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January 22, 2009

Social Positions

Obamas Blue Room.jpg

by Karen Hull

If it wasn’t obvious already, yesterday’s photo op from the White House Blue Room made an opening day statement. Taking time to greet members of the public, the Obama’s seem determined to create a warm, open and egalitarian atmosphere in the White House.

Perhaps that attitude is that much more noticeable, however, because of George and Laura Bush. You can understand what I’m talking about looking at photo ops of George and Laura, as compared to past first families, in one particular room, the West Sitting Hall.

Laura Michelle White House.jpg  

This photo above, taken at the White House during the Obamas’ first post-election visit, shows Laura Bush settled into an armchair and Michelle Obama propped with a pillow and perched at the end of stiffly-stuffed couch. Laura looks comfy enough, Michelle not so much. Perhaps it’s a lack of grace or an immunity to resonance and nuance, but I consistently find George and Laura had only a small ability to personally extend themselves.

The photo of Laura Bush and Michelle Obama reminds me of this photo:

west-sitting-hall-2005-roberts.jpg

Obviously, that’s just-nominated Chief Justice Roberts looking uncomfortable (and the president looking clueless) at a White House photo op. The power is certainly on the Bushes in both photos and the guest is at a disadvantage.

Contrast that with Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush in the same room during Clinton’s post-election first visit:

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Babs put Hillary on equal and comfortable footing.

Here’s Babs again, in the same room, placing her guests at ease and in the focal point of attention:

west-sitting-hall-1989.jpg

And the Reagans hosting the Prince and Princess of Wales in the same room:

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Although Diana looks a tad uncomfortable, Nancy places her on equal footing (though that might be a problem itself if you’re dealing with royalty). The emphasis is off the “power armchair” and Ronald takes a dominant, though more benign position.

Here’s an even older photo of Ladybird Johnson playing hostess but giving emphasis to her guest:

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The West Sitting Hall functions as a living/receiving room on the main residence floor of the White House. It separates the president’s master bedroom and living room on the south and family kitchen and dining room on the north, so there is some locational intimacy. It may, in fact, judging from the just unveiled portrait in The National Portrait Gallery, be Laura Bush’s favorite room:

LauraBush NatPortraitGal.jpg

It will be interesting to see exactly how the Obamas use the room (there are several sitting rooms and parlors on this floor) and how they set the tone and dynamic with their guests.

(image 1: Pete Souza/White House; 2: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House; 3: Eric Draper/White House; 4: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library; 5: whitehousemuseum.org; 6: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, image 7: Whitehousemuseum.org, 8. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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