The Devil Wears Obama

Column: Michelle Obama’s embarrassing tribute to a top Democratic donor

Anna Wintour and Michelle Obama at a dedication ceremony for the Anna Wintour Costume Center
Anna Wintour and Michelle Obama at a dedication ceremony for the Anna Wintour Costume Center / AP
May 9, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has named its collection of used clothes—a sort of consignment shop one must pay to enter and where nothing is for sale—after Anna Wintour. A trustee of the Met since 1999, the editor of Vogue, artistic director of Condé Nast, and inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada has over the years raised some $125 million for the museum. Earlier this week, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Anna Wintour Costume Center, Michelle Obama delivered a speech. Never have I read one quite like it.

The first lady’s presence at the occasion was no surprise. Some of Anna Wintour’s favorite charities, after all, are the Democratic Party and the career of Michelle Obama’s husband. Since 2004, every cent of Wintour’s political contributions—$114,750 in total—has gone to Democratic candidates and to Democratic groups, including to the DNC, to Hillary Clinton, and to Barack Obama.

As a bundler for Obama, Wintour has raised a total of $5,448,371 over the course of two presidential campaigns. In 2012 she co-hosted, with the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, a New York City fundraiser for the president to which some lucky commoners were also invited. Dinner cost $40,000 a plate. Start saving now, and you may be able to attend the next dinner. It is likely to take place in the summer of 2016, for Wintour has said that she wants to see President Hillary Clinton on the cover of Vogue.

We are not betraying any industry secrets when we say that politicians have a tendency to flatter and to woo the donors on whom their livelihood depends. Even by political standards, though, Michelle Obama’s tribute to Anna Wintour was cloying, fulsome, and unctuous. It was also untrue. "I know that Anna hates being the center of attention," Obama said, which is ridiculous, considering Wintour has been the basis for one movie, starred in another (nonfiction) one, appeared on the Late Show with Seth Myers a few days after the Met gala, and has visited the sets of Charlie Rose, the Colbert Report, 60 Minutes, the Late Show with David Letterman, and Entertainment Tonight. She is also in the habit of being photographed constantly. Camera shy Anna Wintour is not.

"Fashion isn’t an exclusive club for the few who can attend a runway show or shop at certain stores," Michelle Obama went on, in what must have come as a shock to the exclusive club to which Obama was speaking, the club that meets seasonally in Manhattan, London, Paris, and Milan, that affects a knowing attitude towards the garishly attired models striding goofily down the runway, that shops not at Target and Wal-Mart, not at Macy’s or Bloomingdales, but at Versace and Valentino, at Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan.

The first lady would have us believe that fashion is for the masses, for the nameless yokels who have yet to visit the Anna Wintour Costume Center, who have not had their consciousness raised. The dummies. "Maybe they’ll come initially because they love clothes and they love shopping," Obama said, "but then they’ll learn that fashion isn’t just about what we wear but that fashion is also a business, it is an art; it’s a career that involves science, engineering, accounting, marketing, and so much more." So much more, like preening and posing, Blue Steel and Magnum, and the piano key necktie.

The point of view of Michelle Obama’s speech can only be described as elitist. Her argument seems to be the following: By looking at the tattered fabrics, at the castoffs and the queenly gowns that Anna Wintour has bought for the Met, young people whose concerns are only superficial—who are interested only in how they look, in what they wear, in where they shop—will be elevated, will be made sophisticated, will be fashioned, so to speak, into cosmopolitans.

"Maybe they’ll think about going to college." Maybe "they’ll learn what it takes to succeed in the fashion industry; how you need passion, and grit, and a fierce belief in yourself and in your vision." Maybe "they’ll spend an afternoon learning about Islamic or Asian Art," and "check out the photographs," and "view the endless galleries of great American Art" (no mention is made of the Met’s European collections). Maybe they’ll "have an even greater appreciation for our history or a newfound interest in a foreign culture or language." Behold Michelle Obama’s beatific vision of the future, of grubby mall-goers transformed by a 64-year-old British millionaire into well-dressed scholars of Islamic or Asian art!

Rarely does one encounter a love letter to authority that has been written in such plain language. The word "power" appears frequently, and always favorably, in Michelle Obama’s text. Wintour "is one of the most powerful leaders in the fashion industry." Wintour is "one of the most powerful women in any industry." Wintour "has always used her power for so much more."  If only you, the young geometer inspired by the Anna Wintour Costume Center, "will use your power to be an inspiration-multiplier like Anna."

Michelle Obama is congratulating not power in general but a certain form of power, a form of power that, while wealthy, entitled, insular, catty, and mostly lily-white, allocates its resources to candidates and programs and institutions dominated by the left, acting as an inspiration-multiplier for Democratic donors and celebrity activists, for liberal culture warriors, for social entrepreneurs, for anyone who appropriates the resources of the state to impose on others a particular moral vision.

As I read the first lady’s remarks I could not help thinking of how superficial her public profile and policy agenda have become. Here is a woman of fame, influence, and charm, and she is most well known for her wardrobe, for her television appearances, and for her crusade to make us lose weight. America faces great challenges, from disappointing economic growth to underfunded entitlements to languishing human capital to threats from a nuclear Iran, an aggressive Russia, and a belligerent China. The previous first lady was an advocate for childhood literacy and the pleasures and benefits of reading. What is the current first lady up to? "Anna and I are actually working on an idea to bring students to the White House for a fashion workshop."

Think of it as Project Runway at the White House; perhaps Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn will be there too. "The idea is to show young people what it takes to succeed, and how important it is for them to commit to their education." Just like Wintour committed to her education at the North London Collegiate School, where her father, the editor of the Evening Standard, sent her until she turned 18. If anything Anna Wintour is an example of how unimportant it is to commit to one’s education, of how personal connections, individual talent, and a creative imagination matter much more than an overpriced college degree.

To dwell on the facts of Anna Wintour’s life and career, on her wealth and privilege, would interrupt the placid sermon, would introduce some complexity into the self-congratulatory fairy-tale of affluent liberals whose hearts are in the right place fighting every day to make the world a better place. Michelle Obama prefers the Just-So story, the self-esteem boost, the adulatory word for the one who makes it rain. The things people say for money.

And money is what it is all about. It was Wintour who, using a spreadsheet, convinced Jim Messina that the Obama campaign could raise millions from selling $95 Thakoon Panichgul scarves and $75 Tory Burch totes. She has become a force in the Democratic Party, which has traveled the road from pro-Sandinista to pro-Fashionista, from the party of the proletariat to the party of Prêt-à-Porter.

For the Democrats the marriage comes at the price of taking on the fashion industry’s characteristics, of assuming its superciliousness, vanity, mob mentality, fickleness, solipsism, narcissism, flightiness, preciousness, conspicuous consumption, self-importance, snobbery, gaudiness, silliness, and elitism. The Democrats do not seem to mind. "We look forward to all you will continue to contribute in the years ahead," Michelle Obama told Anna Wintour. I do not doubt her sincerity. In the years ahead Wintour is sure to contribute plenty to the Barack Obama Presidential Foundation, to Ready for Hillary, to the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC, to whatever liberal cause or project or personality that happens to be in fashion.