On November 4, 2006, The New York Times noticed Laura Bush’s 60th birthday at the very end of a 1,000-word story on GOP campaigns on page A-6: “Mr. Bush's campaigning has been unusually light for a sitting president, and he heads to his Texas ranch on Saturday night to celebrate the 60th birthday of his wife, Laura Bush.” That's 31 words.
On January 17, The New York Times noticed Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday with a a huge color photograph on the top of the front page with the headline “A First Lady at 50, Finding Her Own Path.” Jennifer Steinhauer’s copy was so oozy about Michelle it felt like a slug was crawling across the newsprint:
WASHINGTON — She has perfected a mean forehand, is working on her yoga poses, dishes with girlfriends over brussels sprouts and dirty martinis (one olive) at the Mediterranean hotspot Zaytinya, pushes her two daughters to play two sports — one of her choosing and one of theirs — and said this week that the wonders of modern dermatology, like Botox, are in the realm of possibility for her.
Michelle Obama is in many ways the embodiment of the contemporary, urban, well-heeled middle-aged American woman. She likes to take “me time,” as she did during an extra vacation week this month without family in Hawaii, setting off a tabloid furor over the state of her marriage. She frets that her older daughter, 15-year-old Malia, hangs out with the boys a grade above her. She gardens, although unlike the rest of us, she has significant weeding help.
She toys with false eyelashes.
On Saturday night, Mrs. Obama will celebrate her 50th birthday (which falls on Friday) with dancing and sweets throughout the state floor of the White House, drawing the nation’s attention away from her husband, at least for an evening. Guests will sip fine American wines, consume delicate macarons and be entertained — the expectation is by Beyoncé.
The mix of Hollywood and quirky individualism (American caterers, ready yourself for the onslaught of dessert-and-cocktails-only party requests) underscores the conflicting diptych of glamorous mystery woman and regular PTA mother that defines America’s first lady. Five years in, she has cobbled together a full life in Washington.
Does that offer enough overtones of an Obama-owned-and-operated press? It sounds like Valerie Jarrett wrote this for the Times, but it's possible she wouldn’t have been quite as gooey.
Inside the paper, the headline on this 1,056-word story was "A First Lady Forging a Path Between Glamorous Mystery and Ordinary Life." Any politician wants to represent both sides of the contradiction, and the Times is willing to help. A bold pull quote next to another five positive color photographs boosting Michelle's image was "Behind the careful image, a zone of privacy zealously maintained."
This means Steinhauer didn't get anywhere close to Mrs. Obama for this oil slick. It wasn't kissing up for access. There was no access. The kissing up came with no apparent reward.
A critic might suggest that the media offered no such story on Laura Bush because she is humble and does not want the attention drawn to her (or her advancing age). But that critic doesn’t want to ponder the opposite: that profiles like this suggest self-centeredness and a hunger for a wave of sugary press clips.
In reality, the Times and its media counterparts are simply demonstrating how they earn the characterization as tools, rags, partisan assembly lines of words and images.
Let’s close with this obnoxious passage, in which the Times and a liberal historian of First Ladies trash every previous First Lady (except for Eleanor Roosevelt, seemingly trashing Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter) as not very racially conscious:
While Mrs. Obama has been careful not to define herself or her role strictly through race, she has paid steadfast attention to her role as a model and mentor to minority children from poor backgrounds like her own, and has built much of her policy agenda around them.
“She is more self-determinative than prior first ladies because she very rarely allows herself to be drawn into distracting conversations,” said Carl Anthony, a historian of first ladies. In addition, he said, “She speaks to a demographic pretty much ignored by the White House by all first ladies except for Eleanor Roosevelt.” He cited trips Mrs. Obama has made to the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington and White House invitations she has extended to local working-class African-Americans.
Somebody just got added to Hillary's enemies list.