Michelle Obama’s Staff
Q: Does First Lady Michelle Obama have an "unprecedented" number of staffers?
A: A spokeswoman for the first lady says that Michelle Obama currently has a staff of 24. That may indeed be the largest of any first lady, but Hillary Clinton, with 19 staffers, and Laura Bush with at least 18 and perhaps more, weren’t far behind.
The White House published the 2009 Annual Report to Congress on White House Staff on its official blog on July 1, listing the title and salary of many White House office employees.
A few days later, a fuss began online over the number of people who are assigned to work for the Office of First Lady and how much they earn per year.
A blog post from Chicago Sun-Times
reporter Lynn Sweet on July 6 put the spotlight on "What Michelle Obama’s Staffers Earn
." The staff of TheLastCrusade.org, a Web site that describes itself as a place "where you can engage in the life and death struggle against the forces of Islam, apostasy, moral complacency, cultural relativity, and the New World Order," then took the information and posted a piece
claiming that the first lady had hired an "unprecedented number of staffers" to "cater to her every whim and to satisfy her every request in the midst of the Great Recession." That piece was also posted
on the conservative Web site CanadaFreePress.com under the byline of Dr. Paul L. Williams, who runs TheLastCrusade.org. That post has become part of a chain e-mail that some of our readers have passed on to us, and the e-mail expands upon Williams’ post, falsely claiming that some recent first ladies have had only one or three staffers.
According to the 2009 White House report to Congress, there are 16 people with a title specifically indicating they work for Michelle Obama’s office. In other words, there are 16 people with "first lady" somewhere in their title, such as Jocelyn Frye, deputy assistant to the president and director of policy and projects for the first lady.
The list reported by Sweet and The Last Crusade, however, includes six other staffers who do not have "first lady" in their title but are a part of the first lady’s office staff, such as Desiree Rogers, special assistant to the president and White House social secretary, and Natalie Bookey, staff assistant.
We contacted Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Michelle Obama’s press secretary, to check the list’s accuracy. Lelyveld told us in an e-mail that the first lady’s current staff size is actually 24, not 22, as the chain e-mail claims. Lelyveld couldn’t provide a list of the staffers at that time.
First Ladies Past
The chain e-mail’s author claims that "[t]here has never been anyone in the White House at any time that has created such an army of staffers whose sole duties are the facilitation of the First Lady’s social life." The author claims that "even Hillary, only had three; Jackie Kennedy one; Laura Bush one." But the counts for those first ladies are incorrect – and they’re way off.
Stephen Plotkin, reference archivist for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, told us in an e-mail that Jacqueline Kennedy’s office was "headed" by one person, but said that there were "at least 9 people working for Mrs. Kennedy, with the promise of a great many more" during her time at the White House.
Kim Coryat, an archives technician at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, told us it can be difficult to nail down a precise count of staff considering "White House staffing for all offices ebbs and flows with time." But she said in an e-mail that White House telephone directory records indicate that Hillary Clinton had at least a staff of 13 as of October 1993; 18 as of April 1997; and 19 as of March 2000.
Lelyveld said that Michelle Obama’s staff was actually no different than that of her predecessor, Laura Bush. "[W]e have exactly the same staff number as Mrs. Bush and our office organization reflects a similar staffing model, so insinuations otherwise are wrong," she said. Lelyveld said that the White House’s "personnel records indicate" that there were 24 staffers for Laura Bush at some point. We were able to verify at least 18 staffers for Laura Bush, as of June 30, 2008, via the 2008 White House staff list
published in The Washington Post’s
White House Watch column. Sixteen people were specifically referred to as a "first lady" staffer, and Amy Zantzinger and Dorothy Thornton served as White House social secretary and deputy social secretary, respectively. It’s possible that someone with the title of "staff assistant" was assigned to the Office of First Lady as well, as is the case with Michelle Obama’s staff.
The combined annual salaries for the 22 staffers we can specifically identify as working for Michelle Obama come to $1.6 million. For the 18 we could identify as working for Laura Bush in 2008, the total is $1.4 million.
Dr. Myra Gutin, a professor of communications at Rider University and a first ladies historian, says that the first lady’s role has certainly "grown and evolved" since the 1960s, but generally speaking, the first lady’s "staff numbers about 14-16." Gutin told us she recalled "some first ladies have had staffs of more than that."