Monday, May 4, 2009

A First Lady's Political Combat Unit

An East Wing's organizational structure tells much about the First Lady's operation, but not everything. Lucy Mercer was Eleanor Roosevelt's choice as a personal Social Secretary in 1913. It was Miss Mercer's ongoing intimate relationship FDR that makes the factual history books. In the 21st century, the media climate is a mite overheated in their obsession over celebrity infotainment news or anything that may remotely affect the president in order to make their deadlines and meet profit hopes. It is no surprise that the current East Wing Team, with one notable exception, prefers to do their work as mysterious and powerful Elves skilled at knife fighting behind the scenes. Mixing in photogenic Obamas with an engaged republic makes for hiring the best experienced staff with great political chops an imperative for a Harvard educated lawyer, Michelle Obama. One recent precedent is the straight up firing of Hillary's Clinton's choice as Executive Chef, Walter Scheib, by Mrs. Bush when she switched out Social Secretaries in preparation for a second term. It is definitely not all lace doilies and cut flowers in the East Wing - thank goodness. (Lucy Mercer circa 1915)

A year ago, Michelle Obama had a serious image problem. The Obama brain trust brought in hired guns to do jujitsu by placing her in situations that showcased her as feminine, not hard charging. The obvious subtlety became commonplace when the mainstream press finally noticed America's hearting of her following an appearance on ABC's The View in a dress that set off a shopping frenzy just as Italian Vogue launched its first ever edition featuring models only of African descent with that causing an American Conde Nast publishing train wreck as demand crushed supply. A perfect beautiful storm in the worlds of fashion and politics at the same time evoked more Camelot comparisons as it became quite noticeable a mystique was forming around the future First Family, especially after the first night of the August DNC convention with a great speech and two little girls charming an American audience of tens of millions.

The best first ladies are able to meet the demands of the volunteer role while aligning with the times and circumstances in which they live. Powerful folks behind the scenes in the East Wing make magical things happen. Letitia Baldridge as Social Secretary for the Kennedy's helped define a political and cultural brand that endures almost fifty years later. Mrs. Baldridge was in the midst of the Camelot Court, but not a central focus with klieg lights turned on her.

Mrs. Obama has yet to give an official press conference. She retains control of every aspect of the Obama Family brand. Undeterred, The Washington Post brought back their style reporter, Robin Givhan, to cover the blooming first lady beat in the midst of cutbacks at the media conglomerate. Handling the questions about Mrs. Obama is Press Secretary Katie McCormick Lelyveld (in car) with strategic advice from Special Assistant to the President and Director of Communications for the First Lady, Camile Johnston (2nd from left). Chicagoan Katie has two years under her belt handling tough questions about Michelle Obama. She was a former Hillary Clinton intern working for Stephanie Cutter during senator Kerry's 2004 run. Californian Camille worked for Tipper Gore with a quick stint at WBBM in Chicago as a Communications Director and on to the LA Dodgers as a Senior Vice president before landing at 1600. Camille works alongside a deputy, Semonti Mustaphi.

Samantha Tubman at campaign event 2008, left - Melissa Winter, right
Not yet 30 years old, Samantha Tubman is the Assistant Social Secretary after serving on the much lauded Obama campaign advance team. Jackie Norris shared a van and conversation with Michelle Obama many times on lonely stretches of highways crisscrossing her adopted home state of Iowa throughout 2007. The former teacher is Mrs. Obama's Chief of Staff and has presidential political experience rooted in Al Gore's run at the White House. Melissa Winter, Ms. Norris's Deputy Chief of Staff presidential experience arises from being Joe Lieberman's 2004 Director of Scheduling before spending almost two years on the campaign trail with Michelle Obama. She is highly skilled in the ways and means of Washington DC and was Michelle Obama's first official hire. (Jackie Norris pictured, right)

Many of this First Lady's power brokers attend policy meetings and other discussions in the West Wing ensuring synergy and message control. A few report in a matrix fashion to the president and the first lady. These are just a few of the power brokers on the East Wing, with more to be named later, to put a name on the work product coming from the individuals making it the People's House.

However, the real power in the East Wing is neither a volunteer first lady nor its dedicated staff for this group. It's the grand lady who lives on the third floor of the White House residence that cares for her grandchildren who live downstairs.


Post a Comment