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Good White House Keeping

The genius of flawed hostessing.


Ever had an English houseguest? You’ve barely stuck a sweaty can of Diet Coke in his hand before he’s passing around a collection of gifts so carefully chosen and shyly presented that you realize you’re witnessing some very small part of a culture which, while dying, retains an almost Homeric attitude toward the responsibilities of guest and host. Consequently, if you’d been anywhere near the East Wing during Gordon and Sarah Brown’s recent visit, you might have heard a harried, distinctly feminine shriek emanating from deep within the residence: “Oh for Christ’s sake, they brought presents for the girls?”

Yes, there have been mistakes. Yes, it would have been nice if we’d had something to send home to the Brown boys besides a couple of toy helicopters hastily liberated from the White House gift shop, the diplomatic equivalent of a rewrap. But for the most part: so far so great. Michelle Obama cuts a pretty figure in her big-and-tall gal ready-to-wear, and she has Joe Kennedy’s understanding of the power of family photographs to advance a political career. Like Hillary she lacks taste; her consumer preferences seem to have been rendered into being by the Mall at Short Hills. But ours is not the moment for taste. Or, for that matter, for a Nancy Reagan/Candy Spelling hyperattention to “gifting.” The Gordon Brown embarrassment was admittedly a cock-up, and yet … it kind of worked. The English yelped like stuck pigs about the whole thing, and saw in it some flatteringly sophisticated message on Michelle’s part, involving everything from her feelings about the European slave trade to the decline of British sea power. But American women—infatuated by our newest lifestyle guru—understood Michelle’s gaffe precisely and only loved her more. Times are lean, the fripperies of entertaining don’t come as effortlessly as they once did, and—heads up, folks—the lady of the house is a little bit frazzled right now.


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