There are some questions that are transparently absurd even in the asking. Should you ever give up a rent-controlled apartment? is one such question. "Was Michelle Obama Jealous of Desirée Rogers?" is another.
Responding to today's New York Times story about Rogers' departure from the White House, in which anonymous surrogates for the former social secretary explain that she felt like the administration was unwilling to publicly support her following the Salahi gatecrashing incident, Slate/XX's Hanna Rosin writes:
There is an implied mystery in the coverage of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers' firing that I would love to have cleared up: Was Michelle Obama jealous? The two women were old friends. At the White House, Rogers described herself as the "eyes and ears of Mrs. Obama." From the outset, Rogers did not seem like a Washington type: She used New York ad-speak to describe the president (Brand Obama). She posed in outrageously expensive clothing and jewelry for glossy magazines. She attended fashion week with Anna Wintour. From there, the narrative could have gone two ways. Michelle and Desirée could have bonded as the tough, fashion-forward Chicago sisters in a dull, alien city. Or Michelle could have decided that there was only room for one of them.
Because the first thing that comes to mind in any story of two powerful women who are also friends is to idly wonder if it was jealousy that did them part. Rosin's right, in a way — if you talk about what happened to Desirée Rogers and Michelle Obama as a "narrative," then the demands of storytelling require some kind of conflict and resolution beyond the obvious and well-publicized facts of hiring and resignation. And because the characters of this narrative are women, it would be natural to serve up the hoary trope of female jealousy as this intrigue. After all, a story in which one woman offers an old friend a job, and a year later she resigns, is pedestrian in comparison with the grand narrative it might instead be if the spice of jealousy were applied. Then it becomes two old friends moving to Washington united in their goals, slowly growing apart as they adjust to their new roles, and competing behind-the-scenes for magazine covers, until one stumbles, crumbles under the pressure, and finds herself forsaken by her now former friend. As surely as being on the cover of Vogue in Jason Wu trumps being on the cover of a newspaper insert in Viktor & Rolf, that narrative beats, hands down, what we actually know of what transpired. It's so much more dramatic.
If only its truth value could be determined. That's the problem with "narratives": they're constructs, and therefore only of limited utility in relating events. Rosin's jealousy hypothesis could be true or it could be false; it observes the conventional logic of a good story, but speculative fictions such as these ignore the fact that the problem begins when events become "story." Life itself rarely, if ever, follows the structures of literature. When the media starts to turn public figures into characters, and refers to occurances as though they were parts of a storyline, I get suspicious. We all should. Because narratives, insofar as they reflect actual events through the neatening prism of cultural biases and conventional wisdom and require the Procrustean interventions of an author to make the events "make sense," are almost invariably misleading.
In Political Fictions, her excellent collection of political essays, Joan Didion examines the extent to which American politics is dominated by competing narrative constructs. (She also wryly notes the ways in which the major characters play along: Ronald Reagan, for example, drew an arrow down through each completed event on his daily presidential schedule, an actors' convention he had once used to cross out completed scenes on his shooting scripts.) And she exposes this reliance on "narrative" to make events that may be, in fact, rather dry for the farce that it is. In relating a Michael Dukakis event in San Jose in 1988, and noting that only 18.5% and 20.2% of Americans cared to watch the party conventions that year, she writes:
"I want to be a candidate who brings people together," the candidate was saying at the exact moment a man began shouldering his way past me and through a group of women with children in their arms. This was not a solid citizen, not a member of the upscale target audience. This was a man wearing a down vest and a camouflage hat, a man with a definite little glitter in his eyes, a member not of the 18.5 percent and not of the 20.2 percent but of the 81.5 percent, the 79.8. "I've got to see the next president," he murmured repeatedly. "I've got something to tell him." "...Because that's what this party is all about," the candidate said.
"Where is he?" the man said, confused. "Who is he?"
"Get lost," someone said.
"...Because that's what this country is all about," the candidate said.
Here we had the last true conflict of cultures in America, that between the empirical and the theoretical. On the empirical evidence this country was about two-toned Impalas and people with camouflage hats and a little glitter in their eyes, but this had not been, among people inclined to the theoretical, the preferred assessment.
The event gets written up, by Joe Klein in New York, as Dukakis "breezing across California" to "cross a curious American threshold." The problem with political narratives, whether they're as clichéd as Candidate Crosses The Rubicon or as silly as Michelle Is Jealous Of Desirée is precisely, writes Didion, their "remoteness from the real life of the country."