A big bash is on tap as Michelle Obama turns 50

Lesley Clark

She’s musing about becoming a grandmother and not ruling out plastic surgery as she turns 50 on Friday. But Michelle Obama can still “shake a tail feather” and plans to as she celebrates the milestone the next day at the White House.

The invite to “Snacks & Sips & Dancing & Dessert,” obtained by a hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, says guests have been told to wear comfortable shoes, practice their dance moves and eat before arriving.

The White House wouldn’t divulge details, but it coyly tweeted a picture this week of the first lady and the president cutting the rug in the White House, along with the words “Let’s dance.” Reporters at the White House on Thursday spotted boxes of champagne arriving.

Obama boasts that she’s the dancer in the family, and longtime pal Donna Brazile told the Tribune she’s expecting to lace up her dance shoes. “That woman can still shake a tail feather,” she said of the first lady.

Obama offered a hint during a recent visit to the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington when a 12-year-old – and fellow Capricorn, the first lady noted – asked how she planned to celebrate.

Obama acknowledged that she’d be turning “50 and fabulous.” As for the party, “I’m not exactly sure yet what I’m going to do,” she said. “But it might involve some dancing.”

The White House has sought to swat down rumors fueled by a British tabloid that British crooner Adele and Obama’s pal Beyonce – whose husband, Jay Z, was to perform in Washington on the eve of Obama’s birthday – will sing at the private party.

The celebration isn’t the first first-lady birthday bash to raise eyebrows.

Mamie Eisenhower’s 1956 birthday party at the White House was nationally televised on CBS – just weeks after her husband announced his bid for re-election. That prompted squawking by Democrats, who viewed the show as a presidential campaign ad.

Hillary Clinton’s 50th birthday in 1997 was a multi-day celebration, a bit of a “blowout,” wrote Carl Anthony, a historian for the National First Ladies Library. Nearly 500 people attended the private birthday party on the White House’s South Lawn, which was outfitted with a tent “decorated with a motif to reflect each decade of her life,” the Associated Press said at the time.

The bash was preceded by “few spins around the dance floor” at a surprise party at a posh Washington hotel the night before. Pianist Van Cliburn provided the entertainment; singer Connie Francis had serenaded the first lady at a separate gala earlier that night.

The Washington events were capped by an appearance on “Oprah” and a two-day public birthday celebration in Chicago that included a visit to Clinton’s childhood home, church and high school, as well as an event at the Chicago Historical Society and a “mammoth birthday party,” Anthony wrote in a blog post examining White House birthdays.

Obama has already started celebrating. She stayed on in Hawaii after the rest of the family returned to Washington from winter break; reports said she spent time at Oprah Winfrey’s Maui home.

Previous Obama vacations have ruffled conservative feathers, and the White House said the family would pick up the tab for the first lady’s return trip to Washington.

Etiquette experts told The Washington Post that the invitation to the party – with its eat-first instruction – is “a bit unusual” and breaks with protocol.

For Obama, who remains more popular than the president in polls but has often been a lightning rod for conservatives, the controversy that a presumably posh party has engendered is almost to be expected.

“No matter what she does seems to be savaged,” said Robert Watson, a professor at Florida’s Lynn University who studies the presidency and first ladies. “Critics will have a field day, from questioning how much it will cost to watching A-list celebrities walk through the door.”

But in her husband’s last term and hitting the half-century mark, Obama is coming into her own as first lady, balancing a tricky public and private role, he said.

“It’s difficult to pull off, and I believe she’s done a better job than just about any first lady before her,” Watson said, noting that Obama has beefed up her role in a way that dovetails with President Obama. He’s pushing health care; she champions nutrition and exercise. He’s moved to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; she’s championed the needs of returning service members.

“She’s played a significant role in bringing the veterans’ employment issue to the radar screen of many employees in the private sector,” said Mike Haynie, the executive director and founder of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

Now Michelle Obama is taking on a new effort to promote education, while promising she’s not giving up anything.

“Nothing is going away; we’re just adding more,” she said Wednesday.

In an interview with People magazine ahead of her birthday, Obama said she had yet to peak: “I’m first lady of the United States of America – that’s pretty high up. But I’ve always felt like my life is ever-evolving.”

Post-presidency, she said, she’ll be in her early 50s, “and I have so much more that I should do.”

She added, “I’ve got to keep figuring out ways to have an impact – whether as a mother or as a professional or as a mentor to other kids.”

Elder daughter Malia will be in college when the Obamas leave the White House, and Sasha will have a few more years before college, Obama said.

“At that point in life, whoa, the sky is the limit!” she said.

The interview was candid: Obama said she didn’t see herself going under the knife or using Botox, but has learned “to never say never.” She also said she and her friends had debated the “pros and cons” of taking hormones during menopause.

And she said she’d started to think about becoming a grandmother.

“Not because of my age,” she said. “But because I’m watching my girls grow up right before my very eyes.”


By Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau