Answer Man: Why do we pay for trips by the first lady?

News-DemocratApril 12, 2014 

Glenn McCoy's recent cartoon of Michelle Obama riding in a rickshaw, ordering her Chinese driver to go "chop-chop," prompts a question: Since Obama is neither an elected or appointed official of the U.S. government, why do taxpayers have to foot the bill for her junkets? How do these trips, her recent trip to China for one, qualify as "official" travel? -- WAM, of O'Fallon

I find it interesting that Michelle Obama's recent trip to China has drawn so much scrutiny.

I don't remember the same indignation in 2008 when Laura Bush announced at a gathering one night, "Tomorrow, President Bush and I leave for what will be my fifth trip to Africa since 2001 ... I've seen the determination of the people across Africa -- and the compassion of the people of the United States of America."

That's right -- not one, not three, but five. And yet I don't recall seeing cartoons of Bush being carried in a Cleopatra-style litter by four burly Africans saying, "Where to, ma'am?"

In fact, Bush's travels make the current first lady look more like a stay-at-home mom, relatively speaking: According to a study by the National Taxpayers Union, Laura Bush in eight years made 46 trips to 73 countries lasting 212 days -- more than a half-year out of the country. Not counting her recent China sojourn, Michelle Obama in her first five years has gone on 14 trips to 25 countries for 72 days.

OK, now that I'm sure I have thoroughly ruffled some conservative feathers, let me quickly add this: While you're correct in that first ladies are neither elected nor appointed, I tend to agree with those who argue that no matter what their party affiliation, they serve a vital role as unique U.S. ambassadors.

In other words, they are important in a political sense, yet their visits typically are not as divisive or of such high stakes as those of their husbands. So the expense may be well worth it.

"No other spouse of a head of state has a de facto government position," historian Myra Gutin, who focuses on the lives of presidential wives, once told the Washington Post. "It's intentionally fuzzy. As the first lady, you have a chance to assert in a quiet way, 'I speak for the government.' Or to say, 'I don't speak for the government.' You can have it both ways."

So when, say, Michelle Obama visited Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology on her first solo trip out of the country, it was a big deal.

"When you visit a cultural institution or a performing arts event, in the world of diplomacy, it matters," Anita McBride, Laura Bush's second-term chief of staff, said once. "It's a recognition of cultural identity; it's something countries see as significant and important to who they are. It matters in a big way."

The first lady has been casting an ever larger shadow on the world stage ever since Nov. 7, 1907. That's the day Edith Roosevelt accompanied her husband, Theodore, to the newly independent country of Panama to become the first first lady to leave the country.

In late 1918, Edith Wilson went with her husband, Woodrow, as he took part in the Paris peace conference in Paris after World War I. They toured Europe for 72 days. Likewise, Grace Coolidge accompanied Calvin to Havana as he addressed the opening of a Pan-American Conference.

Then, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, first ladies began stepping into the spotlight by themselves. Representing the American Red Cross, Eleanor Roosevelt made solo trips to Ireland, England, U.S. military installations in the South Pacific and military bases throughout the Central and South America. She also became the first to make such trips by air.

In just three years, Jackie Kennedy left her legacy by meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth, served as goodwill ambassador to Pakistan and India -- even interceded to provided relief for earthquake victims during a personal trip to Italy in August 1962.

As you might be sensing, I could write several columns on these journeys. Pat Nixon made a humanitarian trip to earthquake-ravaged Peru in 1970 and addressed the parliaments of Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Liberia. Rosalynn Carter took up the cause of human rights in South American and Cambodian refugees on a trip to Thailand. And, yes, Laura Bush fought for breast cancer awareness and other health issues in the Middle East and Africa as well as women's rights in Afghanistan.

In the end, I leave it to you to decide whether the cost is worth it. All I'd ask is that people would be fair -- and perhaps remember what McBride once said: "It gives you the freedom to be a representative of the country in the most positive way. Our country looks to the first lady to be a goodwill ambassador."

Today's trivia

Who was the last first lady who did not make a foreign trip by herself?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: British mathematics writer Alex Bellos recently launched an informal worldwide poll to find people's favorite number. You could probably guess the result. Out of 44,000 responses, it's seven -- as in wonders of the world, seas, sins, dwarves, etc. Runners-up are three, eight, four, five -- and 13. If that intrigues, you might look for his books "The Grapes of Math" and "Here's Looking at Euclid."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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