The Book Club

Michelle Obama was right to hire a fancy designer for the White House

Do we really want our first ladies serving Hamburger Helper?

First lady Michelle Obama
First lady Michelle Obama

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Ha! I love your political reading of the taupe Oval Office! The damned-if-she-does, damned-if-she-doesn’t situation Michelle finds herself in with respect to fashion, decoration, and entertaining is exacerbated by the weight of being the first black first lady in the White House, which seems to make her feel she needs to set an example for blacks and bust stereotypes for whites. While her predicament seems overwhelming, the solution, which took her a couple of years to warm to—and if she hadn’t been so loath to look back at other first ladies she could have learned sooner—is playing politics. She at first resented this, but eventually learned it’s how you get stuff done.

Michelle tried to be a private citizen and mother in the White House, and while that makes sense on a rational level, it didn’t play in Peoria, or on cable. She and her husband want to go out for a nice dinner (at one of our fave restaurants, Blue Hill) and to a Broadway show. Outrageous? Not so much. Her best friend and daughter are going to Spain for a special birthday trip for few days, and want Michelle and Malia to join. Excessive? Whatever. She’s moving into a new house and gets a Congressionally-mandated $100,000 budget to make it into a home for her family, especially her two uprooted kids, so she hires a fancy decorator to help. Out of touch? Not to this mommy. (And frankly, no one should be forced to live in the dreary, brown-furniture-filled hotel lobby the Bushes bequeathed them.)

In a time of unemployment and recession, do we want our first lady making bookshelves from cinderblocks and two-by-fours, serving Hamburger Helper, and wearing Hillary-like pantsuits? We, the American public, like to bitch and drag others down into our misery, but we also want glamour and sparkle and a little fantasy.

It seems Jackie Kennedy had it so easy, with her glamorous gowns and splendid fêtes and wonderful White House redecoration. But Jackie was crafty. She loved French designers, but often put forward the American Oleg Cassini as her chief frock-maker while wearing Givenchy, including for the inauguration. For her revamp of the White House, she used the American decorator “Sister” Parish in large part as a beard to hide her fancy French decorator Stéphane Boudin. She also created the Fine Arts Commission, putting American antiques expert Henry Francis du Pont at its helm, in order to get the furniture she wanted donated. The price she paid was standing by quietly while du Pont rearranged the furniture in the White House sitting rooms to his liking. As soon as he left, she moved it all back to how Boudin wanted it. This trickery yielded the best-looking White House, in my opinion, we’ve ever had. (Nancy Reagan’s wasn’t so bad either,)

I am impressed Michelle went for a big-name decorator with mega style cred. I hope while she and decorator Michael Smith (whom I know from my previous life as a shelter-magazine editor) are at it, they fix the Blue Room in which Hillary and her Little Rock decorator Kaki Hockersmith enacted crimes of taste during that first lady’s short-lived headbands-and-cookie-baking phase.

I realize that I sound like a snobby, out-of-touch, elitist and that if Fox cared about me, they would pummel me to a fine mush. But I was unemployed while all that was going down, and it didn’t make me want to see my first lady on the subway seat next to me.

While this book did not go behind the closed doors of the presidential suite, it did afford us a close and valuable look inside the White House itself, the administration so far, and its key players. Happily I read, and happily I came home and put on my sweatpants.

With love, yr wife,