The traditional First Lady facial expression is a parody of High Genteel: an eerie combination of warmth, graciousness, and reserve. Not this time. What strikes one about Michelle Obama’s expression in her first months in the White House is the energy, the gusto, the joy of possession. Even in a black-and-white Washington Post photo of the Obamas in the president’s box at the Kennedy Center watching the Alvin Ailey dance company, the dull ink could not dim the impression that they are having the time of their lives. Waving to the audience, the First Couple project a radiance, a high wattage. How else to describe Michelle’s expression? Journalism favors the smile, of course, and hers is so bright, so blazing, she reminds you of Doris Day. (There’s something strangely fifties about the Obamas in many ways.) It’s a toothy smile, a genuine grin.
There is no evidence that Jackie Kennedy, the Mona Lisa of them all, even had teeth. Or Laura Bush, whose smile was so secretive she seemed to be stoned—that lacquered expression that gave nothing away. With Michelle, there is no dissimulation; when she’s not smiling, she can look stark. (When she’s not smiling, your attention shifts to her eyes, which can look alarmed, even bleak.)
That’s why her face is going to be one of the seismographs of this administration. To have, after Laura Bush’s perfectly calibrated refusal to betray the slightest thought or feeling, and Hillary Clinton’s inability to convince us that any of her expressions was unpremeditated, a First Lady whose face is full of feeling and intelligence and earnestness is unsettling. Till now it’s been the president’s visage we watch change during his term in office—in the direction of fatigue and worry. This time it’s going to be more interesting to watch hers evolve; to see if, four years down the road, she has learned to acquire a mask.