Consider this: The country’s leading health-and-nutrition buttinsky has not just one but two Ivy League diplomas and earned over a quarter-of-a-million dollars back in 2006, before the Great Recession destroyed the hopes and dreams of entire generations, including those not yet born. Now she makes no salary at all and provides diet-and-exercise information that doesn’t even require a GED.
I speak of course of First Lady Michelle Obama, whose bold new initiative aims to get Americans to drink more…water. “Water is so basic,” Mrs. Obama told residents of Wisconsin’s Watertown (a coincidence, I’m sure). “And because it is so plentiful, sometimes we just forget about it amid all the ads we watch on television and all the messages we receive every day about what to eat and drink….The truth is, water just gets drowned out.”
Screw “Let’s Move,” Mrs. Obama’s previous crusade, which was designed to make us exercise. Now it’s time for “Let’s Drink.” But only water. Even in this economy – and despite ubiquitous government surveillance, constant rumors of war, and the slim but real possibility that any of us might accidentally show up on her husband’s secret kill list.
Can we please make it stop? And by it, I don’t just mean Mrs. Obama’s seemingly non-stop nagging and noodging about our weight. (In 2010, she transformed the South Lawn into a fitness boot camp for the White House Easter Egg Roll.)
And I don’t just mean her high-profile faux pas, such as when she showed up to dish out food to the homeless while sporting a pair of $540 sneakers. Or her pricey Christmas displays whose extravagance calls to mind both Marie Antoinette and Nancy Reagan.
No, I mean the entire Office of the First Lady, which consists of about two dozen people whose salaries are paid for by taxpayers. Isn’t there a budget crisis going on? Money is supposed to be so tight at the federal level that White House tours have been canceled and the president is down to employing just two (count ‘em) calligraphers. And yet we can afford a publicly subsidized entourage for the First Lady?
It’s not simply a question of money, of course. And it’s certainly not a question of gender, either. Who can imagine what fresh horrors await the American public if and when Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton gain the Oval Office? Could official “Let’s Snowmobile!” or “Let’s Kegel!” crusades be far off if Todd Palin or Bill Clinton become First Dude?
There’s a larger philosophical question at issue here. The whole point of a small “R” republic such as America is that it is supposed to do away with the spectacular and gaudy displays of familial privilege favored by monarchy and aristocracy. The government is not only elected, it’s supposed to be limited and its representatives – including the president him or herself – should eschew the courtly trappings of kings and queens.
Bill Clinton’s “two for the price of one” line back in 1992 didn’t simply rankle people who disliked Hillary Clinton – it offended people who take seriously the whole basis of the United States. To her credit, if not necessarily the country’s benefit, Hillary Clinton has blazed her own path as a senator and cabinet official (even as she must be agonizing over the prospect of Bill as First Husband).
It would be far better if Michelle Obama – and all past and future First Spouses – had taken the cues laid down by Howard Dean’s wife during the former Vermont governor’s bid for president in 2004. A practicing medical doctor, Judith Steinberg Dean chose to continue making rounds with her patients rather than jawboning the press and boring people with pet projects and causes. Ironically, her decision was seen as controversial precisely because it revealed that the Deans understood the deep structure of what is truly radical in the American political experiment.
Would that Michelle Obama might learn that lesson. Certainly she would be a far stronger role model – for young women and recent college grads, at least – if she continued to pursue her own career and show how it’s still possible to use what you learn in college in your professional life. That would surely be worth drinking to – and probably with something a bit stronger than water.