Michelle Obama visits Children's Hospital for Christmas with Malia, Sasha and Bo

By Robin Givhan
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

First lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and Bo -- that celebrity hound -- paid a Christmas season visit to young patients at Children's National Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon. Continuing a tradition begun by Bess Truman for spreading holiday cheer, the first lady greeted patients, thanked hospital staff for their work and read " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" to about 50 children along with their parents and caregivers.

This wasn't the first time Obama has headed out into the community to read to children, but it was Bo's first formal appearance since his unveiling back in the spring when he first arrived at the White House. The Obama girls preceded their mother into the hospital's atrium, where the children had gathered in anticipation of the holiday visit. The soaring space was decorated with hot-air-style balloons and a towering Christmas tree adorned with golden crescent moons.

The girls worked the velvet rope line, where children sat on chairs and cross-legged on the floor, along with Bo, who seemed as interested in a baggie of treats brought along by the girls to keep him on his best behavior as he was with the toes of a young man in a wheelchair. Bo, by the way, was looking particularly festive in a red and white jingle-bell collar.

There's an old adage in Hollywood that recommends adult actors never work with children or animals, for the actors will inevitably be upstaged. And indeed, that was the case at Children's Hospital. Before Obama began reading, Bo set to barking at the Santa Claus standing stage left. Truth be told, the fellow playing the role of Santa -- because the real one is, of course, busy with the elves getting all those toys in order -- was looking a bit sketchy, as if he had been on a low-fat diet of nothing but fruit and nuts. His belly was not shaking like a bowl full of jelly. To do justice to the famed gift-giver, he could have used more than a few of the cookies -- shaped like Christmas trees and Bo -- that the first lady had handed out.

Once Bo had been bribed with treats -- and skinny Santa had moved out of his sightline -- the first dog settled into silence and the first lady began the classic Christmas story. "So everyone pay attention to me," joked Obama, who was wearing black trousers and a raspberry-colored sweater.

"You ready?" she asked the children.

"You ready, Bo?" Indeed, he was.

After her lively reading, she handed the floor over to Sasha and Malia who, alternating pages, read "Snowmen at Night" by Caralyn Buehner and Mark Buehner. At the mention of hot chocolate in the story, Malia interjected that the mom in chief makes a fine cup of cocoa. Then, Obama asked for a repeat of a particularly rousing sound effect as Malia read her part of the tale: Wha-hooo!

Can you do that again? asked her mom. Wha-hooo!

The audience sat in rapt attention until it was time for them to ask questions. Curious children with a microphone. Can anything be more dangerous?

The first query? How will the holidays be different this year?

Obama let Sasha field that one: "It'll be easier to get on the plane," the youngest Obama noted.

Next query from the audience: What did you get the president for Christmas?

The first lady explained that if she answered it would spoil the surprise, so she said only that her gift was related to sports. Sasha teased: "It's something he likes!"

How many trees are in the White House? After some coaching from her staff, Obama told the assembled kids that there were 26 trees. And then Malia made clear that "unfortunately we don't get presents under all of them."

After a few more questions, one from a wise young patient who took the opportunity to ask for a photo with the first lady, Obama, her daughters and their dog said goodbye. But as Obama shook a few last little hands, one child asked, "Can I pet Bo?" Alas, he'd already exited the room. But a star always knows that his fans come first. So, even though his family had departed, Bo, tail wagging, made one final curtain call.

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