Can you imagine how the incident would play out if an African American congressman made a crude remark about First Lady Laura Bush’s body? It certainly would have taken more than an insincere apology to wash that sin away. That scenario never happened — hopefully because those congressmen were raised with a measure of common decency. I know that America’s first family – an image this country presents to the world — is traditionally granted a certain amount of respect across party lines.

President Obama, right, and first lady Michelle Obama greet the audience at 2011 Kennedy Center Honors. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

Only Wisconsin Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner apparently isn’t bound by such traditions. While I suspect he might be the first to defend the honor and dignity of previous First Ladies, he was recently overheard at Washington’s Reagan National Airport loudly criticizing Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative: “She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.”

His insults quickly disappeared from the headlines after he pledged to send the first lady an apology. Even then, though, he couldn’t resist — through a spokesperson — taking another shot at Michelle Obama’s efforts to get Americans to add more fruits and veggies to their diets and to get moving.

The aide’s note said: “Mr. Sensenbrenner was referring to the First Lady’s healthy food initiative. He doesn’t think the government should be telling Americans what to eat. While he may not agree with all of her initiatives, he plans to contact the First Lady’s office to apologize for his comments.”

But Sensenbrenner wasn’t talking about her “initiatives.” He was insulting her body.

The half-hearted statement signaled to the like-minded to pay no attention to his “I’m sorry.” It hardly erased the cheap shot at a woman whose fit frame was on recent view in a dazzling blue gown at the Kennedy Center Honors.

What is it about her simple message that gets some folks in such a tizzy? Michelle Obama isn’t advocating a diet of roots and berries, only moderation in a country suffering the effects of an obesity epidemic, with diabetes on the rise in young children. She is sharing the advice in a way that emphasizes healthy eating and exercise, rather than the deprivation diet of a photo-retouched supermodel.

You would think a message to take a little care with what we consume would be welcomed. But no, folks like Rush Limbaugh and Sensenbrenner prefer to inspect every item the Obamas put on their plates. Those two might better spend that time looking in the mirror, but self-awareness has never been part of their package. Of course, if the first lady were a size 0, they would be saying she encourages anorexia.

Not only is this disrespect crude, it also proves yet again that you can’t go wrong disrespecting a black woman in the United States of America, even if she lives in the White House – and in some constituencies, especially if she lives in the White House. Sensenbrenner’s nasty rant made me sick and sad because it brings to the surface the ugly history of how black women are viewed in America, stereotyped and dehumanized, our bodies everyone’s business except our own.

What in the world is Sensenbrenner doing staring at the First Lady -- not as a person but as a specimen, each part an item on an anatomical checklist? He doesn’t approve of what he’s seeing but he can’t keep his eyes off of her. It’s creepy but unfortunately familiar, the way he devalues black beauty while being mesmerized by it.

The personal criticism of the latest Democratic occupants of the White House started with emailed jokes showing the White House lawn as a watermelon patch and went downhill from there. If ever there was an off-limits rule for politicians’ families, critics have definitely invoked an Obama exception, ironic when the one thing even political foes should be able to praise is the illustration of “family values” they hold so dear on display at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – mom, dad, two children and grandmom.

But since Michelle Obama is for healthy eating and exercise, critics have taken up the cause of doughnuts and inertia.

The fact that the first couple score high on lists of the most-admired only feeds the fury of those who find fault with every move, every day of vacation, every trip on Air Force One. Sensenbrenner had to know that what he said was inappropriate when he first let loose at his church – of all places – to a woman who had complimented the first lady. It’s frightening to witness animus so deep that a sitting congressman can’t stop himself from repeating insults in church. Maybe he knows he won’t suffer serious consequences and might even gain a few points from those as dumbfounded as he is that the Obamas reside in the White House.

On a tour of the holiday decorations there, I was moved by the tributes to military members who gave their lives, and by the sight of the towering official tree, decorated with cards from military children. First Lady Michelle Obama has taken support of military families as a signature cause. I wonder how long it will take critics to find something wrong with that.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3