Obamas' Social Style Has D.C. Grumbling

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

with contributions from Marc Karimzadeh
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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.

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