- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2010



Presidents, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might say, are not like you and me, and neither are their families. A president stepping out to Starbucks for a decaf mocha or even to the bathroom can’t go there without his shadow from the Secret Service.

This is nice when he’s in a hurry and the crosstown traffic is a bear, though if it weren’t for the honor of it a president on those occasions would just as soon walk alone. George Bush the elder once told me that he figured beating traffic lights by having the cops hold up everyone else could cost 50,000 votes even in a small town.

John F. Kennedy used to give the slip to his Secret Service bodyguards, pull on his hat and a coat with a turned-up collar and duck out late in an evening to hike up Pennsylvania Avenue to the old Biograph Theater at the edge of Georgetown to watch a second-run movie.

Presidents have to have escorts. The president can decide when and where he goes and doesn’t have to ask or tell anyone why. But he has to take company. Who could begrudge a president a little private time to unwind? Who would deny the first lady a similar pass? Rank, even rank by marriage, has its privileges.

Nevertheless, even a tone-deaf president like Barack Obama can write a hot check on an unlimited bank account, and so can a first lady who imagines everything is not enough. The raised eyebrows over Michelle Obama’s big spending threaten to cost the president more than the 163 euros — about $216 — she paid for two Egyptian cotton dresses at a little boutique on a stroll in Marbella. “The first lady’s extravagant vacation isn’t likely to hurt him much by itself,” says one Republican campaign strategist, “but it plants a seed in the public consciousness that the Obamas just aren’t like the rest of us. Not a good thing for people to think about a president when everybody else is in hard times.”

By one reckoning the first lady has eight vacations taken or planned this summer, and she will hardly have time to unpack her bags before she and the family take off for the Florida coast, for a duty vacation intended to demonstrate what a terrific vacation place the Redneck Riviera can still be for the working stiff. Then it’s off to bask in the sun and sand for 10 days with the beautiful people in Martha’s Vineyard.

It’s clear that the White House is not entirely happy with the first lady that the New York Daily News calls a latter-day Marie Antoinette. In fact, Michelle even sent a cake to her husband, who was hanging out on his birthday with old pals in Chicago. Then he returned to Washington to shoot hoops with two stars from the NBA. Robert Gibbs, his press spokesman, was not having nearly as much fun. When reporters pressed him for something to say about Michelle’s summer of endless holidays he didn’t try very hard to put a spin on it: “The first lady is on a private trip. She is a private citizen and is the mother of a daughter on a private trip. I think I would leave it at that.”

But it’s not the thought, it’s the cost. Michelle and her daughter, 9-year-old Sasha, paid their own hotel bill. The airplane dispatched by the U.S. Air Force to take them, her staff and security detail, including 70 Secret Service agents, cost $178,000. There was the 14-car security convoy that followed them everywhere they went. (You and I are paying for that Spanish armada.) Michelle and the first daughter will defray some of that. They’re paying $7,400 each for the equivalent of two round-trip first-class airline tickets. Baggage charges included.

The president hasn’t been in big-time politics very long — he served only half of a Senate term before voters called him up from the Illinois State League to see whether he could hit major-league pitching. But long enough to learn that in Washington it’s the perception, not the crime. It’s further evidence of his fatal disconnect with the America he just doesn’t understand. He has spent the summer demonizing the “rich” while the Material Girl breaks the bank in the posh precincts of the truly rich in Europe. The mantra of this administration seems to be “let’s get while the gettin’ is good.”

Wesley Pruden is the editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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