What's Behind the Attack on Michelle Obama

The First Lady has been subject to vicious attack by Republicans over her travel costs and her use of governmental aircraft, despite the fact that she has paid for a substantial portion of it herself.

Michelle Obama in 2010? No, Hillary Clinton in 2000. In March of that year, a House appropriations subcommittee held a hearing focusing on the First Lady's trips to New York. In May, two House committee chairs followed up by demanding that the White House turn over records documenting Mrs. Clinton's travels in extraordinary detail. The Republican National Committee and the campaign of Rudy Giuliani piled on, trying to stir a pot of scandal around long-standing and bipartisan practices involving the way first families travel.

As a White House spokesman at the time, I criticized the way Republicans were "looking to play politics with the safety of the First Lady," and distributed memos from Republican chiefs of staff James Baker and John Sununu supporting the use of military planes for the First Lady's trips. Eventually the diaphanous controversy dissipated like a morning fog.

Besides providing a reminder of what shenanigans might be in store should Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives this fall, the parallelism of the attacks on two Democratic First Ladies - when coupled with the way Republicans went after Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her own use of government planes not long ago - offers lessons on the politics of personal destruction, as practiced by the right wing.

Simply put, there are some in this country who cannot stand the idea of women and people of color in positions of power, and there are cynical power mongers who don't mind pushing their buttons to keep the political pot boiling. And they are not above exaggeration and outright lies to prove their nonexistent point.

One small example: a newspaper headline reads, "Spanish Police Close Public Beach" for Michelle Obama. Well, no. The beach wasn't closed. A 100-yard buffer was set up to provide protection for the family. In this age of terrorism, that seems to be quite a modest nod to security.

Not all the criticism of the First Lady's trip is malevolent, but you do not have to travel far into the depths of the conservative blogosphere to find evidence of extremely sexist and racist commentary about it.

Could all of this have been avoided by choosing a "safer" location for a vacation? Perhaps, but I say give the First Family a break. The Drudge Report will keep lighting the match, Rush Limbaugh will keep fanning the flames, and maybe Sarah Palin will pour some gasoline ("Come to Alaska, Michelle!"), but Marbella-gate has all the earmarks of a mid-August media mob gone amok.

Come September, it should all blow over. But when it does, just remember this: the folks who find fault with the cost of a small vacation in Spain are the same folks who helped turn the historic Bill Clinton surplus into the giant George Bush deficit. That's one strange and expensive trip I for one don't want to take again.