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Obamas' Social Style Has D.C. Grumbling

Michelle Obama hits New York today — and the fashion world is aflutter.

By
with contributions from Marc Karimzadeh
First Lady Michelle Obama talks with students in Westchester

Michelle Obama hits New York today — and the fashion world is aflutter.

The First Lady is coming to town to attend a private Democratic fund-raiser at Donna Karan’s Upper West Side apartment, where she will mingle and chat with many of the designers she has worn and put on the fashion map over the last two years.

There’s little argument over the impact of her sartorial choices. At the suggestion of Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, she has championed a group of young, emerging New York designers, as well as more established ones. Jason Wu became fashion’s darling du jour as a result of the inauguration gown Obama wore, while Isabel Toledo, Thakoon Panichgul, Naeem Khan, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez have received major publicity boosts as a result of outfitting the First Lady. Even J. Crew got a public relations bump after Obama revealed on “The Tonight Show” that she was wearing one of its outfits.

Today’s event is the second time in two months the Obamas have hobnobbed with New York’s fashion set ­— the President hit town in August for a fund-raiser at Anna Wintour’s Greenwich Village townhouse that drew Karan, Calvin Klein, Tory Burch and a slew of other designers. It also indicates the First Lady is raising her profile again after lying low for a few months following a series of p.r. missteps (like the pricy vacation in Spain with her daughter, Malia). After the cocktail party at Karan’s apartment, the First Lady will move to Broadway’s St. James Theater, where Sarah Jessica Parker will serve as host and Patti LaBelle will do a special performance.

Throughout her time here, she’ll no doubt feel the kind of love the Obamas aren’t exactly getting in Washington these days — and we’re not just talking about Republicans. While the first couple seems only too eager to rub shoulders with the New York fashion, media and big-money sets, D.C. socialites are feeling snubbed, short-changed and officially dissed. There used to be complaints about White House red tape — now they’re complaining about the White House red rope.

A new feature in the ever-evolving bag of White House party props is causing more trouble than Nancy Reagan’s tablecloth crisis or Harry Truman’s fuss about doilies and finger bowls. To be sure, President Obama and the First Lady have agreed to honor donors to some of the nation’s top cultural institutions with an ongoing string of pre-gala, black-tie receptions. But they’ve also taken a big step back when it comes to their body language — WAY back. In fact, so far back that they’re behind a campaign-style rope line.

Instead of welcoming guests in a formal receiving line with a White House photographer on hand to help visitors capture their historic moment, or simply strolling through the Red, Blue and Green rooms chatting informally with invitees, the Obamas prefer to stand in a designated spot, such as one end of the East Room or in the Grand Foyer, safely positioned behind a red velvet rope. The kind of red velvet rope clubs use to keep out the riffraff. From there, the presidential couple smiles, chats, makes eye contact and waves as their guests jockey for position to touch their hands. No mingling.

“For a campaign rally, sure, that’s fine. But not for the White House,’’ says one museum board member who, like many, requested anonymity. “Every president — Bill Clinton, both Bushes, the Reagans — they would always have a quick receiving line. Each couple would be formally announced. A few words would be exchanged. But this President thinks he is such a rock star. It’s like he’s inviting guests to the White House just to snub them.”

“It’s the Secret Service,’’ insists the new White House social secretary Julianna Smoot, conceding that, “All the guests have already been cleared so many times before they arrive. But no one argues with the Secret Service.’’

President Obama

President Obama

Photo By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

“No way,’’ say Washington veterans of the pre-gala, White House party circuit, many of whom have been attending these events annually for almost two decades. No one is buying the Obama White House shtick that George W. and Laura Bush started greeting guests from behind a red velvet rope line ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Another Obama White House aide, unable to explain why pre-gala guests, many of whom have worked in the White House, needed to be held behind a rope line, fretted, “The Obamas might be mobbed.’’

“Who wants to be treated as a security risk?” wonders one of Washington’s leading philanthropists. “The only other person I know where you had to line up behind a rope was the Queen of England in the 1980s, when she came to the British Embassy and we all waited as she made her way down the rope line.”

Ford’s Theatre board member Maureen Malek, who recently chaired the popular Meridian Ball attended by White House chief of protocol Capricia Marshall and the new Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, counts herself fortunate to have missed this summer’s White House reception for Ford’s Theatre’s top donors.

“I didn’t go. My granddaughter was in a soccer tournament. Or maybe it was her horse. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was on the same day,’’ she explains, making her priorities clear.

So much for the old days — even under the likes of President Carter — when a White House invitation was considered the top social ticket in town, a coveted, command performance that no guest dare turn down. Malek had already gotten a dose of the Obama rope line when she was invited to a White House reception for donors to the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies.

“The President did not attend that reception,’’ says deputy White House social secretary Ebs Burnough, who dodged all questions about his bosses’ penchant for red velvet rope lines, explaining he’d missed the Ford’s Theatre event to visit his mother in Palm Beach, Fla.

“He’s right, the President wasn’t there,’’ agrees Malek. “This time it was First Lady Michelle Obama on her own who greeted us all from behind a rope line.

“It just doesn’t seem very hospitable to me,’’ continues Malek. “It’s their way, and each president has his own way of greeting people. For some people, it doesn’t matter. They just love being in the White House. I like it the other way.”

 

Malek isn’t alone. Asked about this year’s Dec. 6 White House reception for the Kennedy Center Honors gala (which will award Sir Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, Merle Haggard, Bill T. Jones and Jerry Herman), a veteran Kennedy Center board member privately confides, “I’m sending in my check, but I’m not going to the White House.”

And socialites aren’t the only ones complaining about the White House red rope. At last year’s Christmas party for the press, reporters who spend entire careers trying to navigate around rope lines started lobbying early to safeguard the treasured perk of shaking hands with the President and securing an autographed photograph.

Former Time Magazine Washington bureau chief Jay Carney, now assistant to Vice President Joe Biden (never one to miss a chance to greet a new friend), admits he got his share of desperate phone calls from anxious guests begging for their coveted moment of presidential face time. “Grip-and-grin photographers for hundreds of people,” he shrugs. “It’s well known the President doesn’t like that. But the White House musical events, they are something new the President and First Lady have started. The party for Sir Paul McCartney was the best party I’ve ever been to. And the Obamas have given more state dinners than Bush, who only gave one in his first year.” (Where there’s no red velvet rope.)

Besides, while socialites might be sitting out this administration, there are still dozens of savvy insiders vying to adjust to the Obama White House’s new entertaining protocols. One Embassy Row hostess, who gave dozens of black-tie parties before the Obamas came to town, was horrified to be asked if an upcoming dinner was black tie.

“No, no, no,” she gasps. “It’s cocktail attire. This administration does not like black tie. You are more likely to get them if you do cocktail dress.”

Interior designer Victor Shargai, who has been to several Obama White House parties, has no problems with rope lines. “It helps to keep order more than anything else,” he says, pointing to the Obamas’ Halloween party, where the red velvet rope worked just fine. As chairman of the Helen Hayes Awards, Shargai worked with local actors invited to dress up in costume to entertain the kids. “When you see these kids’ faces and the parents, you see people who are not jaded, who aren’t coming to the White House with certain expectations,” he says.

Then there are those D.C. veterans who are fed up with the whole notion of any kind of Washington high society. To them, the rope line is just the ticket to combat the city’s ever-expanding sense of entitlement.

Edwin Chen, former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, recalls, “The club always hosts a private party for 100 special, invited guests just before the big dinner. When the President and First Lady arrive, they fill the room with a crush of people. For the duration of the reception, you have people who stay in their face and do not give others a chance.”

Chen, who served as White House senior correspondent for Bloomberg News in May when he ran the dinner, was happy to make some changes. “The rope line created a sense of order and allowed enough people in the room to have their picture taken with the President and First Lady. Everything moved quickly, and the dinner ended early, which was how I planned it. The White House liked it very much.”

But how about all the White House bureau chiefs, correspondents and visiting New York publishers?

“I didn’t really care,’’ says Chen — who now promotes Hollywood’s favorite environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council — and no longer works for Bloomberg.