The staffer is Elizabeth Lauten, communications director for Rep. Steven Fincher of Tennessee. Last week, she wrote a note on her Facebook page criticizing Sasha and Malia for their behavior at the annual White House turkey pardoning ceremony:
First things first: What a horrible thing to write. Lauten's tone is condescending. She endorses one of the worst slanders about President Obama—that he doesn’t have respect for the office or love of his country—and taps into some ugly tropes about Obama that have wide currency on the right. Lauten has a frankly strange sense of fashion propriety (what on earth is wrong with the Obama children's clothing?) and exhibits a weirdly hostile reaction to teenagers rolling their eyes when their dad tells cornball jokes—something that, based on personal experience, kids do to their parents all the time.
But the worst part about the post is that it exists at all. Sasha and Malia Obama are the president’s children. They didn’t seek public life. They didn't ask to be the object of public scrutiny. They should not be subject to that kind of commentary, let alone props in a political argument against the president or his policies. Full stop.
The post sparked an immediate and angry reaction, particularly on social media—where critics noted, among other things, that the Bush children didn't get this sort of treatment. Lauten responded by removing the post from her Facebook page and writing an apology. “When I first posted on Facebook I reacted to an article and I quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager,” she wrote. “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.”
Some will argue that the apology is not enough. Lauten is a press secretary, after all. Her primary job is communications and maintaining a public image. If this is not an isolated incident—if this is a sign of somebody who can’t perform her duties properly—then obviously it makes sense for her to find another line of work.
But the hasty reaction also makes me nervous. Human beings are impulsive and social media has vastly increased the penalty for impulsiveness gone awry. This wasn’t something Lauten wrote for a publication or even on her congressman’s official Twitter account. It’s something she posted to her own Facebook page—and then, upon seeing the reaction, removed. Lauten is in trouble because it went viral and now, thanks to search engines, it exists forever.
Unless I'm missing something, Lauten wasn't the object of an organized campaign to oust her. “Not a bad apology, to be honest,” Isha Aren wrote at Jezebel. (I wonder whether the right would have been so forgiving if the situation were reversed. My colleague Brian Beutler may have some thoughts about that shortly.) But Lauten or her superiors obviously feel that she's compromised herself permanently. If so, that's a shame.
I would like to think I’d never say something that nasty or disrespectful about the teenage children of a public figure, regardless of partisan affiliation. But if everybody who ever posts something regrettable on social media loses a job, lots of people are going to be out of work. Lauten wrote something that was stupid, mean, and offensive. Then she retracted it and apologized. Maybe that's enough?
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Elizabeth Lauten's last name.