Elizabeth Lauten resigns: Why critics attack first daughters at their peril

Congressional aide Elizabeth Lauten resigned Monday after a Facebook post criticizing the teenage daughters of President Obama. If there's one area where most Americans seem united, it's in agreeing that the children of sitting presidents should be off-limits for snide commentary.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
In this Nov. 26 photo, 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 aide to a Republican congressman has resigned after her critical comments about President Barack Obama's daughters touched off a backlash.

The news that Republican congressional aide Elizabeth Lauten quit her job Monday after her controversial Facebook post criticizing the Obama daughters isn't surprising, given the mass amount of coverage her post generated.

And if there's one area where most Americans – regardless of party loyalty – seem united, it's in agreeing that the children of sitting presidents should be off-limits for the sort of snide commentary their parents routinely get.

"Attack OBAMA for his policies.But CHILDREN ARE OFF LIMITS" read one typical Twitter post after Lauten's post went viral last week, and Tweeps piled on the rage – and demanded her dismissal – using the #ElizabethLauten hashtag.

Presidents with underage children routinely ask for – and generally get – privacy for their children, and most media outlets respect White House wishes not to take photos of presidential kids or cover their activities outside of official events. But in the age of social media, keeping a lid on commentary that crosses a certain gray line can be near impossible – and, as Ms. Lauten learned, the backlash can also be quick and powerful.

Lauten's post took issue with the Obama girls' dress and demeanor during Obama's official Thanksgiving turkey pardon on Wednesday. Standing behind their father during the annual event, the girls looked bored, with expressions that showed the sort of exasperation with a parent or forced event that is a universal hallmark of teenage-dom.

But in her Facebook post commenting on the event, Lauten was unforgiving of the girls' age, telling them to "try showing a little class." She suggested they lacked good role models, and concluded: "Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot in a bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised, White House events.”

By Friday – and after a social-media firestorm, Lauten had apologized, admitting that she had "quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager." But it wasn't enough to save her job.

While Lauten faced unusually decisive consequences, however, she's hardly alone in crossing the invisible line that protects White House children from public criticism.

Rush Limbaugh has managed to do it twice, with two different first daughters (in both cases, attacking the girls for their appearance). In 1988, he criticized Amy Carter who, while no longer living in the White House, was a college student at the time. Mr. Limbaugh called her the "most unattractive presidential daughter in the history of the country." Despite getting some criticism for the comments, a few years later he went after Chelsea Clinton, then 12, comparing her to a dog. 

"Saturday Night Live" also came under fire for mocking the 12-year-old Clinton's appearance, and later edited the Chelsea jokes out of repeat broadcasts of that show.

The Bush twins were already 18 when their father was elected, and some media saw them as less off-limits to criticism. Their biggest controversy came in 2001, when they were both arrested for underage alcohol-related offenses.

In an editorial at the time, USA Today explained the distinction it saw in the media reporting on the arrests, calling the Bush family's desire to protect their daughters' privacy "understandable" but "unrealistic." "What they want is simple," USA Today wrote at the time. "The same hands-off coverage that Chelsea Clinton received as a child of the first family. Whether they recognize it or not, that's exactly what they are getting. Most responsible media avoid writing about presidential children — unless their actions force them into the limelight."

The Obamas, whose children were unusually young when President Obama first took office, have been particularly forceful in declaring their daughters off-limits to the media, and media have largely respected their wishes. One notable exception came in 2012, when news reports covered the fact that Malia, then 13, was on a spring break trip to Mexico without her parents. She happened to be there when an earthquake struck Mexico, prompting questions about Malia's safety, and White House efforts to suppress the story were unsuccessful.

On Monday, even the Republican National Committee’s communications director, Sean Spicer, acknowledged that Lauten's comments went too far, tweeting that "children, especially the first daughters, are off limits" and calling the comments "inappropriate and insensitive."

However, Mr. Spicer went on to criticize the media for piling on Lauten to the degree it has, saying that "in over 20 years in politics I have never seen one of the countless inappropriate comments by Democrats ever covered to a [fraction] of this."

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