WASHINGTON – The communications director for a Republican member of Congress ignited a firestorm this weekend when she criticized President Obama’s teenage daughters in a Facebook post that touched a nerve even for Americans accustomed to political mudslinging.
“Try showing a little class,” Elizabeth Lauten, communications director for Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher, R-Tenn., wrote Friday in a Facebook posting addressed to Sasha and Malia Obama, both teenagers, chastising them for their comportment during last week’s annual turkey pardoning event at the White House.
“Rise to the occasion. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar,” Lauten wrote. “And certainly don’t make faces during televised, public events.”
Lauten was not the first to comment on the girls’ demeanor at the event, an annual rite that is comfortably embedded in Washington tradition if not universally appreciated.
After the Wednesday event, several media outlets declared that the young women, standing behind their father as he pardoned two turkeys named Mac and Cheese, looked bored, exasperated or just ... teenager-ly. USA Today published this headline: “Malia and Sasha Obama are so done with their dad’s turkey pardon,” while the Gawker website observed that “not even the pomp and ritual of the White House can overcome the most powerful force known to man: TEEN CONTEMPT.”
Lauten’s Facebook post was shared on Twitter and then picked up by the blogosphere. Most of the online reaction to Lauten’s comments focused on her characterization of the girls’ appearance and their facial expressions, which was especially surprising given her role as a political communication adviser. Some Twitter users accused her of racial overtones in her comments.
By Saturday evening, hundreds of people had made use of the #ElizabethLauten hashtag on Twitter.
“Direct your dislike of their dad’s policies or politics toward their dad. Always leave the kids (D or R) out of it,” wrote one Twitter using the handle @Mica4Life.
Sasha and Malia Obama are among the youngest presidential children at the White House in years. But their parents have gone to great lengths to shield them from the glare of media attention as they attend school, play sports and socialize under the nose of the Washington press corps.
Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian and professor at Princeton University, said the U.S. media had generally respected similar efforts by past presidents including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to keep their children away from the limelight.
“But in an era of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, this stuff is just hard to control,” he said. And, given the acrimonious nature of Republican dealings with the Democratic president, Zelizer said, “this is low-hanging fruit.”
In her post, Lauten also took a dig at the president and first lady, saying “your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department.”
Hours after the original post, Lauten followed up with a second post apologizing for her critique. “I quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager,” she wrote.
“After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents, and re-reading my words online I can see more clearly just how hurtful my words were. . . . I pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.”
Lauten declined to comment about the incident, but she did confirm her Facebook postings to the Washington Post. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zelizer said President George W. Bush had struggled with some of the same issues, when photos or reports of his daughters Jenna and Barbara partying appeared online.
“It’s a way to kind of make a statement about who the president is through how the kids are acting,” he said. “It’s not about the kids being insulted. It’s about the president, but it’s obviously frustrating for the president who’s a father.”