Heard on the Hill: Michelle’s Right to Bare Arms

Posted February 25, 2009 at 6:48pm

Michelle Obama’s exposed arms were all the talk of the faux State of the Union on Tuesday night, with cable news and fashion blogs abuzz over the first lady’s controversial choice to go sleeveless. But the trendsetting Obama had a few defenders in the chamber.

[IMGCAP(1)]Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) thought the purple sleeveless ensemble was a definite fashion “do.”

“She’s got great arms and a great body, and she’s always wearing those sleeveless dresses,” she told us. And Waters countered critics who thought the first lady’s choice might be considered improper for such a buttoned-up occasion. “Jackie Kennedy wore sleeveless dresses all the time,” she insisted.

And HOH caught up with Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of failed presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and no stranger to being a political-spouse lightning rod. Heinz Kerry called Obama “smart and beautiful” in whatever she wears, and said the two women occasionally talk. “I talk to her like a big sister,” she said. “I give advice, but I try not to importune. … She’s doing so well on her own.”

Robed in Secrecy. The six Supreme Court justices who attended the president’s speech on Tuesday donned their traditional black robes for the event (clearly, they dissent from first lady Michelle Obama’s “less is more” position on sleeves).

And after the speech, HOH caught an unusual sight: a court employee walking through the Capitol carrying all six robes on hangers. The court staffer chatted with HOH but didn’t give his name, explaining that safely shepherding the garments was part of his job, although it wasn’t his only duty.

He was tasked with toting the robes from the Cloakroom just off the House floor where the justices took them off, across the street and back to their permanent homes in the court chambers. Of course, HOH was fascinated.

They’re heavy, he told us, hence his strategy of carrying them on his back with the coat hangers resting on his shoulder. The black robes are of different sizes (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is tiny, while Chief Justice John Roberts is tall). But the court employee clammed up when we asked if each of the justices had only one robe or if they had multiple options — maybe a spare one for when the other is at the dry cleaner or perhaps a lighter-weight option for warm weather? “I can’t tell you that,” he said.

Moments later, we discovered that Ginsburg had exchanged one long black cloak for another. The petite justice, who got warm applause from Members of Congress in the chamber, recognition of her ongoing battle with cancer, traipsed through the Capitol wearing a full-length black fur coat.

While HOH didn’t touch it to determine if it was real, it sure looked like the genuine article, a rarity in politically correct official Washington.

Guess black is her color.

Field Guide to the Big Speech. And because anytime you cram roughly 535 Members of Congress, the Cabinet, Supreme Court justices and a bunch of reporters into one space, there’s bound to be plenty of action, Tuesday’s joint session yielded these tidbits:

• Yep, that was feisty nonagenarian Roberta McCain in the Capitol to catch Obama’s speech. The 97-year-old mother of Sen. John McCain, a brassy presence during the Arizona Republican’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, was spotted striding through the halls en route to her primo seat.

• Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) swears she didn’t touch her beloved BlackBerry for most of the president’s speech. McCaskill, one of Capitol Hill’s most prolific Twitter-ers, said she sent a few messages before things got under way, but spent the rest of the time enjoying the proceedings the old-fashioned way. “I wanted to really listen to the speech,” she told us.

• Rep. Jared Polis watched the speech from “enemy territory” — that is, a seat surrounded by Republicans, across the aisle from the rest of his fellow Democrats. The freshman Coloradan told HOH he staked his seat out early, and knowing that Democrats’ ranks have swollen so much they can’t all fit in their “half” of the chamber, chose a seat on the other side.

And the ever on-message Polis told HOH that geography didn’t matter. “It was all friendly territory for the president tonight,” he said.

• After Obama’s speech, Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes grabbed a post-session drink at the Capitol Lounge, an HOH spy reports. While we’re sure the Democratic freshman was in good spirits, we wonder if the rest of the folks at the Republican-heavy hangout were in as celebratory a mood …

Usher’s Congressional Confessions. Despite his wife’s recent life-threatening plastic surgery debacle, R&B mainstay Usher made it to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify about volunteerism.

But HOH has learned that the platinum-album-selling, bling-sporting crooner had a list of demands before he agreed to make an appearance before the House Education and Labor Committee — namely, his entourage had to come along.

“When they asked him to testify, he said right away that he’d do it — if they allowed a youth to testify,” Shawn Wilson, the chief executive officer of “Usher’s New Look” foundation, told HOH.

Appearing alongside Usher was 18-year-old James Harris, who told Members that Usher’s “Camp New Look” inspired him to volunteer and helped him attend college. And while Usher was the A-list celebrity on hand, Harris stole the show, earning repeated praise from Members for his eloquence.

Not that Members didn’t lavish attention on Usher, too.

“I will tell you that my daughters, who are 16 and 14, finally think I have done something with meaning,” Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) joked.

“To see someone who has taken their good fortune and passed it along is very, very exciting,” Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said.

Even former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who also testified, chimed in: “My grandsons, when they heard I was going to be on a panel with Usher, came to life. [They] said, ‘That’s really cool.’”

Usher didn’t do any press interviews, perhaps to avoid questions about his wife, Tameka Raymond, who has since recovered from her liposuction gone wrong. But Wilson said Usher had always made it a priority to attend, noting the singer even took time from recording his next album to come.

“When you have the opportunity to go before Congress … it’s a beautiful thing,” Wilson said.

Overheard on the Hill. “I am not going to get involved in the Illinois situation. We have a lot going on in Minnesota right now.”

— Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), speaking about Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) during an appearance at MSNBC on Wednesday.

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