When we meet makeup artist Derrick Rutledge—profiled Sunday in the Washington Post—he is standing forlornly outside the locked hotel room door of temperamental R&B singer Chaka Khan: “He just flew in to do her after working on Michelle Obama in the East Wing. After New Orleans, he's scheduled to fly out to do Oprah Winfrey before returning home to Washington.”
Well, this is heady stuff. Rutledge, who earns up to $15,000 in a good day, is Mrs. Obama's main makeup artist. Rutledge seems, by the way, like a hardworking guy who has struggled with his weight and made it to the top of his profession with pluck and luck, having started out doing makeup for $25 a throw for anybody who would let him.
Since becoming First Eyebrow Archer two years ago, Rutledge has had to cut back on other one percenter clients, including Patti LaBelle. "The first lady comes first. When she doesn't need him, I get second dibs," Winfrey told the Post.
"When the White House summons," the Post reported, "[Rutledge] flies back to Washington, even for a day or two, as he did to prepare the first lady recently for promotional videos and the Congressional Black Caucus dinner."
Okay, this may seem just a touch decadent to us 99 percenters. Still, this is fine and dandy with me as long as the bill for flying Mr. Rutledge and his magic mascara brushes here, there, and yonder goes to the Obamas and not the taxpayers. I'm delighted for a guy like Rutledge to get the account. But I do wish the reporter, Keith Alexander, a Washington Post staff writer, had told us who is paying for this extravagance. That should have been in the story.
Even though Obama's makeup might come under the heading of an expense that goes with the job being first lady, we know that, if this is the case, Mrs. Obama would hire somebody far less expensive than Rutledge, don't we? Don't we? I felt that Mr. Alexander might have trimmed a few inches of copy dealing with Rutledge's battle with obesity (Mrs. Obama, have you spoken to Derrick about this?) to make this clear.
If the piece had been about a conservative first lady's makeup artist, you can bet your Maybelline lip balm that the question would have been—quite rightly—raised. It is possible that the reporter did ask and was satisfied that there is no taxpayer involvement. This reassuring bit of information belonged in the story, both for the sake of the taxpayer and the Obamas.
It comes as no surprise, of course, that Mrs. Obama likes luxury. We've watched her jet off to Marbella or Martha's Vineyard (taking a separate plane because she wanted to leave earlier in the day than her husband) at a time when the country is undergoing a severe economic downturn.
Although a conservative columnist dubbed Mrs. Obama Marie Antoinette during the Marbella episode, by and large, Mrs. Obama's lavish ways are soft-pedaled in the press, except when it's impossible to ignore them (e.g., the His and Her planes). Indeed, it isn't even clear if Keith Alexander is remotely aware that Mrs. Obama's patronage of Rutledge might be taken for an example of extravagance by many people struggling with something other than obesity in recession-torn America.
A Republican first lady would never get such a pass. Remember how Nancy Reagan was pilloried for her spending? The press was so hostile that Mrs. Reagan had to woo them by performing a (demeaning?) skit at the Gridiron Club. Dressed in thrift shop duds, the first lady sang a song written for the occasion and called "Second Hand Clothes" to the tune of "Second Hand Rose."
But here is what the Rutledge story really reveals: the jarring disconnect between the president's rhetoric and the way the first family lives. It's as if we had class warfare emanating from Versailles.
Somehow, the first family and other members of the ruling, government class are exempt from the president's rhetoric. Corporate jets are bad…except when they are commandeered to transport chefs, hair dressers, make-up artists, and personal trainers for the use of our exalted rulers. It's like environmentalists who rally against SUVs and suburban sprawl, just before leaving their 10,000 sq foot homes to take a private plane to the latest environmental conference at some posh European capital. The hypocrisy is so glaring that few dare to gaze for long.
I am going to go out on a limb here and bet that the president who rails against corporate jets doesn't raise an eyebrow (we're on the subject of eyebrows, right?) about what it costs to hire Rutledge. Public officials, after all, are the new royalty. The real question is, how long until the president's base—those protestors rallying again privilege across the country—realize it, and how long will taxpayers put up with it?