Marriage on parade

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009 10:36 AM

As best we can tell -- and you never really know about these things -- Barack and Michelle Obama have a pretty good marriage.

It is, of course, a marriage increasingly lived in front of the cameras.

It might not be too much to say that they market their marriage -- indeed, perhaps that has become a requirement for living in the White House.

Thus it was that the president, grappling with two wars, rising unemployment and a stalled health-care bill, sat down with the first lady to talk to the New York Times Magazine about. . . . their relationship.

That was a journalistic coup, given the level of public interest. Most people seem fascinated with both Barack -- from his BlackBerry to his basketball games -- and Michelle, with her dresses and her garden and her mom role. The Clintons' marriage also was obsessively analyzed, but for a very different reason.

The media may play a role in whipping up this interest, but the first couple could simply decline to talk about their private life. I don't remember hearing George Bush hold forth much about Laura. But the Obamas, with their much-ballyhooed date nights, have done this since the campaign, when Michelle played an important role in humanizing her sometimes aloof husband.

And here's the brilliant part: By admitting to strains in their marriage, they enable millions of American couples to identify with them. It's like that Us Weekly feature, "Celebrities . . . They're just like us!"

Asked about the strains in their marriage when Barack was often in Springfield as a state senator and Michelle wished he was out of politics, the president brushed aside a suggestion that they contemplated splitting up. "But I wouldn't gloss over the fact that that was a tough time for us."

Here's some of the piece, by Jodi Kantor:

"We were in the Oval Office, nearly 40 minutes into a conversation about the subject of their marriage. Watched over by three aides and Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, the two sat a few feet apart in matching striped chairs that made them look more like a pair of heads of state than husband and wife. The Obamas were talking about the impact of the presidency on their relationship, and doing so in that setting -- we were in the room that epitomizes official power, discussing the highly unofficial matter of dates -- began to seem like a metaphor for the topic itself.

" 'If I weren't president, I would be happy to catch the shuttle with my wife to take her to a Broadway show, as I had promised her during the campaign, and there would be no fuss and no muss and no photographers,' the president said. 'That would please me greatly.' He went on to say: 'The notion that I just couldn't take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy with.'. . . .

"The Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before. Almost 10 months ago, they swept into Washington with inauguration festivities that struck distinctly wedding-like notes: he strode down an aisle and took a vow, she wore a long white dress, the youthful-looking couple swayed to a love song in a ceremonial first dance and then settled into a new house. Since then, photograph after official White House photograph has shown the Obamas gazing into each other's eyes while performing one or another official function. Here is a shot of the Obamas entering a Cinco de Mayo reception, his arm draped protectively around her back. Next, a photo of the president placing a kiss on his wife's cheek after his address on health care to Congress. Poster-size versions of these and other photographs are displayed in rotation along the White House corridors. It's hard to think of another workplace decorated with such looming evidence of affection between the principal players.

"The centrality of the Obama marriage to the president's political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union. Since he first began running for office in 1995, Barack and Michelle Obama have never really stopped struggling over how to combine politics and marriage: how to navigate the long absences, lack of privacy, ossified gender roles and generally stultifying rules that result when public opinion comes to bear on private relationships."

At least now they get to do it in a really nice house.

Salon's Amy Benfer has this reaction:

"the Obamas are the fairy tale; our Bama-lot, a suave, sexy, undeniably modern couple who inspire speculation not for their sins, but their virtues. Instead of mockery, they make us ask: Dude, how can we get some of that? . . .

"Although it seems paradoxical that one of the most envied couples in the nation is also one of the most vocal about the hardships of marriage, it makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly, the Obamas wouldn't have the luxury of nitpicking at the flaws, major and minor, of their relationship if others made a habit of doing so, too. But they have quite a bit of distance to fall before they would succeed in knocking themselves off their own pedestal."

Plenty of Palin

You've probably heard about Levi Johnston's interview with CBS's Maggie Rodriguez, the one in which he said that Sarah Palin called her baby "retarded" and that he was holding back revelations that could get her "in trouble and could hurt her." Well, People has Palin's "snarling reply":

" 'We have purposefully ignored the mean spirited, malicious and untrue attacks on our family,' Palin says in a statement. 'We, like many, are appalled at the inflammatory statements being made or implied. Trig is our 'blessed little angel' who knows it and is lovingly called that every day of his life.'

"Taking Johnston and CBS to task, Palin questions the credibility of somebody about to bare all for Playgirl. 'Consider the source of the most recent attention-getting lies,' she says. 'Those who would sell their body for money reflect a desperate need for attention and are likely to say and do anything for even more attention.' "

Speaking of Sarah, former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe has the candidate's reaction to her selection in a new book:

" 'Obama and I had a long talk late that afternoon to evaluate Palin. 'I just don't understand how this ends up working out for McCain,' he said. 'In the long term, I mean. The short term will be good for them. But when voters step back and analyze how he made this decision, I think he's going to be in big trouble. You just can't wing something like this -- it's too important. . . . I think we just need to sit back and play our game,' said Obama. 'It actually won't be bad to be off-Broadway for a few days. We should just leave her out of the equation. This is a race between John McCain and me. To the extent we talk about Palin, I think it should be about the differences in our selection processes -- it illuminates differences in how we'd make decisions in the White House.' "

But Time's Michael Scherer finds the book very. . . . verbatim:

"I've been in the quote scribbling business now for more than a decade, and I am consistently humbled by just how hard it is to get right. I can be sure I heard something correctly, even just a sentence, and the tyranny of just a few seconds between hearing and scribbling will mangle the result. Compare my delayed notes to the audio tape, and I will find that I have misplaced a 'the' for an 'an,' mangled verb construction or misplaced an adjective.

"It is a humbling lesson, which makes Obama For America Campaign Manager David Plouffe's new book--excerpted this week in Time--all the more amazing. This guy doesn't just claim to remember short quotes verbatim; he remembers whole paragraphs spoken in late night phone calls in the heat of a sleepless campaign. . . .

"Either Plouffe was taping the call, keeping meticulous notes, or he has a seriously cracker-jack memory--or he just filled in some of the holes months later with what he thinks was said."

How timely, then, to get this confession from Politics Daily blogger David Sessions:

"I begin every day at the Politics Daily breaking news desk vowing to stand athwart the tide of pointless blather about the Facebook-happy Sarah Palin and her bitter, Twittering, not-quite-son-in-law Levi Johnston. I finish most every day having caved to the deluge, usually having brought hundreds of thousands of nosy clickers to the site as a result.

"I'm not the only one suffering from Palin addiction. Looking over our archives, it's clear that a number of our writers have helped fill the vaults with unimportant details of her life. . . . 'Sarah Palin Promises to Be Less Politically Correct on Twitter.' 'Palin Planned Secret Adoption.' 'Levi Johnston Says Sarah Resigned for the Money.' 'Todd Palin Offered Bristol a New Car in Exchange for Dumping Levi Johnston.' 'Sarah Palin Rips Levi Johnston for Dishing on Sex Life.' 'Palin Skips Another Speech, Denies Accepting Invitation.'. . . .

"If you're a political blogger, a Palin tit-for-tat with Levi Johnston will break the monotony of Senate committee hearings and Gallup polls. If you're Us Weekly, there are trashy relatives, dishy ex-boyfriends and custody fights. If you're a conservative columnist, there's a sizzling future candidate to champion. If you're a feminist, there's plenty to debate about whether Palin is good for womankind. If you're Todd Purdum, there's a long arc of push-and-shove politics that ended in a disastrous national candidacy. If you're a liberal essayist with a Palin fetish, The Nation will give a penny for your thoughts. If you're Tina Fey, your uncanny resemblance to Palin will crown your career. . . . Her political career has more closely resembled an American reality show than that of any politician in history."

Palin may be getting over a million bucks for her forthcoming book, but she's still got cash on her mind, as Politico reports:

"A conservative Iowa group's effort to lure Sarah Palin to its banquet next month has had an unintended effect: Rather than exciting conservatives about the prospect of a visit from the former Alaska governor, the group's plan to raise a six-figure sum to bring her to the state has GOP activists recoiling at the thought of paying to land a politician's speaking appearance.

"The Iowa Family Policy Center's effort to cobble together $100,000 for Palin would represent a striking departure from customary practice in the first-in-the-nation state, these Republicans say, noting that a generation of White House hopefuls has paid their own way to boost their party and presidential ambitions."

And while Palin is out of office and not running for anything, at least for now, the other party is still targeting her, Mediaite reports:

"Democrats are launching a new website and online video campaign aimed at Sarah Palin's 'lies' about health care reform, encouraging the use of Facebook as a primary battleground.

"The seemingly low budget video centers around President Obama's claim that, 'If you misrepresent what's in our plan, we'll call you out!' and includes screenshots of the former Alaska governor's Facebook page featuring the infamous 'death panel' claims, in addition to other Palin-centric fact-checking. 'Quit makin' things up!' the spot's voiceover insists."

And here's a new survey: "More than seven in 10 Americans think Sarah Palin is not qualified to be president, according to a new national poll.

"Seventy-one percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Wednesday morning believe the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee is not qualified to be president, with 29 percent saying she does have the credentials to serve in the White House. Republicans appear split, with 52 percent saying she's qualified and 47 percent disagreeing with that view."

Bright sign?

This kind of sounds like news: "The U.S. economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.5% in the third quarter, unofficially marking the end of the worst recession since World War II."

But Obama was cautious in his comments, and there was little cable chatter about it last night. Why? Because with the jobless rate still rising, it sure doesn't feel like a recovery.

Layoff watch

Case in point: this depressing news: "Signaling that worse times are ahead for magazines, Time Inc. is expected to announce next week that it will cut $100 million from costs, including another big round of layoffs. . . .

"Time Inc., the publisher of magazines like Time, Fortune, and People, has already cut costs drastically: a year ago, it announced it was dismissing 6 percent of its work force, or about 600 people."

As with newspapers, the magazine picture keeps turning darker.

Happy anniversary

"Internet messages started with a crash 40 years ago today," USA Today reports, "and life hasn't been the same since. "We transmitted the 'L'. . . . and the 'O' -- and then the other computer crashed," says UCLA's Leonard Kleinrock, who helped send that first message on the university's campus on Oct. 29, 1969. He was trying to type the word 'login.' "

Just think: four decades of technological progress later, and Windows is still crashing.

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