SAN JOSE, Calif. - John Quincy Adams sought relief from the pressures of the presidency by sneaking away from the White House for nude dips in the Potomac. Warren G. Harding, who presided over one of the most inept administrations in history, was such a lousy poker player he once gambled away the White House china. And after a tough day in the Oval Office, Andrew Jackson liked to unwind behind the executive mansion watching cockfights.
Every American president has brought his own style to the world’s most unusual home office. The inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan. 20 is expected to bring an extreme makeover to the style regime at the White House. Wherever else he leads the country, the new president is certain to chart a new course as tastemaker in chief.
With only six state dinners in eight years, the Bush White House was a merriment-free zone. And for all their wonkiness, the Clintons weren’t exactly fun-loving either - unless you count Intern Pizza Night.
The political contrasts between Obama, who arrives in Washington with the largest electoral plurality of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and George W. Bush, who will slink out of office with history’s most abysmal approval ratings, are stark. But as the nation’s first African-American president, and the first post-baby boom chief executive, Obama will doubtless influence Americans in ways never seen before.
“It’s going to be fascinating to see how that spins off in terms of movies that people watch, music that becomes more fashionable, even the clothes that people wear,” says Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House and is a close confidant of Obama’s expected nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. “When you move from one era to another, you usually have all these cultural issues that accompany the transition.”
Just as 43-year-old John F. Kennedy brought an electrifying jolt of vitality - or “vigah,” as he called it - when he introduced the country to its new first family in 1961, much of the excitement about the Obamas swirls around 7-year-old Sasha and 10-year-old Malia, the first pair of young children to move into the White House since Caroline and John Kennedy Jr. Even hardened Washington veterans still talk mistily about those touch football games at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.
The prospect of having a youthful first family again in the White House has set the nation’s capital aflutter with talk of the torch being passed to a new generation, a whole new black-inflected White House of Style. Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning style writer for The Washington Post, has referred to the adorable Obama brood as “Camelot with a tan.”
“They’re good-looking, stylish people, with attractive children,” says Letitia Baldrige, White House social secretary to Jackie Kennedy and a lifelong Republican. “And Americans like attractive people. They just do. The Obamas are going to bring a whole new style, start a whole new national conversation. And it’s going to be a wonderful thing for the country.”
Obamastyle is already taking hold in the capitals of fashion, media and music. If the TV audience for Obama’s campaign infomercial (34 million viewers) and the first post-election interview he and his wife, Michelle, gave to the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” (25.1 million viewers, the biggest audience for any prime-time show this season) were treated as a series, “The Obama Show” would be the top-rated program of the fall.
On Election Night - with 71 million people watching on TV, another ratings smash - former Bush adviser Karl Rove asserted that the Obamas will not be America’s first “first family” of color. “We’ve had an African-American first family for many years in different forms,” Rove said on Fox News. “When ‘The Cosby Show’ was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.”
The Huxtables first appeared on NBC in 1984, midway between the gathering of the Kennedy and Obama clans at the White House. By presenting an intact black family as successful, and unthreatening to a broad swath of white America, Bill Cosby’s hugely popular TV series helped build a bridge for the Obamas to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., says psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint of Harvard Medical School, an African-American and the script consultant for the program.
“That show represented a breakthrough in sending the message that we are just like all other American families, that we have the same concerns for our children,” Poussaint says. “It was a black family that was different from most of the portrayals people had seen on TV before.
“The public was set on seeing the black family as troubled, and dysfunctional, with styles and behaviors that were really very different from white America. Most whites, accustomed to watching shows like ‘That’s My Mama,’ ‘What’s Happening!!’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ didn’t feel they had much in common with black families.”
One way Cliff Huxtable differed sharply from the characters on those shows also happens to be one of the big differences between George W. Bush and Barack Obama: their skill using the language.
As Andy Borowitz noted last week on Huffington Post, Obama “has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences. ... Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama’s appearance on CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’ ” ... witnessed the president-elect’s unorthodox verbal tick, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.”
In other ways great and small, what comes out of the new president’s mouth - and evidently out of his wife’s closet - will likely make the Obamas the center of attention no matter where you look the next four years. Michelle Obama’s election night dress - a black and red number by designer Narciso Rodriguez - ignited a fashionista firestorm worthy of any Oscar-night red-carpet controversy, a designer dustup that was taken by some fashion followers as an encouraging sign of life in the capital.
“When was the last time people even cared what the first lady wore, and were dissecting it?” asks Pamela Keogh, author of the book “Jackie Style,” which unraveled the mystique of Camelot’s high-thread count queen. “That hasn’t happened since Jackie.”
During the campaign, Michelle Obama appeared on “The View” in an off-the-rack outfit she bought for under $150 at the aptly named chain White House/Black Market. Within 24 hours of her appearance, the dress had sold out nationwide.
Until now, Oprah Winfrey was the only black woman in America who has exerted that sort of powerful influence in matters of style, taste and professional aspiration. But with her confident parenting style, political acumen and that strand of Jackie power pearls, Michelle Obama is about to become the “O” the country looks to first.
Michelle Obama has also disarmed the fashion world by frequently going sleeveless. “Forget her husband, I want her arms,” Keogh says. “She has gorgeous, gorgeous arms. I think we better start doing push-ups and getting our arms in shape, because sleeveless is back.”
All the early attention to what the Obamas are wearing suggests a hunger for glamour - even, or maybe especially, if it’s done on a budget - following an era of staid pantsuits worn by Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Nancy Reagan’s expensive designer wear was nice if you happened to be a size 2.
On the social front, longtime Washington hands are anticipating the return of glittering state dinners - Obamastyle, of course - that should go a long way toward banishing the gloom that’s lingered over the town during Bush’s ghastly second term. At times, the White House incumbent has felt less like an occupant than occupier.
“Forget the Oscars,” Keogh says. “I think state dinners are going to be big national social events. With the Obamas, there’s clearly a renewed sense of optimism and style, just a sense of joy that we’re back from the wilderness.”
The president-elect already has expressed his affection for hip-hop music, raising the alarming and wonderful possibility of rappers in the Lincoln bedroom, or seated next to King Harald V of Norway at one of those White House state dinners. Many of the industry’s top hip-hop artists are openly wowed by the new first family.
The hip-hop journal Vibe set off a chain reaction of Obamastyle magazine covers when it laid the hip-hop handle “B-Rock” on Barack. After that came GQ (Man of the Year), Ebony (“25 Coolest Brothers of All Time”) and even Men’s Health - all of it demonstrating the cultural curiosity swirling around the man, and the clan, of the moment.
The president-elect has made his distaste for gangsta rap’s frequent use of violent and misogynistic imagery, and as legendary rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy told The Washington Post, that means another mandate has been delivered. “The commentary has to be rewired,” he said.
Not everyone is so sure about that. Oakland rapper Boots Riley says Obama represents the idea of radical change, but not yet the reality.
“The people desperately wanted change, and they didn’t want another old white guy up there,” Riley says. “Even old white guys didn’t want another old white guy. The United States is going to keep on with its imperialist ways. Instead of putting an ugly, old white face on imperialism, we’re going to have a pretty brown one.”
With all the talk about a black Camelot, is there any chance of a revival of the 1960 Broadway musical that was the inspiration for the first presidential Camelot - maybe this time with an all-black cast?
“No,” says longtime Broadway producer Manny Azenberg, who produced “The Wiz,” the most successful black musical ever staged. “And I don’t think there would be any interest in a revival of a white cast of ‘Camelot.’ And if you ask me if there would be a revival with a mixed cast, the answer would also be no. It just isn’t a good show.”
For now, the most interesting political show of all is warming up out of town. In less than two months it opens on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, then plays the White House for four years.