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.