Sunday, November 23, 2008

The next Jackie Kennedy?

One reason speculation is running rampant about Mrs Obama's plans and goals: She's said little about them, and her close friends have spoken little since. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK - SURE, there's plenty of pressure on Mr Barack Obama.

But imagine being his wife.

The moving trucks haven't even arrived, and already Michelle Obama's being touted as the next Jackie Kennedy, the woman who'll infuse Washington with a sense of style and vigor not seen since the days of Camelot.

Never mind that Mr Obama has repeatedly indicated she'll focus first and foremost on getting her daughters settled. Expectations on all fronts are running high.

Will she be a fashion trendsetter? Redefine and revitalise the capital's social scene? Be a globe-trotting emissary for her spouse? Going beyond Mrs Kennedy, will she influence policy on family issues?

Will she be an exemplary mom, hostess, ambassador, advocate and politician, combining it all without wrinkling feathers or breaking a sweat?

Well, maybe. But if history is any guide, first ladies have long been victims of conflicting expectations and comparisons to those before them.

So as she assumes one of the least defined but most scrutinized jobs in Washington, Mrs Obama might do well to take the advice of Rosalynn Carter: 'I was going to be criticised no matter what I did,' Ms Carter once said, 'so I might as well be criticized for something I wanted to do'.

One reason speculation is running rampant about Mrs Obama's plans and goals: She's said little about them, and her close friends, some of whom spoke openly to the media before the election, have spoken little since.

She did give a brief glimpse of her thinking in an interview this week with '60 Minutes'.

'The primary focus for the first year will be making sure that the kids make it through the transition,' she said, sitting alongside her husband.

'But there are many issues that I care deeply about.'

She cited two that she focused on during the campaign: Military families, and the work-family balance.

There's been speculation that Mrs Obama will be far more involved in policy than she's let on so far. But those who've been close to other first ladies say they well understand why she'd want to focus on her kids first.

'It's a huge responsibility,' says Mr Paul Costello, former press aide to Ms Rosalynn Carter, whose daughter, Amy, was only 9 when she arrived at the White House. 'These kids are now instant international celebrities. You have to protect them from that.'

Still, Mr Costello says, even between the hours of 8.30 am and 3 pm, there are astounding opportunities.

'The first lady has enormous authority and power in this country to shed light on things she cares about,' he says. 'She's a megastar. She'll be able to choose and transform issues that she finds important.'

Of course, that can lead to criticism, as it did for Ms Carter, who famously became the first presidential spouse to sit in on Cabinet meetings. She figured it was the most efficient way of preparing herself to represent the administration.

'It was as if she'd dropped a bomb on the South Lawn,' says Mr Costello. 'It was so odd, because the first lady IS an ambassador for the president - she's his eyes, ears and nose.'

Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony says the public misperceived what Carter, who also maintained a weekly working lunch with her husband, was trying to do.

'She was just avoiding having to bother him later with questions,' says Mr Anthony, of the National First Ladies Library.

'She was on the perimeter of the room, along with policy aides, secretaries and assistants.'

If Ms Carter was criticised for being too politically active, Ms Nancy Reagan, her successor, was criticised for being too socially active (and spending money on new china). But they can at least take heart that criticism of first ladies goes back to the beginning of the Republic.

Ms Abigail Adams, the nation's second presidential spouse, was derisively called 'Mrs President' by an anti-Federalist, Mr Albert Gallatin, for her partisan support of her Federalist husband, John.

Ms Dolley Madison, on the other hand, was admiringly called 'Presidentress' by some for her role as a national symbol for all Americans, one who knew 'how to strike the delicate balance between queen and commoner', Mr Anthony says. But Ms Elizabeth Monroe, who came next and was much less popular, suffered from the comparison.

Even Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, known for travelling the world and speaking out on issues from poverty to civil rights to women's rights, was not immune from criticism.

And Mrs Jackie Kennedy herself, revered for her style and flair, was initially seen as too young, was once called 'too darned snappy' in the press, and even had her hair described as 'a mop'.

By the time Mrs Hillary Rodham Clinton came onto the scene, she was hardly the first to assume a strong political role. But Mrs Clinton, who'd been a successful attorney and children's advocate, went farther, establishing an office in the West Wing and accepting an assignment from her husband to overhaul the nation's health care system. When that failed, it harmed the standing of both spouses.

Mrs Laura Bush took a much more quiet approach, and thus is widely seen as a more traditional first lady.

But over the years she has in fact traveled overseas on her own, delivered some of her husband's Saturday radio addresses and championed causes like women's rights in Afghanistan and pro-democracy activists in Myanmar.

While Michelle Obama, with degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law, may arrive at the White House with a resume more like Mrs Clinton's, evidence suggests she may take a page from Mrs Laura Bush, approaching the political aspects of the job more gingerly. It might be a wise move not only for her image, but for her sanity.

'I think readers have already shown what they want from Michelle Obama - they want her to bring style back to the White House,' says Ms Lesley Jane Seymour, editor of More, a magazine for women over 40.

Its cover photo and interview with Mrs Obama made the October issue one of the year's best sellers.

'This is a different world,' says Ms Seymour. 'People say Barack Obama is 'post-race', and you could say Michelle Obama is 'post-first-lady'.'

'She's great-looking and accomplished, and not afraid to dress like it.'

Ms Seymour particularly liked the close-fitting, bright red dress Obama wore to meet the Bushes at the White House.

'She was saying, 'Here I Am',' Ms Seymour says. 'I think she's gonna be gangbusters as first lady.' -- AP

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