombergian intolerance.”

The third myth is “Her legacy will be Let’s Move or Joining Forces [for military families].” Givhan claimed "White House arts workshops, visits to underserved schools, and the inclusion of young people in state events are now standard practice and may be her most lasting legacy."

It was the fourth myth – “She hates Princeton” – that sounded like desperate spin:

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s senior thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” was exhumed from the archives of the university and fueled the perception that she detested it. “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before,” she wrote. “I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second.”

After she declined invitations to return for special events and skipped her 25-year reunion with a reference to a scheduling conflict, speculation about her animosity intensified. Princeton alumni — I’m one — celebrate reunions with ferocity. Skipping one’s 25th? That’s heresy.

Still, there’s no active vitriol. The conclusions of her thesis are nuanced and measured. More than a reprimand of a school struggling with diversity, they explain her determination to stay connected to the black community.

It’s “nuanced and measured” to report “whites at Princeton make me feel like a Black first and a student second”? You have to enjoy the legalese: not there’s no vitriol toward Princeton, just no “active vitriol.”


This “myth” never received much media play, and especially not since 2008. For example, here’s The Washington Post in Anne Kornblut's front-page Michelle profile on May 11, 2007, quickly washing over it as part of her thoughtfulness:

Identity issues are something Obama has confronted head-on all of her life: as a black student at Princeton, where she wrote her senior thesis based on surveys of black alumni, then as an Ivy League-educated professional woman surrounded by white men, and now as the wife of a man who could become the first black president of the United States. She is no less thoughtful about labels she chooses to apply to herself -- and those she rejects -- than her husband, who has made his half-African, half-Kansan lineage and his part-Hawaiian upbringing a focal point of his narrative.

PS: The article included this large “You go girl” text box:

“I can’t help but think that, before the Obamas leave office, Michelle will take the handoff from her husband and – head down – go right up the middle for a touchdown.” – Robert Watson, who studies First Ladies at Florida’s Lynn University and said Obama probably wants to do more but is reluctant to step out too far because of public distaste for active, assertive First Ladies.

UPDATE: A Nexis search suggests this is the entirety of the Laura Bush 60th birthday coverage in The Washington Post for November 4, 2006 and the surrounding week:

President Bush, as any smart husband should, left the campaign trail yesterday in time to celebrate his wife's 60th birthday at the family ranch in Texas. Our colleague Peter Baker reports that the president gave Laura Bush a triple-strand, amber-colored citrine necklace. The low-key dinner included family friends Lois and Roland Betts, Regan and Billy Gammon, Debbie and Jim Francis, and Nancy and Mike Weiss. No word on what the president is giving Mrs. Bush for their 29th wedding anniversary today

Wait a minute: so on November 5, 2007, the Bushes celebrated their 30th anniversary. How did the WashPost cover that? They didn't But on that 30th anniversary, they did have White House reporter Peter Baker write up another relationship --  "An Unlikely Partnership, Left Behind" -- about Bush and his partner....Ted Kennedy.

They did have a story on the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- but no Bush news.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis