Trust me, this is going to hurt me more than it is you:
Writing in the New Republic, former White House West Wing press aide Reid Cherlin goes pretty far out on a limb for a former in-guy with the Obama towel-whipping society, describing First Lady Michelle Obama as a controlling yet sometimes fickle East Wing boss who has created an unhappy work environment.
I credit Mrs. BTL for installing a sexism BS detector in my head. Women are often described in critical terms for the same traits that win men praise. Always, if you ask the missus.
So let’s tread carefully:
Apparently, all that spontanaiety you see from Michelle takes a lot of planning.
The first lady’s office can be a confining, frustrating, even miserable place to work. Jealousy and discontentment have festered, as courtiers squabble over the allocation of responsibility and access to Mrs. Obama, both of which can be aggravatingly scarce. Fueling these sentiments, according to former East Wing insiders, is the exacting but often ambivalent leadership style of the first lady herself.
Unlike her husband, who derives visible satisfaction from his ability to improvise, Mrs. Obama depends on structure to support her public warmth—the ease with which she’ll pick up a hula-hoop, say, or do the Dougie with school kids.
The imperative to guarantee results could be paralyzing. “That was the pressure on us,” one ex-aide told me. “‘Don’t do it if it’s not going to be perfect.’” Staff knew that every event should produce positive coverage, and that all the angles had to be exhaustively researched and gamed out (not easy with a team of less than 30).
But it was never completely clear what the standard of perfection should be. “There’s no barometer: The first lady having the wrong pencil skirt on Monday is just as big of a fuck-up as someone speaking on the record when they didn’t mean to or a policy initiative that completely failed,” says another former aide. “It just made you super anxious.”
Former staffers describe a high-stress, high-stakes workplace, in which Mrs. Obama scrutinized the smallest facets of her schedule. Aides in both wings of the White House say she insists on planning every move months in advance and finalizing speeches weeks ahead of time—a rigidity nearly unheard of in today’s chaotic political environment.
“For her, trust is huge, really feeling like people were protecting and thinking about her,” says one alum. “And then, also, she’s a lawyer. She’s really disciplined. She cares about the details. She’s never going to wing it.”
Imagine the first black First Lady of the United States wanting to be the personification of perfection! Imagine her holding to account the people on whom she relies!
There’s plenty I don’t like about Michelle Obama—her politics first and foremost. I’m also tired of her hectoring tone. (A-WOO-GAH! A-WOO-GAH! Sexism alert!!) Her bossiness. (CRACK!!! That just broke the detector.)
But I haven’t learned anything damning about her yet. Let’s keep trying:
All of this led to a culture of harsh internal judgment. Invitations to meetings with the first lady, in her office above the Jackie Kennedy Garden, became a vital status symbol, a way for staffers to measure their worth. “Every meeting was like an identity crisis, whether you got invited or not,” one former East Winger told me . . .
Whoever the chief of staff has been, Cherlin makes clear that the real power behind the throne is Valerie Jarrett, who gives the orders. Also very powerful is Sam Kass, who seems to have risen from Obama chef and gardener to all-round advisor and general-purpose guru.
They’ve become personal friends even intimates of the first lady, which Cherlin makes suggests, is what it takes to really succeed in the East Wing.
Talk about an unfair work environment.
What we’ve learned is that Michelle Obama is hypersensitive about her image. (What a bitch!) This makes her identical to any other woman not named Joan Rivers. Again, one could completely understand, and should certainly forgive, her compulsion to be a model First Lady (even First Mother), as she is the first African American to hold the position. While we might wish her to be more relaxed, more herself, she’s hardly in a comfortable position to do so. (Hey, maybe we’d rather she did not.)
We also learn that Mrs. Obama has her trusted intimates. That, too, is far from damning indictment.
I’ve had some pretty bad bosses, the worst of whom by far was a woman. She was irrational, temperamental, sharp-tongued, a nightmare to deal with in any capacity. But she was the boss, she ran the place. I bitched and moaned, to be sure, but my solution was to find another job. I did, and everyone lived happily ever after. (Except for my successor.)
We now return you to our regularly-scheduled First Lady bashing…