One of These Women is Apparently Not Like The Other: Conspicuous Consumption @ the White House

Take a moment to consider the bulk of the news coverage last week. What were some of the top stories that you can remember? It should not take too long for both the name and the image of Chelsea Clinton to float across your memory.

Whether you were one of the people who did not care about the Clinton wedding or one of those who gloried in its every detail, you could not possibly have gotten through last week or even the week before without hearing about the millions of dollars pouring into the former President and Presidential hopeful’s daughter’s wedding. Estimates from legitimate news sources place the wedding cost at between $2 and $5 million.

AP Photo

While Joy Behar stood out for criticizing the conspicuous consumption of politicians and celebrities, while being attacked by her co-hosts, the media party line was that:

  1. the Clinton wedding “created jobs”
  2. the Clintons are “the last of N. American royalty”
  3. the Clintons have money and therefore “every right to spend it however they see fit”

Embedded in these depictions is the celebration of conspicuous consumption during a recession because (1) it’s a wedding, and as long as you are heterosexual the mythos of this country is that you should spare no expense and (2) despite often being the center of much criticism, the Clintons are still white and what rich white people do with their money in this country has largely been off limits for critique unless they are British and go yachting while ruining two nation’s delicate ecosystems with oil. And even then, some people will defend them.

AP Photo/Sergio Torres

The First Lady and youngest daughter, Sasha Obama, went on vacation in Spain this week.  While her trip has certainly received way less fanfare than the Clinton wedding, the people reporting on it have taken an entirely different track than they did with the Clinton’s 2-5 million dollar event.

While the people in Spain celebrated the arrival of the First Lady and her friends, and looked forward to how their visit would likely boost the economy there no similar discussion happened in the U.S. Instead discussion has focused on:

  1. First Lady Obama’s “extravagant wardrobe”
  2. First Lady Obama’s “glitzy” and “extravagant vacation while N. Americans suffer”

While the cost of the trip is unknown it is estimated that the room Michelle and Sasha are staying in costs $2500 a night, or roughly $10,000 total for the 4 days they have been there. Secret Service agents are likely staying in rooms that cost between $500 and $2500 a night.

While the Clintons were praised for generating jobs, The NY Daily News went so far as to refer to the First Lady as “the Material Girl” and “Marie Antionette” who you may recall partied while France descended into abject poverty. The same article implies that the First Lady is “traveling by Air Force 2” as if she takes the plane from the hotel to the shops, hotel to the beach, etc. and not just flew from DC to Spain. Yet the NY Daily News ran no similar article questioning the gas guzzling SUVs that actually did transport the Clinton’s and their Secret Service entourage to the Clinton wedding. (Unlike other vehicles transporting people to the wedding, these cars would have been paid for by tax dollars.) In fact, there was no discussion of how tax payer money went into the Clinton wedding whatsoever because it was understood that the people running our nation need protection, at least as long as they aren’t the Obamas that is. Thus the costs of the Secret Service in Spain is referred to as part of the larger cost in the Obama trip, while the same cost of Secret Service at the Clinton wedding which included protection for the former President, the current Secretary of State, and the Chelsea Clinton herself were not included in the estimates of the Clinton wedding. (The same can be said for the costs associated with guests at the two events. The Clinton wedding paid for food, drink, hotel rooms, and parties said to last until 2 or 3 in the morning for guests but no one counted or repeatedly referred to the number of attendees as a sign of extravagance. The Obama vacation includes 40 guests and each has been counted and recounted with flabbergasted disgust about how much cost they are assumed to be generating. In both cases, the tax payers are not footing the bill but in the latter the media would like you to think so.)

For those keeping up with the coverage of the White House, these disparities are not new. The Obamas are the first, First Family, to have to account for whose money is being spent every time they leave the country. After complaints condemning their first trip, the White House Press Secretary began routinely announcing that the Obamas were spending their own money on all their vacation related expenses for every trip they took. No similar standard was applied to George Bush who not only vacationed often but did so during both internal and external crisis in the country.  Nor was his wife, former First Lady Bush, questioned about her trips with their two daughters. In fact, while First Lady Obama’s trip has been criticized as a “private affair on tax payer’s dime”, something partially caused by the White House Press secretary’s attempts to fend off invasive and condemning reports by saying she has a right to take private vacations with her children, a similar Safari taken by Laura Bush received limited criticism because she made some official visits at the same time. The First Lady also has an official visit on her agenda, but the press are either ignoring this or referring to it as an excuse to deflect her propensity to vacay.

The disparity then stems not from who is spending what but from the perception of legitimacy. First Lady Obama’s official events with Spanish leaders do not count because she is not seen as legitimate by the people doing the counting. The Obamas’ repeated statements that they pay their own way, even while other Presidential families have not, does not count because they are not seen as a legitimate presidential family. Even the reference to the Clintons as “the last N. American royalty” speaks to the lack of legitimacy of the Obamas in the eyes of white supremacist and white hegemony in the U.S.

And what about those jobs? Anyone who has ever put on an event knows that the bulk of jobs created during those events are akin to day labor. Low paid, low skilled workers are hired to do the bulk of the jobs and only for the hours they actually need to be done. In other words, an event creates a single day or less of work for most of the employees in question. It pays these employees minimum wage or in some cases, depending on how much they work and whether they are charged for uniforms, less than minimum wage. They receive no health care benefits. They often get no breaks unless they take them at the risk of getting caught and fired without pay for the work they have already done. They have no job security during the day, simply bumping into the wrong guest can get a person fired without pay.

But what about those seamstresses and catering companies and flower shops everyone mentioned? Seamstresses are skilled piece workers. They are paid by the garment. When the garment is finished, their work is finished. Like the catering company and the flower shop, the seamstresses chosen for “celebrity” weddings are well-established workers who have a large and important client list. While the economy has likely cut into their salaries considerably, they are not part of the millions of unemployed workers desperate for any job they can get. Instead, they are people who work for billionaires and get their jobs through a network of similarly rich people talking amongst themselves.

In other words, the Clinton wedding generated revenue but not jobs in the sense that the media would like you to believe.

Let me conclude this post by saying that I was among those who criticized the extravagance of the Clinton wedding. I did think it was in poor taste to spend millions of dollars while people are losing their homes, their jobs, their unemployment benefits, and enslaved to school and poverty related credit card debt. I think the same thing about the First Lady’s trip to Spain. While it is nowhere near the same scale of expense, it is still an expensive vacation during a recession in which need our leaders, both current and former, to set the tone.

What I am critiquing in this post then is not the expense but rather the perception and depiction of it. While one woman was celebrated for spending more money on a single event, that many in this country are denied access to, the other was disparaged for what will ultimately a working vacation. If we look just at the money spent by tax payers on both events and compare it to the need, ie threats to the Obamas safety and their role as current First Family vs. no threats to the Clintons and their role as former First Family, the disparity becomes all the more trasnsparent. If we add in the fact that one family is being held accountable for personal spending and the spending of their guests while the others are being praised for it and asked about who designed what, there is no escaping the double standard.

Ultimately, from the smallest event to the largest, N. Americans continue to see the world through race and its intersections with class, gender, sexuality, etc. Until we confront this issue head on and learn new ways to understand our world and our nation, there is no way to move forward.