It's very rare to hear from the Obama girls, Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8. They are often photographed with their folks -- I saw the First Daughters before Thanksgiving, when President Obama pardoned a turkey at the White House -- but they usually do not address the public. That changed on Tuesday when First Lady Michelle Obama took them with her to visit patients at the Children's National Medical Center and she unexpectedly opened up the question-and-answer session to include her daughters.
First Dog Bo tagged along, making his debut at an event outside the White House.
The last time I recall the Obama daughters speaking at length was on July 4, 2008, during the presidential campaign (and Malia's birthday), when they were miked up for an "Access Hollywood" interview with their parents in Montana. Then-candidate Barack Obama said a few days later he regretted allowing it and wouldn't do it again.
From what I gather, having the girls take questions from the hospitalized children was not planned in advance, and they handled themselves with grace and poise. And before a blitz of comments starts up about why Bo was allowed in a hospital, an East Winger told me the hospital said it was okay. Bo -- with a cheerful red leash -- mingled with the young patients, and was walked by Malia and Sasha in the atrium of the hospital while Mrs. Obama toured the 26-bed heart-and-kidney unit. Many of the sick children -- some in wheelchairs, others in casts -- got to meet Bo. A hospital staff member followed along, giving each patient who petted Bo a squirt of anti-bacterial lotion. (Bo did not -- repeat, did not -- go to the heart-and-lung unit.)
"Are you having fun? Are you going home for Christmas?" Malia was overheard asking one of the patients, according to the pool press report. The answer was "yes" to both questions.
Mrs. Obama, Malia and Sasha read to the children before they took questions. Mrs. Obama picked "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and her girls each read from "Snowmen at Night." As Mrs. Obama began to read, Bo spotted Santa Claus -- who was behind Sasha and Malia -- and started barking. "Quiet, Bo," the first lady said.
At the start of the Q&A portion of the event, which lasted all of six minutes, Mrs. Obama encouraged the young patients to ask her kids questions.
"You guys have any questions? You can have questions for Malia and Sasha, too," she said.
Asked how the holidays will be different this year, Sasha answered, "Well, it will be easier to get on the plane than last year. But I don't think anything will be very different."
The Obama family climbs aboard Air Force One on Thursday morning, Honolulu bound. "We're doing the same things we usually do," Mrs. Obama told the patients. "Every year, ever since the kids were born and even before, we go to Hawaii, because that's where the president is from. So we go with a group of friends."
Asked "What did you get the president for Christmas?" Malia kept the answer secret, but noted that "it's something good, though. I hope he'll like it." Her mother added, "It's good. You know, we got him sports -- I got him sports stuff."
Sasha seemed headed toward revealing what the gift is. She said, "We got him . . ." when Mrs. Obama cut in and said, "Don't say it, just give it a category." Replied Sasha, "I'm not. It's something he likes."
The patients asked how many Christmas trees are in the White House -- Mrs. Obama said 26, prompting Malia to make it clear to the other youngsters, "Unfortunately, you don't get presents under all of them."
Sasha brought up the "wishing tree" that stands near the East Wing entrance, describing one of the newest Obama White House Christmas traditions: "One of the trees is called the wishing tree, and it is made out of cardboard. And so you can write down a wish and you roll it up and then you can put it one of the holes and it might come true."
(Disclosure: When I was at the White House press party last week, I wrote down a wish, rolled it up and slipped it in one of the little round tubes on the tree.)
One youngster seemed to be having trouble getting a question together. Said Mrs. Obama, "Just make something up. Do you want to ask Bo a question? Bo, can you answer something?"
Near the end, the topic of Christmas songs came up: What were their favorites? Mrs. Obama said, "Malia and Sasha have been playing two that are just drilled into my head. 'Carol of the Bells' and 'Jingle Bells.' " Sasha fine-tuned her mom's answer: "Well, I don't play 'Jingle Bells' as much as Malia plays 'Carol of the Bells.' "
Back in 2008, five days after "Access Hollywood" had ballyhooed its few minutes with the family over several nights, candidate Obama gave several interviews in which he expressed regret about exposing his kids to the media. CBS reporter Russ Mitchell asked if the girls will be seen more, and he said no.
"We had a unique situation in Montana, where it was Malia's birthday, and all of us, I think, got caught up in the festivities. And so they had a chance to be their adorable selves on TV, but generally we've been very protective of them. And, you know, in retrospect, I think if you'd asked me, we probably wouldn't have done it then, and we wouldn't do it again," Obama said.
But not doing it again does not mean never, forever. Parental edicts change. After the two-year campaign and 11 months in the White House, Mrs. Obama --and I am guessing -- probably realized her daughters have seen and heard enough to know, even at their young age, how to handle themselves. Letting them bring Bo and interact in public for a few minutes with the hospitalized kids -- with the press recording it all -- well, that's another milestone in the Obamas' first year in the White House -- and I bet a great treat for the patients.
Click play below to watch AP video from the event:
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