First lady will need guts to survive one of the world’s toughest jobs

NOBODY’S sure just how many people are going to form the crush in the Mall and line the streets of Washington for tomorrow’s inauguration.

It will be somewhere between two and four million. Four hundred thousand came for George W Bush’s second inauguration. A total of 1.2 million came for Lyndon Johnson’s, following the Kennedy assassination.

The sheer numbers trekking across America, most of them from and through killingly cold states, underlines the hopes and dreams embodied in this slender biracial new Commander in Chief.

When he makes his first speech, the world will listen and analyse. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, will be watched and analysed, not for what she does or says or stands for, but for what she wears and how she looks.

The woman who was once Barack Obama’s boss has pulled the short straw. For now and for years to come. The role of first lady is a conflicted one and seems to be subject to an odd and perverse balance; when commentators and public decide they admire and like the president, they tend to dislike the first lady, and when they decide they don’t admire and like the president, the ratings on the first lady go up commensurately.

So, as George W’s ratings tanked, public sympathy, even affection, for Laura Bush rose. Three decades earlier, as Richard Nixon was loathed, as a result of Watergate, the silent Pat Nixon was admired all the more.

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan’s wife was portrayed as a flaky, unmaternal bad actress who consorted with psychics, borrowed designer clothes without paying for them, headed up an anti-drugs campaign jaw-dropping in its pointlessness and essentially hung around Ronnie looking at him adoringly.

Her place in public consciousness was so improved by her dignified management of her husband’s decline into Alzheimer’s that when Obama, during the presidential campaign, made a joke which was mildly unkind to her, he immediately took it back and telephoned her to apologise.

Jacqueline Kennedy was arguably as popular as her husband, largely because she made no waves other than fashion waves, and when forced to speak, did so with such brevity and in such high little-girl tones that her great intelligence was cleverly concealed.

Only two first ladies have failed to conceal their intelligence. Hillary Clinton’s brainpower was acknowledged by her husband handing over to her the task of finding a solution to the cost of healthcare. She failed.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s opportunity arose because of her husband’s immobility after suffering polio. He simply could not travel throughout the nation as an able-bodied president would have, and so needed an acceptable emissary.

It helped that Franklin and Eleanor were married in name only and that prolonged absences suited rather than hampered them as a couple. But what made Eleanor Roosevelt uniquely successful as a publicly-functional first lady was that she had a good mind, a constant intellectual curiosity, and a radicalism her husband did not share but was happy for her to express.

Since her time, first ladies have tended to be anonymous and invisible (like Mamie Eisenhower) or — with the exception of Hillary Clinton — to serve as advocates on safe, non-controversial issues.

Michelle Obama has described herself as “first mom” and stressed that she sees as paramount her role as mother to two little girls, one of whom (depending on whether or not Obama wins a second term) will be an adult when the family leaves the White House, having gone through adolescence in a fishbowl.

The fact that Michelle Obama beamed her way through the train journey to Washington does not mean she looks forward to the life set out for her in the immediate future. But she’s had a long time to think about it.

Back in 1996, a photography project about couples in America included the Obamas. The quotations accompanying that project have been re-published in this week’s New Yorker Magazine and illustrate what Michelle Obama described as “a little tension” about the possibility that her husband would go into politics.

“When you are involved in politics, your life is an open book,” she said at the time. “People can come in who don’t necessarily have good intent. I’m pretty private, and like to surround myself with people that I trust and love. In politics you’ve got to open yourself to a lot of different people.”

Even back then, it was clear that she was listening to herself and eager to put a positive gloss on even the aspects of her husband’s career she clearly dreaded.

“It’ll be interesting to see what life has to offer,” she went on. “The more you experiment the easier it is to do different things… Barack has helped me loosen up and feel comfortable with taking risks, not doing things the traditional way.”

Obama himself said that what he sees as a productive contrast between them derived from their different backgrounds: her solid two-parent family based in one location, his less orthodox life with his mother and step-father.

“We represent two strands of family life in this country — the strand that is very stable and solid, and then the strand that is breaking out of the constraints of traditional families, travelling, separated, mobile…”

Taking risks has already earned her a public thumping. Her comment — about Obama’s win — that it was the first time she’d felt proud of her country, brought disproportionate fury down on her head.

But what is much more likely to annoy her is mass media’s preoccupation with appearance. The non-designer dress she wore on a TV programme during the campaign sold out, nationally, within days of the appearance. What she said on the programme was forgotten. The red and black dress she wore to the victory announcement, on the other hand, was massively criticised. Every where she goes, from now on, she will generate kilometres of coverage about her height, her weight, her clothes and her shoes.

It’s a tough job. The indications are that she’ll handle it well, not least because of the complexity within her personality about which, more than a decade ago, her husband told the woman who came to take the photograph of the two of them.

“Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from,” he said. “But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she is walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her.”

Let’s hope this tall, beautiful, confident woman walks out of the White House at the end of the Obama presidency knowing she handled one of the toughest jobs in the world with flair and individuality, and that her family gained, rather than lost, during Barack Obama’s time in office.

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