First Lady Ethics: Sorry, Michelle Obama Fans, But This Is Way Over The Line

I was silent the first time this happened, because I was trying to provide the benefit of the doubt with an assumption that the First Lady would realize why it was inappropriate. I was wrong.

I can predict the “Get off my lawn!” retorts, the “Things have changed!” excuses and the “Lighten up!” deflections already, but this has to be said. The leadership of the free world and the office of the Presidency of the United States demands the assumption and maintenance of a basic measure of dignity, decorum, prudence and restraint. I realize the erosion of these qualities, not just in the White House but in society generally, is ongoing and that this will trigger the usual rationalizations.

Nevertheless, the First Lady represents her husband and his office. She is not a clown, an entertainer, a red carpet celebrity or a comedian’s sidekick, and every time she acts like any of these, no matter how pleasantly or charmingly she does so, it diminishes the prestige of the office and the nation. I don’t want to hear about how a majority of a public that wears tank tops on airplanes and flip-flops to the theater think it’s just wonderful for the First Lady to cavort with Jimmy Fallon in a manner indistinguishable from what we would expect from the latest flavor-of-the-month pop-tart.  Part of her job is modelling conduct for the clueless and unmannerly, and not sinking to their warped conduct of dignified professional conduct.

I am well-aware that this ethics verdict will be mocked. Never mind. I’m right.

Back to rationalizations: I’m expecting at least 17 of them from the Ethics Alarms list. None justify Michelle’s televised antics:

1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it” Yes, I know: Nixon went on “Laugh-in” and Bill played the sax on “Arsenio.” Neither were President at the time. Candidates have a much lower standard of public conduct than Presidents, or First Ladies.

1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it.” We can’t stop anything the Obamas do, because they’ve made it clear that they don’t care what anyone says or thinks since they aren’t running again. That doesn’t make Obama governing by fiat ethical, and it doesn’t make Michelle doing a Miley Cyrus imitation right either.

5. The Compliance Dodge. No, there’s no law against it. No law against the First Lady being a bag lady, either, but it wouldn’t be good for the country.

6. The Biblical Rationalizations. “Judge not”? These are our leaders and its a democracy. Damn right we should judge.

8. The Trivial Trap (Also known as “The Slippery Slope.”) Some people think dignity, tradition and respect are trivial. They are not. For leaders, they are critical.

11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Her?” Self-explanatory, I think.

11. (a) “I deserve this!” or “Just this once!” No. One episode is enough to shatter respect permanently. Queen Elizabeth would not allow herself to enter a hog-calling contest even once. She understands the needs of leadership.

12. The Dissonance Drag. A stunt like Michelle’s causes a cognitive dissonance eruption in all directions. The fact that the First Lady defies standards of dignity further degrades dignity in the culture. Her conduct diminishes her husbands status, which further degrades the office….and that’s just the beginning.

14. Self-validating Virtue. What Michelle Obama does must be right, because Michelle Obama would never do anything wrong.

22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.” Yup. She might have been twerking. This makes that giant step toward the Apocalypse all the nearer.

24. The Free Speech Confusion Yes, Michelle has a right to express herself. She also has a duty, as First Lady, to restrain herself.

33. The Management Shrug: “Don’t sweat the small stuff!” The “small stuff” adds up. This is one more aspect of leadership the Obama’s refuse to acknowledge.

34. Success Immunity, or “They must be doing something right!” The fact that the public and media have an apparently inexhaustible supply of apathy and approval for anything this First Family does is not license for them to do anything they please.

38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!” Nope. Leaders don’t deserve a break. Their mistakes are too costly. They should be held accountable for everything, especially self-inflicted wounds born of arrogance and narcissism…like the First Lady’s performance.

42. The Hillary Inoculation, or “If he/she doesn’t care, why should anyone else?” The fact that her husband doesn’t care—apparently–is irrelevant. The Obamas work for us.

44. The Unethical Precedent, or “It’s Not The First Time” Michelle cannot serve as her own precedent. The President’s “Funny or Die” appearance hyping Obamacare might be called a precedent, but that was inappropriate too.

48. Ethics Jiu Jitsu, or “Haters Gonna Hate!” Translation: “I have no defense, so I’ll just attack the critics.” An Obama Administration standard.

I am an advocate of an ethics check that says that when you are considering conduct that no one else has engaged in, there needs to be a starting assumption that there is a good reason. Often the reason is that the conduct is irresponsible or otherwise a bad idea. Laura, Hillary, Barbara, Nancy, Roslyn, Betty, Pat, Lady Bird, Jackie, Mamie, Bess and Eleanor didn’t do things like this. There is a reason.

59 thoughts on “First Lady Ethics: Sorry, Michelle Obama Fans, But This Is Way Over The Line

  1. She has no class and doesn’t even understand the concept. Traditionally, the role of First Lady is to display and promote the highest standards of demeanor to the American public and to the world at large as the representative of American womanhood. I’m hardly a supporter of the Obama administration and its poliices. Yet, I would very much have liked to have given them credit for at least some show of class- facade though it may have been. Not even that…

    • Whatever their other virtues, the recent Democrats in the Oval Office have not made dignity a high priority. JFK at least pretended to act like a head of state—he didn’t show any scars, appear on TV in flannel shirts, or get caught fooling around with 20-year olds.

      • I could understand a little kidding around or displaying less than formal attire on certain circumstances. I can remember President Eisenhower wearing those outrageous golf knickers at Burning Tree golf club. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush wore battered work clothes when at their ranches. But when on television in a studio or a formal setting, it was suit-and-tie. Likewise with their First Ladies. No one expects that every First Lady will be a Dolly Madison or a Jacqueline Kennedy. It’s probably just as well that television wasn’t around when Mary Todd Lincoln inhabited the White House! But even she would have likely made some effort to be presentable under such circumstances. Again; Michelle Obama either doesn’t understand the concept or rejects it entirely. I tend to believe the latter.

  2. Keep in mind this is a woman (I originally wrote ‘was’, then realized that was wishful thinking) who, for the first time “was proud of her country”. Presumably because Democrats were allowing her husband to run for President. I don’t think she puts a whole lot of thought into ANYTHING she does.

  3. Jack,
    How can you claim to be ‘right’ when you freely admit the societal and cultural tide has turned the other way? By what ethical standard? I must have missed that section of “Democracy in America.” Saying that it bothers you or that you find it unprofessional is valid, but calling it “wrong” or “unethical” just doesn’t wash. You provide a list of rationalizations that don’t serve to justify the behavior — fine — what justifies your view?

    Ben Franklin wrote an essay entitled “fart proudly” (yes, I know it was satire, but it was nonetheless somewhat uncouth), George Washington was known to tell off-color jokes to improve morale, and Reagan (who once starred in a movie with a chimpanzee, before he was in office) wasn’t above occasionally making a fool of himself.

    Seriously, grow up.

    • I’m right because leaders and the public have different standards of conduct, one being higher, the other being lower; because leadership is an art and a science, and distinguishing themselves from the public is crucial; because a leader degrades that distinction at risk to both his own power and those who have to occupy their office after they leave, and their job and duty are to strengthen it, not weaken it, because the principles and tools of leadership have always included the leader playing the role of exemplar and dignitary. Perhaps most of all, I am right because the study of leadership and the Presidency especially is my field, I know more a great deal more about it than Joe Sixpack, Obama, Michelle or you, and history and scholarship backs up everything I have said.

      Your examples, meanwhile, are idiotic. “Ben Franklin wrote an essay entitled “fart proudly” (yes, I know it was satire, but it was nonetheless somewhat uncouth)”: Ben did not hold elected office, and WAS a celebrity. He was also sui generis.

      “George Washington was known to tell off-color jokes to improve morale”: George Washington’s defining characteristic was decorum and civility as well as dignity. He would no more clown in public than fly. “Reagan (who once starred in a movie with a chimpanzee, before he was in office) wasn’t above occasionally making a fool of himself” Reagan brought dignity BACK to the White House, and acted the role of Chief Executive as well as anyone who ever lived. He made some gaffes that were not intended for public consumption, like making faces at photographers and his “We bomb Russia” gag, but he was the opposite of the Obamas. And as proof you are stretching, obviously a movie actor who never dreamed of being President at the time cannot be held to a Presidential standard before becoming one.

      In short, you don’t know what you’re talking about. And much as I respect and like you, and usually appreciate your perspective, if you ever tell me to “grow up” on this forum again, it will be the last thing you say on this forum.

      • AS for “grow up”…it does apply to the First Lady. Leaders are to those they lead as parents are to kids. The kid always loves it—up to a point— when the parents act like kids, peers and pals, but it undermines the parent’s moral authority, effectiveness and positive influence,–if not the popularity, which is a separate matter—of the parent. She’s pandering, just like misguided parents sometimes pander to teens.

    • You admit that calling such behavior “unprofessional is valid”, but “unprofessional” behavior is, by definition, “unethical”.

  4. Eh, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t see it as undignified. I just see it as humanizing the First Lady. That doesn’t mean that I see previous First Ladies as robots. It just doesn’t bother me. Nor would it bother me if it were a Republican or other conservative First Lady. I do get and agree with your points about dignity etc. This just doesn’t strike me as undignified. Well, maybe the “Shush and Tush,” but not really. 🙂

    • The fact that it doesn’t “bother” anyone is irrelevant. Lots of destructive conduct by leaders is popular. Such conduct may only bother people like me, but it doesn’t mean that the conduct isn’t still wrong.

      • OK, but you haven’t addressed my contention that what she is doing in the video is not undignified, and therefore not “wrong.”

        • Do I really have to address it? She’s the First Lady. Would it be undignified for her husband to do it? Then it’s undignified for her to do it.

          It would be similarly undignified for her to be a rodeo clown, a Round girl at a boxing match, and to have green goo dropped on her head on Nickelodeon. If she were the Executive VP of a major investment company, would this be regarded as trust building? How about if she were the Ambassador to the UN? Attorney General? How about Surgeon General during the ebola crisis?

    • >>I don’t see it as undignified. I just see it as humanizing the First Lady.

      I hate to be cynical, but even if this behavior were not “undignified” in and of itself, at its core, the motivation of such performances is to distract. They are base appeals for superficial popularity in the face of declining approval based on merit. They want to look “cool”, so they can portray all who oppose them, whether deservedly or not, as “lame”.

  5. Jack,
    I apologize for speaking off the cuff, but it angers me to hear anyone lay something down as though it’s a definitive rule and then attacking someone for not following it. You say all these things as though they’re rules written in stone .. by whom? By what standard? You make a point of citing sources for your articles, pointers, and images, but make almost no references to where such “rules” are culled from. Citing yourself as an expert holds no water.

    Ben Franklin – Yes, he was a celebrity, but he was also behind many of this nation’s founding documents and principles. Why can’t one can be a clown AND a diplomat, assuming people are smart enough to know the difference?

    George Washington – He created rules that, if everyone followed, would make the world boring, homogeneous, and full of snobbery. These rules worked fine for white aristocrats in the 1700s, but why exactly should we all be bound by them today?

    As for Reagan, the chimpanzee example was a joke. That being said, Reagan is an example no one should emulate. What a magoo.

    • Leadership does have rules. They are unwritten, but they are still rules, and they are more or less immutable. Good leaders understand them instinctively, others learn them over time. Are there leaders who have sufficient skill and charisma to break the rules? Sure—Teddy Roosevelt was a classic example. But they are outliers.

      Reagan’s politics are irrelevant to judging his leadership techniques, which were above reproach. Nobody played President better than Reagan, and playing leader is a big part of being a leader

  6. It doesn’t bother me because of who is doing it, and that is the worst part of it. I no longer expect leadership behavior from the Obamas.
    That doesn’t mean it’s ethical, it means we’ve all been carefully led down to hell. I’m not a fan of living in hell.

  7. Jack,
    If only I could quote unwritten rules in the briefs I draft, my job would be a breeze. That seems like a different way of saying “if you don’t already know, I can’t explain it to you.” If rules are unwritten AND immutable, they might as be imaginary, else why were they never codified?

    I never said anything about Reagan’s policies, I called him a “magoo” (which I stand by). The man spoke like a child and argued for “traditional” values that were already outdated by the time he took office.

    Just because someone is a good leader doesn’t make them worth emulating.


    • There’s your problem. You think values get outdated. Reagan never spoke for a single value that was outdated then, or is now. And the amazing thing about George’s rules, which are not just for leaders, is that so many of them are still useful today.

      As far as written rules of leadership go, there are just too many of them. The military has many, and all of them would advise that acting like a 12-year-old on TV for laughs is bad form.

      Judges: “A judge may engage in extrajudicial activities, including law-related pursuits and civic, charitable, educational, religious, social, financial, fiduciary, and governmental activities, and may speak, write, lecture, and teach on both law-related and nonlegal subjects. However, a judge should not participate in extrajudicial activities that detract from the dignity of the judge’s office.” From the Army Ranger leader’s guide: “There is something wrong with passing out on your PV2s couch at 3AM. Once you become “one of the guys”, you’re no longer their leader, and they need you to be in charge a lot more than they need another buddy.” Remove is essential. Your problem in the common one of thinking that a professional can have public behavior that is somehow “personal.” Is it responsible for a lawyer in a capital case to come to court in a bathing suit? No. How about appearing on TV in a bikini?

      Dignity is a core value for leaders to model…it is the topic of thousands of books and articles…it’s also an ancient leadership value and proven in practice. Michelle is indulging herself at the expense of her husband and the office. She represents the President, sometimes officially. Now she’s a comedy prop.

      I shouldn’t have to explain it, frankly.

  8. The Obamas are menaces. They might as well be Kanye West and the entire Kardashian Klan. He’s a disaster in terms of both domestic and foreign policy who will set the country back twenty years, at best. I suspect before they are term limited out of the White House, she will twerk on some television show. Very sad. But most of the morons in the country will continue applauding them.

  9. “He created rules that, if everyone followed, would make the world boring, homogeneous, and full of snobbery. ”

    The 110 rules? Good manners, etiquette, isn’t snobbery. It’s based on mutual respect. Don’t talk over people, don’t have irritating mannerisms, don’t sneeze all over people, don’t gloat at other’s misfortune…as I reread them, I don’t see anything snobbish or unreasonable.

  10. Popping tranks is fine, dancing, (unless formal ballroom) not Ok. Surprise, most Americans cannot afford the type of dance the elite allow, and the First Lady is not a monk.

  11. Ballroom dancing is expensive, but the First Lady still yearns to express herself, so she shakes her booty instead, so as not to burden the populace with costly elite dance moves they could never afford easily themselves.


    This has to be the most original (although confusing and slightly mind-bending) excuse I’ve ever seen for Mrs. Obama’s actions.

  12. I’m sure there is a correlation between people who don’t have a problem with what the 1st Lady did and people who don’t think America is currently the laughing stock on the international arena. Likewise between people who don’t have a problem with what the 1st Lady did and people who think that Iran is taking us seriously during these negotiations.

    The party never ended.

  13. I’m trying to think of a country who is more uptight about their politicians, and the only one I can think of is England — and only in connection with the Queen.

    I mean, can you imagine if Mrs. Obama wore this dress? You know Merkel — not respected ANYWHERE.

    Awww, is that Putin with a cute little koala bear?
    (I thought about posting one of the 1000 photos of shirtless Putin, but that seemed extreme.)

    I actually could do this all day (I couldn’t even begin to choose among all the amazing photos of Prince Harry and French and Italian leaders) — but I need to take my kiddos to an Easter Egg Hunt.

    • As usual, though, cross cultural comparisons don’t work. The Presidency is one-third king, one-third prime minister, and one third flag. You are walking in George’s and Abe’s footsteps, and that’s both a strength and a challenge. Saying that other countries don’t see things this way or that our President shouldn’t be what he is is neither persuasive nor constructive. That’s how the job has evolved, that’s how it works, and either ignoring the successful model or trashing it is both foolish and irresponsible.

      • I am with Beth here. Do you seriously mean to make an ethics issue or rationalization out of, “It’s not a big deal?” If you expect your First Spouses to act forever in public like semi-catatonic, constipated animatrons, that reflects your TASTES, not your ethics. I am OK with even Michelle Obama being a real human being once in awhile. You are in your own Triviality Trap here, mis-applying a Management Shrug when what Michelle did is truly, absolutely, small stuff that does NOT warrant sweating about.

        • You don’t get it, and neither does Beth. The rationalization is that because it’s not a big deal to Beth, or Patrice, or you, that the First Lady, representing the President, the White House, tradition, honor and the credibility of the nation, played clown on TV doesn’t mean it’s NOT a big deal. It is. This has nothing to do with taste. I like the bit. I think she was great in it. Not the point at all.

          It’s the same issue as journalists playing journalists on TV, but much more serious. I guarantee you, a judge who did this would be suspended if not kicked off the bench. A minister too; also a police chief, an Attorney General, a college president, or a member of the Joint Chiefs. Is the dignity of the First Lady as important as any of those? You bet.

          Sorry you don’t get it, but don’t feel bad. You’re in good company: neither do the Obamas.

          • But I DO get it, Jack. I just don’t necessarily agree. Showing one’s humanity does not necessarily diminish one’s dignity. Unless you have elevated a leadership position to virtual divinity. But, then, even Jesus (as noted in the scriptures) seemed to have a sense of humor.

            • Ok, time to weigh in. This is about the half dozenth time someone has played this dirty trick.

              Jack isn’t condemned all frivolity or light heartedness in leadership. Yall are playing a game that tries to make it look like he is. It’s a false dichotomy. “Fun” or “silliness” lies on a continuum. Jack merely places *this* instance by the First Lady low on the scale…below American president acceptability. He doesn’t say that all jokery and “humanity” is below that level.

              But this is.

                • I don’t think professional dignity and decorum are all that subjective. When standards have been established and observed over time, then the standards are clear. What conduct of any previous First Lady would suggest that this was within acceptable boundaries? On the contrary, it’s just the “I like Michelle Obama, and so whatever she does is swell” standard. That’s how leaders corrupt standards. As I wrote.

                  • And, as I wrote, it wouldn’t matter to me if she had been any other First Lady.

                    Here’s the thing. If she had asked me if I thought this was a good idea, I would probably have advised against it, just because I would expect it to be fodder for criticism. Standards that “have been established and observed over time” are artifacts of so many cultural influences, including the passage of time. I know that you already refuted the “times have changed” argument (rationalization, if you must), but many standards of dignity and decorum HAVE indeed changed, in this regard as in many others, and not just to the detriment of society and culture.

                    As a Catholic Church musician, I have heard similar criticisms of the loss of “solemnity” and “mystery” and other liturgical standards that has “ruined” the Catholic Mass through the introduction of contemporary and ethnic compositions and musical instruments. All church documents aside, this is merely a matter of taste. A similar statement can be made regarding standards of dignity and decorum. I DO believe that there is a continuum in both cases, and there IS a line which shouldn’t be crossed. But I think that such a line shifts.

                    • Well THAT explains it. Guitar masses. Yuck. One of the main (among many) reasons I ran away screaming from the Catholic Church. And how about those goofy felt banners with all sorts of drecky blandishments glued on them. Maybe one of your colleagues in the Catholic mass music catastrophe is the etiquette officer in the Obama White House. That would explain it.

                    • Other Bill, I am deeply sorry that the Catholic liturgy employing a diversity of instruments is so offensive to you. Things have changed, though, at “contemporary” Catholic Masses in the past 40 years, including the fact that the people in the pews can now celebrate in the vernacular and actually participate in singing during the Mass, which is normative (remember, “after singing songs of praise, they went off to the Mount of Olives”), instead of passively listening to inaccessible, although beautiful (only if the skill of the choir and musicians is up to it), classical motets. It is unfortunate that the beauty and spirit of the Catholic liturgy is lost on you.

                    • I would also add, Patrice that, although I am not Catholic, I have on occasion gone to Midnight Mass and appreciate the sermon and the rest of the service being in English, so I would know what was going on.

                    • (Back from Easter egg purgatory.) I agree. My position holds firm regardless of the party of the politician in question.

                      This IS a subjective standard. No question. For me, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this bit that Mrs. Obama did. But, I will give an example of behavior that I felt was beneath the dignity of a President. When Clinton (I believe he wasn’t elected yet) answered the “boxers or briefs” question. I remember audibly gasping at the time — and I was extremely young and arguably hip. (Before I became a humorless attorney.)

                      I also acknowledge that others were not bothered by the boxers/briefs question. As this is a matter of subjective taste, I wouldn’t write an essay about it. This is not a cotillion or etiquette school — it is a contest about who we want to be our leaders. Some people want to see this human side, others do not. If it bothers you, vote for guy who is all manners in public — but don’t be surprised if he gets the 50 Shades of Grey equipment out in private. When I see something like this video — which Mrs. Obama BARELY pulls off — I really think that this is about as crazy as this lady can get, and it gives me a bit of comfort. She wouldn’t lose my vote because of this.

  14. As I said the first time President Obama appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show:


    That is all.


  15. Jack, I’m obviously way behind on this, but you were spot on regarding the importance of a First Lady carrying herself with dignity. Ms. Obama is representing our nation to to the world. I am flabbergasted that Patrice doesn’t think it’s undignified. Where would she draw the line? Mud Wrestling? Pole Dancing?

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