There’s little Republicans and Democrats agree on in Washington these days, but the informal ban on publicly ripping on the president’s children appears to be one of the few remaining spots of common ground — or so a young GOP aide learned Monday. The hard way.
A Facebook dis that was posted Friday about the Obama daughters’ appearance at the Thanksgiving turkey pardoning two days earlier apparently cost Elizabeth Lauten, a congressional communications director, her job. It also served as a reminder that some bits of Washington decorum remain. The kids, it seems, are still off-limits.
“I heard about it and I thought, ‘No, no, she didn’t really go after Malia and Sasha. Did she really?’” said Myra Gutin, a communications professor at Rider University who has written about first families. “I don’t know that anyone has ever gone after first children in such a way.”
Of course, a stray comment here and there isn’t unheard of. Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton and the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna, all were subject to scrutiny and mockery. But experts noted how the protocol is being tested more than ever before by the hyper-opinionated, insta-commentary world of social media. Although plenty of kids have lived in the weird bubble of the White House, perhaps none have experienced it quite like the current first teens.
“Anybody in America who posts something online or is a blogger or wants to engage in the media can make statements like this when the [Obama] girls are in public, because they were at a public event,” said Anita McBride, who was First Lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff and earlier worked under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “When they do choose to be part of public events with their parents, it’s hard to ignore them. It’s hard to ignore a photo of them. It’s hard to ignore commentary on them.”
Gutin agrees, noting how reaction time to stories changed with social media.
“At another time, if the comment had been made in a newspaper, who knows? It might have been picked up by a newspaper or two,” she said. “But I don’t think it would have started anything near the firestorm this did.”
Even in a town where politicians hold little back and junior aides are empowered to tear into political opponents on Twitter, many remained confused by Lauten’s intentions. Did she think the post would be seen only by her Facebook friends? Was she trying to start a debate? What was she thinking?
Lauten, who later apologized, wasn’t answering questions Monday. She did not respond to multiple calls and emails.
Her former boss, U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a conservative Republican from Tennessee, would not comment on what a staffer called a personnel matter.
Lauten’s previous boss, former GOP Rep. Joe Walsh, wasn’t so reserved.
In an interview, Walsh, now a radio talk show host in Chicago, said Lauten worked in his office from January to August 2011. He remembered her as a nice person who “was very up on Facebook and Twitter. She was quite experienced in the usage of social media.”
Yet even Walsh, once one of the least restrained Obama critics in Congress, criticized Lauten’s choice of target.
He said one might expect the girls to be accustomed to the limelight or that “Mr. or Mrs. Obama would have talked to them” in advance of the public event.
“It doesn’t bother me what [the first daughters] were wearing and if their behavior was not appropriate, but that’s something for Mom and Dad to deal with, not us,” Walsh said. “Which is why Elizabeth should have kept her mouth quiet.”
The first daughters, Sasha, 13, and Malia, 16, are certainly used to the limelight, but they rarely linger in it, on camera, at length.
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have limited the girls’ formal appearances to a handful of traditional White House events, such as the turkey pardoning, and the occasional walk to or from the presidential helicopter when traveling with their parents.
The girls don’t do interviews. The first lady’s office rarely answers reporters’ questions about their private activities or whereabouts. It can be difficult to confirm basic details about their lives — such as why the pair skipped part of the family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in 2013. (They were at camp.)
That absence from official events probably puts the occasional appearance under the microscope. When the girls posed for selfies and goofed around in the stands at their dad’s inauguration parade in 2013, it became fodder for “They’re just like us!” commentary.
When Malia was spotted at a Lollapalooza concert in Chicago this summer, the images turned up quickly on Twitter.
On Wednesday, the girls stood at a distance from their dad and a lucky turkey for the hokey annual pardoning tradition. Malia occasionally smiled politely at her dad’s jokes; Sasha was less effusive. The president had to prod them closer to the bird.
McBride, who has a 17-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, said she saw nothing unusual in the girls’ behavior. Their clothes — miniskirts and sweaters — were par for the course for their age. Their demeanor was typical for teens stuck on camera and perhaps a bit bored.
“They’re 16 and 13.... They didn’t look interested in being there,” said McBride, who added that she didn’t blame them. Maybe the turkey pardoning is an event whose “time has come and gone,” she said.
The White House didn’t bite on the dust-up, even on Monday. A spokesman wouldn’t comment on Lauten’s reported resignation and offered only his surprise.
“I was taken aback that there was some — a political operative on Capitol Hill who did use the occasion of … a Thanksgiving-themed event to criticize members of the first family,” Josh Earnest said, adding that the kids-are-off-limits rule of thumb remains “pretty much common sense.”