When Politicians And School Lunches Intersect

What a relief!  Senators in Washington, D.C. are working on legislation that will make school lunch tastier!

Can anyone imagine a more infernal combination than politicians and school lunches?  Each is supremely hellish in its own right; what depths of awfulness might be probed if they intersected?

20101025saladbarAnyone who has ever eaten a school lunch won’t forget the experience.  Hairy, fatty chicken, reheated “Johnny Marzetti,” hamburgers with the consistency of hockey pucks, flaccid, undercooked french fries — the painful mental images are still down there, lurking in the bleak, dark depths of your consciousness.  And yet, kids confronted with even those culinary catastrophes could choke them down.  Then, when Michelle Obama decided to strive to make school lunches healthier, the effort produced lunches so revolting that even hungry kids found them to be intolerable.  And now Senators, of all people, are going to try to make school lunches tastier?  Really?  We’re going to rely on Senators to decide what the burly, hairnetted lunch ladies are going to be ladling out to the unfortunate kids whose parents won’t pack them a lunch?

C’mon, people.  Give the school kids a break.  Feeding hungry kids a decent lunch is much too important to leave to members of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Instead, why not have a responsible, representative body make the decision — like, say, the student council in every school that is going to have to eat this stuff?

 

Official Autobiographies Versus Political Tell-All Books

Hillary Clinton’s new autobiography about her tenure at the State Department is out.  Entitled Hard Choices, it’s gotten some tough reviews.  One piece describes it as riddled with cliches, long and boring, and ultimately destined to end up in the “Free” bin at the local bookseller.  Depending upon who you ask, the book is either doing fine or bombing, and the Drudge Report gleefully reports that after only one week it’s already fallen out of the Amazon list of top ten sellers.

To the extent that she cares — after all, she received a hefty amount to write the book in the first place — Hillary Clinton shouldn’t feel bad about this.  The reality is that political biographies are, almost without exception, unreadable.  All of the interesting stuff has been excised because it might offend someone, and any truly revealing anecdotes hit the cutting room floor for the same reason.  What’s left is typically ponderous and so carefully written and weighty and self-important in tone that an objective reader quickly ends up numbed, then flips to the picture pages before tossing the book aside for good.

Contrast that the political tell-all book — the one that’s based largely on anonymous and loosely described sources like “a long-time family friend” or “a member of the legal team.”  The tell-all books dish the dirt.  Consider the new book by Edward Klein called:  Blood Feud:  The Clintons Versus The Obamas.  Some of the incidents it reports are a lot juicier than a bloodless description of policy decisions about Syria.  One report discusses an unpleasant golf game between President Obama and former President Clinton, an awkward dinner where a bored President Obama played with his BlackBerry rather than listen to a lecture from Clinton, and Michelle Obama gossiping with a friend and referring to Hillary Clinton as “Hildebeest.”  Of course, books based on anonymous sources always need to be taken with more than a grain of salt . . . but, say, could President Obama really have blown off the Clintons so conspicuously?  Do tell!

Which would you rather read:  a carefully contrived, leaden official biography written by someone who aspires to a further political career, or a lively book that treats politicians like real people rather brittle brass, god-like creatures who have only important conversations about significant developments in the world?  The best-seller lists will tell the tale.

The Pitfalls Of Advocating Healthy Eating

Michelle Obama has been a fervent advocate of healthier eating. She’s planted a White House garden and raves about the value of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Now it appears that her advocacy has come at a cost. The White House executive pastry chef, Bill Yosses, has resigned his position. Yosses was hired by former First Lady Laura Bush, and when Mrs. Obama took the reins she asked him to prepare healthier treats in smaller portions. He accommodated Mrs. Obama’s wishes by using substitutes like fruit puree for butter and honey and agave for sugar, but now he’s made the “bittersweet decision” to leave. “I don’t want to demonize cream, butter, sugar and eggs,” he says. Mrs. Obama graciously accepted his resignation, saying it was “incredibly sad” to see him go.

The First Lady gets to make the rules, and I’m sure the White House will have no trouble in finding a new, highly skilled pastry chef who welcomes the challenges of blending healthy eating concepts with tasty pastry concoctions. Still, I think about being a lucky visitor who has the once-in-a-lifetime chance to eat at the White House. Would I want to cap off my special meal with a slice of a sumptuous, beautiful butter-and-cream cake, or an agave-based flan? I think I’d want the former.

How Fat Are Our Kids?

This week a federal study reported that the obesity rate for American kids between 2 and 5 years of age fell 43% in a decade. The study, undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that obesity during that age group has declined from 14 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2012.

Not surprisingly, there’s disagreement about what might have caused the decline. Some argue that federal programs, including the availability of food stamps and the women, infants, and children assistance program and federal nutrition guidelines, other national efforts such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, and pressure on food companies to stop targeting ads to young children are responsible for the decline. Others question whether there really was an “obesity epidemic” in the first place and are skeptical that federal programs had anything to do with the decline reflected in the CDC study.

I don’t have a dog in that fight. My question is more fundamental — why are people celebrating the finding that “only” 8 percent of little kids are obese? That seems like a pretty damning figure to me. How does a two-or three-year-old become obese, except by the inattention of their parents? Most two- and three-year-olds I know aren’t out shopping for themselves. Don’t their parents know how to say no?

“Selfie”-Absorbed

The latest thing to apparently go “viral” is a series of photos of President Obama, his wife Michelle, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela yesterday.

The President, Cameron, and Thorning-Schmidt joked and took a picture of themselves with a cell phone — called a “selfie” — while Michelle Obama sat to the side.  Countless bits of space on the internet have now been filled with debate about whether taking a “selfie” and sharing a joke during a memorial service is appropriate behavior, interpreting Michelle Obama’s demeanor as depicted in the photos, and trying to read whether she is irked that her husband is chatting and chuckling with the Danish leader.

This incident, in a nutshell, is one of the things about the internet that I find maddening.  So many things go “viral” that viral status seems to be the norm these days, and people fixate on trivial things at the expense of understanding the significant matters.  It’s a shame that anyone running a Google search on the Mandela memorial service will have to wade through commentary about the silly “selfie” incident rather than stories emphasizing the extraordinary fact that leaders from across the world — including the current American president and three former Presidents — traveled to South Africa to pay tribute to a former prisoner who is now regarded as a great historical figure.

So I’m not going to criticize President Obama for posing for a “selfie” and I’m not going to speculate about whether and how his wife Michelle reacted to his behavior.  That’s their business, not mine.  The significant thing is that he and former Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Carter saw fit to attend and honor the memory and life of Nelson Mandela, and I’m glad they did.

Malala Yousafzai And The Power Of The Individual

You can’t help but be inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who resisted Taliban edicts that forbade girls from going to school. Now 16 years old, Yousafzai is a living, breathing example of the unique power of the individual to serve as an agent of change.

Yousafzai’s story reminds us of how different the world can be under repressive religious regimes.  When she started a blog and advocated for education for Muslim girls in defiance of the edicts, the Taliban issued a death threat against her.  Later a Taliban gunman attacked her on her school bus, and she was shot in the head and neck.  She survived, went to Great Britain for brain surgery, and continues to be a strong voice for education even in the face of renewed Taliban threats.

This past week Yousafzai made a whirlwind tour of the United States.  She met President Obama, the First Lady, and their 15-year-old daughter Malia, thanked him for the United States’ support of education, but also expressed the view that U.S. drone attacks are fueling terrorism.  Yousafzai also deeply impressed Jon Stewart and the audience of The Daily Show by her patient insistence that violence and cruelty can only be defeated by education and peaceful dialogue.

Some people thought Yousafzai might win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Instead the Prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  I have no doubt that the group, which has worked to eliminate chemical weapons, has performed important work — but no organization can ever have the impact of one individual standing resolute in the face of tyranny.  Malala Yousafzai has single-handedly focused attention on the need for education and the plight of girls and young women under the Taliban and, by extension, in other places where religious edicts and despotic governments have repressed their rights and freedoms.  We can only hope that her message and example will ultimately bring about essential social changes in the benighted regions of the world.

 

Michelle Obama And The Oscars

On Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, First Lady Michelle Obama was the surprise presenter of the award for Best Picture.  What isn’t a surprise is that, in the wake of the Academy Awards show, some people have criticized her appearance as frivolous and not befitting her role as First Lady.

I’m heartily sick and tired of this kind of sanctimonious stuff.  I don’t see anything wrong with a First Lady participating in the Academy Awards broadcast if she wants to do so (although I’m not sure that, if I were the First Gentleman, I’d want to be part of the phony, kissy-face Hollywood scene).  It’s not as if Michelle Obama — or any other First Lady — is expected to be pondering weighty affairs of state at all hours of the day and night.  Even her husband, who unlike Michelle Obama was elected to his current leadership position, is not begrudged an occasional vacation, golf outing, or basketball game.  Why should anyone care if the First Lady wants to spend an hour of her time appearing on an awards show?

People who think First Ladies should act like Mamie Eisenhower are kidding themselves.  The line between politicians and celebrities has long since been blurred to non-existence.  Presidents and presidential candidates and First Ladies have been appearing on talk shows for years now; how is the Oscars broadcast materially different?  Hollywood is one of America’s most successful industries, one that employs a lot of people and generates a lot of income.  Would people object if the First Lady presented an award to, say, the Teacher of the Year or recognized the owner of a successful business that opened a new plant?  If not, why object to the First Lady’s acknowledgement of the film industry?

In our struggling country, Michelle Obama’s decision to present the Best Picture Oscar is the least of our concerns.  If the First Lady wants to share a bit in the glitz and glamor of Oscar Night, I’m not troubled by her decision.  Now, can we start talking about the real, important issues of the day?

The First Lady’s Difficult Job

The First Lady’s job — and I think we all need to view it as a job like any other — is a difficult one that has changed over the years.  Ever since First Ladies moved beyond serving as the gracious White House hostess (and behind-the-scenes influencer of presidential decision-making) to become public figures in their own right, they have been expected to champion a  cause that commands broad public support and serve a kind of above-the-political-fray role in the national zeitgeist.  Some First Ladies — Hillary Clinton comes to mind — seem to have chafed a bit at the limitations imposed by this traditional role.

By all accounts, Michelle Obama has been a fine First Lady who has filled the expected role admirably.  She serves as a role model for many, and she has been an effective advocate for returning veterans and their families and for combating the scourge of childhood obesity.  No one disputes the country’s need to help our veterans, and whether you agree or disagree with how to deal with childhood obesity — and, specifically, how much of a role the government should play in specifying what children should eat, how much exercise they should get, and what should happen if they become morbidly obese — no one denies that encouraging children to eat right, get exercise, and avoid weight problems is a good thing.

Lately the First Lady’s role seems to be changing again, as First Ladies, and potential First Ladies, have begun to make major speeches at political conventions.  There is some tension between that activity and the First Lady’s traditional role as a kind of non-partisan national figure.  Some have dealt with that tension by confining their remarks to extolling the good qualities and hard work of their presidential spouse, how they have been good and caring fathers and husbands despite the weight of their duties in the Oval Office.  That kind of testimonial has been accepted as appropriate:  what loving spouse wouldn’t support her husband and be happy to describe his virtues?

Last night Michelle Obama gave her prime-time address to the Democratic National Convention, and I wonder if in doing so she hasn’t presaged another shift in the role of First Lady.  Mrs. Obama spoke eloquently of President Obama’s character, beliefs, and values, his important role as loving father to their two daughters, and how her story and his story touch upon the well-visited themes of the American Dream — but she also mounted a more full-throated defense of the President’s policy positions than you would expect in a “traditional” First Lady’s speech.  Mrs. Obama did it graciously but also unmistakeably, leading some to wonder whether, like Hillary Clinton before her, she may have her own political career in the future.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  In the modern world, where the endless campaigns demand so much commitment from candidates and their families and political spouses of both genders often are highly accomplished professionals in their own right, it is unreasonable to expect that presidential spouses will simply serve as an ever-smiling, neutral national symbol who never speaks a controversial word.  Perhaps it is time to accept that First Ladies — and First Gentlemen — can properly be advocates for the policies their spouses support and be recognized as such.  In the successful marriages I am familiar with, spouses tend to strongly and vocally support what each other are doing in their jobs and the goals they are striving for in those jobs.  Why should political spouses be any different?

Buying Barack And Marketing Michelle

The world has come a long way since Joe McGinniss wrote The Selling of the President about the role of marketing in the 1968 campaign of Richard Nixon.  Back then, many people disapproved of that trend and criticized the Nixon campaign for commercializing the serious business of electing a President.

Forty-four years later, the Nixon campaign tactics seem old-fashioned and tame.  Campaigns employ pollsters to gauge public opinion, advertising gurus to target the message as the internal polling indicates, and spinmeisters to try to make sure that public opinion moves the way the campaign wants it to move.  All of this is widely accepted in our digital, hyper-communicative age.

I still balk, however, at the sale of product by presidential campaigns.  Go to barackobama.com (the official reelection campaign website) and you will see a “store” tab.  Click on the tab and you’ll find a wide range of products for sale, ranging from t-shirts and hoodies and ball caps and coffee mugs to an “I Meow for Michelle” cat collar — and that’s just on the first page of items for sale.  Some items are even marked down, and you can get discounts for others if you enter the right “promo code.”

I suppose this is the logical extension of a culture where presidential campaigns last forever and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and fundraisers need to produce money however they can.  I suppose you can even argue that t-shirts are just a logical extension of the campaign buttons of days gone by.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if pushing the President and First Lady as celebrity “brands” detracts from our perception of President Obama as a President.  With the focus on money, money, money, how can you not help but wonder if his decisions aren’t motivated, just a bit, by a cold-blooded desire to sell a new style of t-shirt that gets rolled out a few days later?

Organic Odyssey

First Lady Michelle Obama apparently is a big fan of vegetable gardens, organic food, and healthy eating.  She encouraged a group that runs farmers markets in the D.C. metropolitan area to set up a market near the White House, and on Thursday she decided to visit the market to buy some “organic Tuscan kale.”  This story — which emphasized how her one visit inconvenienced workers and residents in the area, the “carbon footprint” of her one block drive to the market accompanied by Secret Service agents and staff, and how much the hoity toity offerings at the market cost — was the result.  

Mrs. Obama thinks that organic foods are important to healthy eating.  Although a recent study in the United Kingdom disputes that conclusion — and although I personally wouldn’t recognize “organic Tuscan kale,” much less eat it, under any circumstances — supporting healthy eating seems like as good a “First Lady cause” as any.  Her experience with the farmers’ market just confirms that the First Family lives in a fishbowl, where legitimate security concerns make it impossible for the President, or the First Lady, to do simple everyday things without great dislocation and expense.  Articles like the linked piece inevitably will result.

A bigger concern for the Obamas, I think, is that emphasizing much more expensive organic kale, or free range animals, or eggs laid by chickens in the wild, is going to strike many Americans who are going through tough economic times as weird and totally out of touch.  A home vegetable garden, which Mrs. Obama planted at the White House earlier this year, is just fine.  A visit to an upscale market that features “organic dandelion greens” for $12 a pound, when many Americans are dining on the cheapest box of Kraft macaroni and cheese to save a few bucks, sends a message that probably isn’t helpful to the President.  Talking about her discussions about vegetables with “kings” and “queens,” as she did on Thursday, doesn’t seem like a good message, either.