Malia Obama had a birthday yesterday.
White House kids seem to have it all. Every toy and gadget comes over the transom. The most famous people of their day are on hand. But the one thing that is often missing are the parents.
When Tad Lincoln celebrated his 12th birthday on April 4, 1865, his father Abraham Lincoln was visiting Richmond, Virginia, the conquered capital of the Confederacy. Fascinated newsmen covered Lincoln as he sat down at the very desk of his former nemesis, Jefferson Davis, in the so called Southern White House. It was a moment filled with such human interest and irony that the birthday of Tad mattered little to the nation. Ten days later, on April 14, Abraham Lincoln was dead at the hands of an assassin. Tad didn’t have his dad for long.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Mrs. Kennedy remained in the White House for weeks after but the West Wing was immediately taken by Lyndon Johnson, the new president. On November 27, only five days after the death of her father, young Caroline Kennedy celebrated her birthday. The nation hardly cared. The new president Lyndon Johnson gave an address to a joint session of congress. And Mrs. Kennedy was in the news for visiting with the new president in the Oval Office. Big events overshadowed a little girl’s sixth birthday. But Caroline surely remembers it.
Doug Dwight “Ikky” Eisenhower was born on September 24, 1917 but died three years later in his father’s arms. Rather than wallow in grief, the Eisenhower’s determined to forever celebrate the birth of this child and the time they had shared together. They ever after celebrated his birthday, sending little cards and gifts to each other. But in 1955 President Eisenhower suffered his first heart attack on that date. The newspapers never even mentioned the coincidence. And Mamie would have her first serious stroke years later on the eve of this September 24 anniversary. No one even remembered the birthday of Ikky. But the Eisenhowers obviously did.
History towers above these little children of the White House and the lives of their parents often bury them in insignificance. If the children seem for awhile to be spoiled by the drippings from the table of power they are all too often overlooked and deprived of the ordinary parental love that many of the rest of us take for granted.
And so, there is something touching about seeing Michelle Obama, a first lady who is showing herself to be something much more, a real life mother, often putting her children first. On the trip to Europe, when daughter Sasha turned eight, she didn’t just pack her and her sister off to the movie set for the latest Harry Potter installment. They would have been okay, surrounded by handlers and feted by actors and actresses. The First Lady could have met with other movers and shakers in London, or burnished her image and cause by meeting with volunteers, doing her own Princess Diana photo op. The world would have loved it. But instead, she went with Sasha and Malia to meet Mr. Harry Potter together. They were inseparable throughout the trip, mother and daughters.
We have seen a number of dysfunctional families and marriages in the White House. The Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Reagans, the Clintons. And if the Bushes were not dysfunctional, they were certainly old school, children were to be seen and not heard and when it wasn’t your turn, you weren’t even to be seen. So there is something kind of nice about watching a mother and father who openly love their daughters and dote on them.
Power does strange things to families, especially the children. Catherine de Medici plotted against her own sons. Two Russian monarchs, Ivan the terrible and Peter the Great, executed their own sons. It’s Biblical, David and Absalom. Power is an intoxicating poison and it ruins families and turns brother against brother.
However divided we may now be about the changing role of government and this administration’s decisions on the economy and foreign policy, we can all celebrate the fact that little Malia Obama will be eleven years old tomorrow. And we can all celebrate the fact that her parents see that as important.