The Future First Lady, Finding Her Home in History

By Richard Leiby and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

After Michelle Obama crossed the threshold of her new home yesterday to meet with its outgoing occupants, she was briefed on what would convey: certain pieces of furniture, the carpeting and the drapes -- if these met her tastes -- and, of course, a tremendous sense of history. Meeting privately with Laura Bush while her husband conferred with the president in the Oval Office, the incoming first lady was participating in a century-old Washington ritual that represents the softer side of the serious business of a presidential transition.

It's a tradition that may not rank with the passing of secret nuclear-launch codes, but the White House visit by Michelle and Barack Obama was no less freighted with significance. "They will literally become living symbols of the country to the world, for all of history," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who has written several books about first ladies. "It will redefine their identities."

Michelle Obama had already made clear that her first priority will be smoothly settling her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, into this new life. She squeezed the White House visit in between trips to the private Georgetown Day School and Sidwell Friends School.

The transition team and staff at both schools in the District refused to discuss the visits. So it fell to a 10-year-old boy, Nicolo Pisoni, to offer on-the-record confirmation of her trip to Georgetown Day's campus on MacArthur Boulevard.

"I thought it was awesome because I saw the future first lady," the fourth-grader said. "I got really excited, but we weren't supposed to get excited. Not out loud. Our teachers told us not to get excited but to show Michelle it was a regular school day and that we aren't crazy kids. They didn't want us asking her for her autograph."

Isabel Dorval, a 10th-grader at Sidwell, said she was running on the field at the middle/upper school campus on Wisconsin Avenue a little after 4 p.m. when a convoy of cars arrived. About 45 minutes later, the motorcade drove off as Sidwell students waved. Michelle Obama rolled down the window and waved back: "It was cool," said 15-year-old Isabel.

Past presidents have sent their children to both public and private schools. But sources familiar with the process say they expect the Obamas to select a private school, where tuition for both girls would total more than $50,000 a year. The girls attend a private school now near their Chicago home, and Michelle is on the board of trustees.

As is customary during transitions, the outgoing first lady led her successor on a White House tour that focused primarily on the upstairs private residence, including three bedroom suites and three living areas. These areas, along with the Oval Office, are subject to redecoration, as opposed to the public rooms. A stop on the tour always of particular interest, Anthony said, is the first lady's sitting room, whose windows afford a direct view of the Oval Office below: "She can really keep an eye on who's coming and going, who's meeting with the president."

Michelle Obama and Laura Bush also spent time discussing "raising daughters in the White House," Stephanie Cutter, the Obama transition spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Mrs. Obama was honored to finally meet the First Lady, who was a gracious hostess." It was Michelle's second visit to the White House -- she was there once before with Malia and Sasha around the time of her husband's swearing-in to the Senate.

On MSNBC, Anita McBride, Laura Bush's chief of staff, said the first lady showed Michelle Obama where the Bush daughters, Jenna and Barbara, lived.

"She thought the rooms were beautiful and would be perfect for her two little girls and that they could decorate in a way that would be appropriate for young children," McBride said. "And it is a historic room. The Kennedy children lived there. The Johnson girls lived there, Chelsea Clinton as well . . . and Amy Carter."

Sasha Obama will be the youngest White House occupant since the children of John and Jacqueline Kennedy children lived there. "The comparisons with the Obamas and Kennedys are obvious," said Kati Marton, author of "Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History." "We will have a highly energized, very outgoing couple going in there with a global reach and a world that awaits them."

As a woman who has juggled work and family, Michelle, 44, will continue to be a "role model for so many women who are struggling in our country to make that balance work," said Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of the Obamas and co-chair of the transition team.

Another great interest of Michelle's is volunteerism, Jarrett said on Sunday to the Trotter Group, an organization of black journalists. She said Michelle -- like her husband, a Harvard-educated lawyer -- had expressed a desire to figure out more broadly "what can we do as Americans to volunteer and give back to our community."

"And then I think she'll go from there," Jarrett said. "I think it will evolve over time. She's not interested in being a co-president. She's not interested in sitting in the West Wing and making decisions with her husband as president. She's very comfortable that he will select a team that can help him do that. But I do think that she recognizes that she is a role model, and that people will look to her, and that when she shines a spotlight on an issue, its chances for being recognized and appreciated enhance greatly."

How the Obamas entertain, how they decorate, where their children will attend school -- ultimately all first family choices and activities add to an aggregate public impression. Historians now study first ladies as keenly as their husbands.

The tradition of the first lady meeting her successor began on Dec. 11, 1908, when Edith Roosevelt, Teddy's wife, invited Nellie Taft in for a tour, where she "overcompensated for her nervousness by acting high-handed," Anthony wrote in his book "Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era."

"After lunch as the two walked into the Green Room, Nellie quipped in a whisper loud enough for Edith to hear, 'I would have put that table over there.' "

So yet another evolution awaits Michelle Obama: lawyer, wife, mother, politician -- and now, first decorator.

Staff writer Kevin Merida contributed to this report.

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