Malia, Sasha, and the turkey brouhaha: When is it OK to criticize presidential kids?

Sasha and Malia Obama were the subject of criticism for their dress and behavior at the annual turkey pardoning ceremony. How often does criticism of presidential children happen? 

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
President Barack Obama, joined by his daughters Malia, right, and Sasha, center, speaks at the White House, in Washington during the presidential turkey pardon ceremony, an annual Thanksgiving tradition. An aide to a Republican congressman has resigned after her critical comments about President Barack Obama's daughters touched off a backlash.

It started innocently enough. A silly presidential tradition, a confused turkey, a few corny jokes. Five days and thousands of angry tweets later, a GOP staffer who called Sasha and Malia Obama's dress and behavior at the annual White House turkey pardoning "classless," has lost her job.

Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for Republican Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, criticized the Obama girls' demeanor during the turkey ceremony last week, inciting a firestorm of outrage over the holiday weekend, has resigned.

The Great Turkey Bungle of 2014 began when Lauten, referencing the bored, sullen appearance, and short dresses the girls sported for the event, posted her reaction on her Facebook page – a surprising misjudgment for a communications director.

"Dear Sasha and Malia, I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class," she wrote.

"At least respect the part you play. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department. Nevertheless, stretch yourself. Rise to the occasion. Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised public events."

The blogosphere and Twitterverse immediately lit up with criticism directed at Lauten, with many finding particular fault that she targeted the president's children. It didn't take long for hundreds to call for her to lose her job under the #FireElizabethLauten hashtag.

And so, as Americans across the country were eating turkey, Lauten was eating crow.

She deleted the original post and posted an apology in its place.

"After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents, and re-reading my words online I can see more clearly just how hurtful my words were," Lauten wrote. "I'd like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and I pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience."

Apparently, it wasn't enough. Lauten today announced her resignation.

DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA TODAY, says that Lauten's resignation is not surprising.

"As a Republican Party communications specialist, she was more of a bull in a China shop than an artful word merchant," she wrote.

Many criticized Lauten for targeting children.

"If Lauten were a mom, particularly of teen girls, she'd have a lot more empathy, I suspect, and she'd probably agree with me that kids in the White House should be off-limits to media scrutiny," Diana Reese, contributor to the Washington Post, wrote.

The Great Turkey Bungle of 2014 also revived the age-old question in Washington: When is it OK to criticize presidential kids?

Society likes to think that the children of politicians are off-limits.

In fact, that's rarely the case.

President George W. Bush's daughter's Jenna drew plenty of heat for a series of incidents during her family's time in the White House: sticking out her tongue at White House photographers while riding in the presidential limousine, using fake IDs to get into bars - and perhaps most infamously - drunkenly tumbling over onto the floor of a frat party, cigarette in hand in 2001, an unfortunate photo of which earned her the nickname Jenna And Tonic.

Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's family have also endured their share of snide comments on incidents including daughter Bristol's out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, son Trig's Down Syndrome, and a brawl the family was involved in.

And of course, there were the infamously vile comments radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh made about Chelsea Clinton in which he compared her to a dog.

Still, Sasha and Malia have had to endure relatively less vitriol than their predecessors.

That's because they are among the youngest presidential children in the White House in recent years, as the Washington Post noted. "Their parents have gone to great lengths to shield them from the glare of media attention as they attend school, play sports and socialize under the nose of the Washington press corps," the Post's Missy Ryan wrote.

Of course, in the end, however, the criticism isn't really about the kids, it's about their dads or moms.

“It’s a way to kind of make a statement about who the president is through how the kids are acting,” Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian and professor at Princeton University, told the Post. “It’s not about the kids being insulted. It’s about the president, but it’s obviously frustrating for the president who’s a father.”

None more so than then-Senator and presidential hopeful Obama, who in 2008, famously reacted to news that GOP running mate Palin's 17-year-old daughter was pregnant.

"Let me be as clear as possible," Obama said at the time. "I think people's families are off-limits, and people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as governor or her potential performance as a vice president."

In the end, of course, teenagers will be teenagers and politicians will be politicians.

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