WashPost Dutifully Helps First Lady Hawk New Gardening Book

May 30th, 2012 1:30 PM

Michelle Obama is out with a new book about the White House vegetable garden and Krissah Thompson of the Washington Post is doing her level best playing book publicist.

"One of Michelle Obama's early worries about life in the White House had to do with a plot of land," Thompson gushed in the lead paragraph of today's page A4 story. "[T]he first lady found herself fretting over whether her much-hyped garden would grow," Thompson added, going on to quote a passage from Mrs. Obama's new book:

“I was like any other hopeful gardener with a pot out on the windowsill or a small plot by the back door. I was nervously watching the sky. Would it freeze? Would it snow? Would it rain?” she writes in her first book, “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.

It's hard to imagine say Ann Romney or Laura Bush making such a statement without being met by skepticism -- however politely couched -- about being just another backyard gardener worried about the enterprise failing.

After all, as the New York Times reported in March 2009, the heavy lifting and the day-to-day management of the garden fell to professional White House gardening staff (emphases mine):

The Obamas will feed their love of Mexican food with cilantro, tomatillos and hot peppers. Lettuces will include red romaine, green oak leaf, butterhead, red leaf and galactic. There will be spinach, chard, collards and black kale. For desserts, there will be a patch of berries. And herbs will include some more unusual varieties, like anise hyssop and Thai basil. A White House carpenter, Charlie Brandts, who is a beekeeper, will tend two hives for honey.

The total cost of seeds, mulch and so forth is $200, said Sam Kass, an assistant White House chef, who prepared healthful meals for the Obama family in Chicago and is an advocate of local food. Mr. Kass will oversee the garden.

The plots will be in raised beds fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand. Ladybugs and praying mantises will help control harmful bugs.

Cristeta Comerford, the White House’s executive chef, said she was eager to plan menus around the garden, and Bill Yosses, the pastry chef, said he was looking forward to berry season.

The White House grounds crew and the kitchen staff will do most of the work, but other White House staff members have volunteered.

So have the fifth graders from Bancroft. “There’s nothing really cooler,” Mrs. Obama said, “than coming to the White House and harvesting some of the vegetables and being in the kitchen with Cris and Sam and Bill, and cutting and cooking and actually experiencing the joys of your work.”

For children, she said, food is all about taste, and fresh and local food tastes better.

It's all well and good that Mrs. Obama is the first first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to plant a veggie garden on the White House grounds, but it's pretty obvious that her work in the garden is mostly photo-op stuff, like planting the seeds and helping harvest the crops with local schoolchildren.

But to the Washington Post, Obama's garden and the book she's written is worth 13 paragraphs of coverage in the A-section. After all, the first lady is "playing a central role in her husband's reelection campaign."

By contrast, Emma G. Keller of the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian had a decidedly more skeptical take on the the May 29-released American Grown, seeing it as a nakedly political book release that lacks soul because, well, the first lady is not really a gardener-at-heart (emphasis mine):

Too late for spring planting, but nicely timed for the campaign season comes Michelle Obama's new book: American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.

The book is embargoed until Tuesday, but the local bookstore happily sold me a copy last week – though the sting of the $30 cover price (plus tax) slightly took the edge off the thrill of getting the tome early. What did I get for my money? A highly-glossed, over-packaged book about planting good old American values, positioning the first lady as nourisher and nurturer as she heads off round the country in support of her husband.

Flotus now is first gardener – albeit a meticulously well-groomed and polished one. I spent a considerable amount of time going through the book peering at shiny pictures of Michelle Obama's manicured fingernails trying to find some dirt under them. Try as I might, I couldn't spot a speck.

This book is gardening as photo-op; as such, it's a little stomach-churning.


[I]t's an old-fashioned project with a tried and tested formula. It was in 1943, after all, that Eleanor Roosevelt planted her second world war victory garden at the White House in a move seen as a civil morale booster. Roosevelt's garden inspired 20m gardens to be planted around the country, eventually providing almost 40% of the nation's fresh vegetables.

But Obama's garden was created to address not hunger, but obesity. In February 2010, she launched Let's Move!, a nationwide initiative to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Her aim – like Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters – was to bring healthier food into schools and communities. She wants us, as she puts it, "to build a healthier future for our next generation".

So this is a gardening book that looks "forward", in keeping with the Obama 2012 campaign slogan. It gives the first lady a solid platform from which to address the nation.


It's easy to be cynical about this whole gardening/publishing/first lady campaign enterprise. What makes it harder to swallow, however, is Obama's obvious iffiness about it all. It's so transparent that it was parodied in last week's episode of Veep when Julia-Louis Dreyfus, as the female vice-president, is told about her next assignment. It prompts the following exchange:

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You do not do this to me. Do not say that it is obesity. Do NOT say that to me."

"It is obesity. I'm sorry ma'am, but you have drawn the fat straw."

"You want to know the secret to keeping weight off? Shut your fucking pie hole, how about that? It's not rocket science."

If the book lacks soul, it's because the first lady's heart isn't in it: she doesn't adore being first spouse and that's sad. She's no cook, she has said. She "grows" food for chefs to cook for her to eat at the White House table, but what she really enjoys is a night out with the girls. You can sense her restlessness and see it in the book's pages, where the most animated pictures of her show her dancing, hula-hooping and running.

That, my friends, is a brutally honest perspective, something you can't expect to find in the pages of the Washington Post.