The axe-grinding good-government poseurs at Judicial Watch are in a twist over First Lady Michelle Obama's June trip to South Africa and Botswana, calling it “a nice taxpayer-funded 'working' vacation.” According to documents they obtained via FOIA requests (and their own “calculations”), the trip cost taxpayers $425,000 in travel and food expenses. Their “report” has already been picked up by Drudge, and it's being flogged by the dimmer corners of the right-wing media.
To hear Judicial Watch tell it, the First Lady scammed taxpayers by tacking a few official speeches onto an itinerary stuffed with “tourist events”:
The professed purpose of Michelle Obama's trip to South Africa and Botswana was to encourage young people living in the two growing democracies to become involved in national affairs; and during her scheduled stops in Pretoria and Cape Town, South Africa, and in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, the First Lady used the opportunity to speak on education, health, and wellness issues.
The trip also included such tourist events as visits to historical landmarks and museums, plus a nonworking chance to send time with Nelson Mandela, a meeting that Mrs. Obama described as “surreal.” The trip ended with a private family safari at a South African game reserve before the group returned to Washington on June 27.
This trip was as much an opportunity for the Obama family and friends to go on a safari as it was a trip intended to advance the administration's agenda in Africa.
There are a few things to point out here.
First, it's ridiculous to criticize the First Lady for the travel costs of an official trip to Africa. She's the First Lady; if she travels anywhere, it's going to be funded with public money. She can't exactly fly stand-by on Southwest.
Second, regarding the “private family safari,” the White House tells Media Matters that the South Africa safari was paid for with the Obamas' private funds. What's more, in taking her daughters on safari in Africa, Mrs. Obama was following in the footsteps of her predecessor. As NPR's David Green reported in July 2005:
GREEN: Laura Bush's first stop in Africa was a safari lodge on the South Africa-Botswana border. It was to be an exotic weekend alone for her and her twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. On the other hand, the first lady explained, they were not totally alone.
Mrs. LAURA BUSH: We saw elephants and rhino and hippopotamus and lion and zebra and...
GREEN: After her weekend as a wildlife tourist, the first lady set off on a journey to some of Africa's most troubled spots.
(A quick peek at Judicial Watch's press release archive doesn't turn up any outraged denunciations of Laura Bush's safari-going ways.)
Third, to say that the trip “was as much an opportunity for the Obama family and friends to go on a safari as it was a trip intended to advance the administration's agenda in Africa” is absurd. The six-day trip was dominated by official events and meetings with world leaders. Mrs. Obama met with the South African president's wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma; spoke to the Young African Women Leaders Forum; participated in community service events in Johannesburg; visited U.S. embassies and consulates; spoke at the University of Cape Town and met with students from poor communities; held a meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu; met with Botswanan president Ian Khama; and gave interviews to several news outlets, including NBC, ABC, BET, and CNN.
Lastly, Judicial Watch doesn't really explain how a meeting with Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and icon of the global struggle for racial equality, constitutes “tourism.” Also, the other events Judicial Watch considers “tourism” -- visits to museums and historical landmarks -- are standard fare for visiting dignitaries. Laura Bush, during the same Africa trip noted above, toured museums and memorials dedicated to victims of apartheid and genocide.
So there's not a whole lot to undergird Judicial Watch's outrage, though that was never the point. Hatchet-jobs like these are less about good government than they are taking pot-shots at the administration. The First Lady's Africa trip was nothing out of the ordinary, but when you cherry-pick a few numbers and gin up the requisite amount of faux-righteous anger, you can turn almost anything into a damaging meme.