Monday, January 05, 2009

The Malia-and-Sasha Scrum

Pictures of the Obama children's first day of school in a crowd of Secret Service agents are a reminder of how life will change for these two little girls and how hard it will be to provide them with a semblance of normality.

Michelle Obama has said they will be making their own beds in the White House, but it will take more than that for Malia and Sasha to keep some sense of the life they led up to now.

I saw this White House effect up close when Lynda Bird Johnson came to work for me right out of college in 1966, and today's scenes at Sidwell Friends School recalled her first day at work.

To avoid the media crush, we decided to smuggle her into the office, hold a press conference later and then get reporters and cameramen out of the building.

The day before, I showed the Secret Service the freight elevator, which on the ground floor opened to a parking lot obscured from the main entrance. Her agents had a plan to fake out reporters by having one of them at the main entrance on a walkie-talkie to suggest an imminent arrival there. Another was stationed the parking lot entrance. As Lynda Bird's car approached undetected he waved it in; if the press had caught on, he would have sent it to the main entrance.

It worked, but not without a touch of farce. As the car pulled up to the freight entrance, two men came out wheeling a large metal frame that got wedged in the doorway. The sight greeting the President’s daughter on her first day was the backside of her editor bending over to help the workmen carry it out.

To prevent gawking, our managing editor took Lynda Bird around and introduced her to every last soul on the staff, including secretaries and messengers. Then she went off to sign employment forms, while the personnel director explained the company pension plan.

After lunch, we went to the corporate conference room for the press conference with a human wall stretching across the room in a semi-circle three layers deep; mounted TV cameras in back, hand-held video recorders in front of them aiming over the shoulders of kneeling still photographers. Lights blazed on, and the mass of flesh, metal and glass started writhing around us, the semi-circle getting smaller. We edged to the microphones, Lynda Bird said a few words and left the room. Then I answered questions.

"Will she be treated just like any other employee?” "Yes, just like any other employee who comes to work with Secret Service agents and goes home to the White House on weekends."

The media have multiplied since then, and no matter how hard the Obamas try, it will be very hard to get their daughters treated just like any other children.

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