Conservatives angry over Michelle Obama's trip to homeless shelter

The latest target for right-wing outrage is a possibly homeless man seen taking a cellphone picture of the first lady.

Published March 6, 2009 6:45PM (EST)

It seems Michelle Obama can't even do a good deed without inspiring some outrage on the right.

The first lady visited a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter on Thursday, bringing fruit collected in a White House food drive and serving some of the shelter's clients. That alone isn't objectionable, of course. But some conservatives -- sparked by a blog post from the Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcom -- are in a tizzy over an Associated Press photo that shows a man taking a picture of Obama using a cellphone.

"It doesn't detract from the first lady's generous gesture or the real needs she seeks to highlight to ask two bothersome journalistic questions about these news photos," Malcom wrote, continuing:

If this unidentified meal recipient is too poor to buy his own food, how does he afford a cellphone?

And if he is homeless, where do they send the cellphone bills?

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin was one of those who joined the resulting scrum, writing that the photo "ruin[ed] what was supposed to be a sob story photo op of the compassionate Mrs. O catering to the downtrodden." She, in turn, linked to another blogger, Kathy Shaidle. Shaidle -- who is, to put it politely, not a particularly nice person -- wrote:

Today's "poor" are the rich Jesus warned you about: fat, slovenly, wasteful of their money and other people's...

He spends all his (our) money on cellphones and, most likely, tattoos and drugs and booze and other crap, and has no money left for a home and food. And why should he bother? We pay for his shelter and food anyhow...

What's really funny in that news story by the way is what they're serving at the soup kitchen: risotto with brocolli. Obviously some rich white liberal did the cooking that day, feeling all proud of herself, and what thanks did she get? Some lowclass loser going, "You expect me to eat this weird crap?!"

(For the record, it was actually mushroom risotto. And her nasty "weird crap" remark? It's rice cooked in chicken stock with some vegetables, something most cultures are quite familiar with, no matter what you choose to call it. Come on.)

At the Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, Kathryn Jean Lopez chimed in as well, saying, "America has the wealthiest poor people in the world" and claiming the photo illustrated that. She added, "I don't envy this man's situation, whatever it is, and don't mean to make light of it. But we are a blessed people when our poor have cell phones."

A couple key points here: First, as far as I can tell, none of these people even know whether the man in the photo is homeless. True, he was at the shelter and he appears to be standing in line, but that was, after all, the best vantage point for taking that photo. He could just as easily have been a volunteer at the shelter or a completely unrelated person who'd heard Obama was there, and no one complaining about the photo can prove otherwise, I don't think.

The only information we really have to go on is the original AP caption for the picture, which reads only, "First lady Michelle Obama, right, stops to have her photo taken as she helps to hand out meals during her visit to Miriam's Kitchen in Washington, Thursday, March 5, 2009. The center provides meals, case management services and housing support to nearly 250 men and women in Washington."

I've checked the pool report from the event, and there's nothing in there about the man either. I e-mailed the Times' Malcolm to ask why he assumed the man in question was homeless, but haven't yet heard back. If I do, I'll update this post.

Also, as Malkin herself acknowledged in her post, there's a very valid reason for a homeless person to have a cellphone -- how else can they get a job? Potential employers need to be able to call you when you apply for a job. (Malkin snarks, "The liberals’ argument is that they need cell phones to get jobs. Do they need Blackberry (sic) Pearls?!" But again, I'm not sure how she knows the make of the phone.)

Plus, as some indignant conservatives, like Shaidle, have pointed out, there are government programs that help people below the poverty line acquire cellphones for that very purpose.

Finally, regarding Malcolm's question, "And if he is homeless, where do they send the cellphone bills?" which Lopez asked as well: There are lots of pre-paid phone plans out there. Does no one watch "The Wire" anymore?

Update: Shaidle has responded to this post with what I can immediately say is one of my favorite things ever written about me:

Salon's Alex Koppelman is obviously a delusional liberal pantywaist who can't stand to have his romantic notions about "poverty" challenged (by someone who knows what they're talking about firsthand, and is also a better writer than he is.)

I'd rather be right than "nice" and "polite" -- and so would any intelligent adult who values the truth.

I'm betting Alex Koppelman is a grown man who still rides a bicycle. By choice. On the sidewalk.

I'm thrilled. That line is going to look SO great on my next book jacket.

For purposes of full disclosure, I feel I should note that I haven't owned a bike since mine was stolen in college, and when I did, I didn't ride it on the sidewalk. The rest is all true, of course.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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