WASHINGTON--Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha returned from Spain on Sunday, a vacation at a lavish hotel on the Mediterranean coast that triggered her first controversy since becoming first lady. I'm told she made the trip because she promised one of her closest friends, a longtime Chicago pal who just lost her father, she would spend time with her.
Mrs. Obama is the most popular figure in the Obama orbit -- and turned around her image from the 2008 presidential campaign by adamantly staying away from any kind of controversy, focusing on safe issues: combatting childhood obesity and helping military families.
The Spain trip generated coverage on the networks and cable news shows and other national outlets -- including columns and posts I wrote -- raising questions about public perception and taxpayer costs.
A ritzy vacation in Spain while the U.S. faces tough economic times was off-message -- as was highlighting the beaches in Spain after urging Americans to head to Florida's Gulf Coast to help out the tourism industry impacted by the BP oil spill. (The first family flies to Florida this weekend.)
But the reason Mrs. Obama made the trip -- and other facts, not rumors about the travel -- are important in knowing the whole story and understanding why she made the call to go.
First, some numbers. Mrs. Obama did not travel with 40 friends, a number used by some news outlets.
She vacationed with two women, one of them a longtime Chicago pal, Anita Blanchard, who is the obstetrician who delivered Sasha and Malia. Blanchard is married to Marty Nesbitt -- President Obama's buddy and the treasurer of Obama's presidential campaign fund.
There was one other woman. Total: four daughters among the three women. They paid for their hotel rooms and other personal and travel expenses.
The trip involved six White House advance staffers and two East Wing staffers, deputy Chief of Staff Melissa Winter and Mrs. Obama's personal assistant, Kristen Jarvis, according to Mrs. Obama's spokeswoman Catherine McCormick Lelyveld.
Mrs. Obama does travel with significant security -- and in a trip like this, three shifts of uniformed and plain-clothes agents and military personnel flew with her on a big Air Force 757. No matter where she goes -- domestic or international -- any first lady gets protection and she does not decide how many agents are needed.
So why did Mrs. Obama go to Spain at this time? She's not tone-deaf politically. What was behind the "mother-daughter" vacation?
A White House source told me that Blanchard's father passed away and Mrs. Obama was not able to make the funeral at the beginning of July. Blanchard had promised her daughter she would take her to Spain for her birthday. She asked Mrs. Obama and Sasha to come with. (Malia is at overnight camp.)
"She felt it was important as a dear friend to do this," I was told.
How did they end up at the five star Villa Padierna, part of the Ritz-Carlton chain? Because of security concerns, there were just some places they could not go. Agents were able to secure Villa Padierna and the nearby beach area.
Totally not true, though reported by some big-league outlets that she went:
Mrs. Obama did not attend a charity ball at their hotel hosted by Antonio Banderas and Eva Longoria on Saturday night. Mrs. Obama went out to dinner with her pals.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked at a Wednesday briefing if there was any concern about "the appearance" of Mrs. Obama's Spain trip.
"The first lady is on a private trip. She is a private citizen and is the mother of a daughter on a private trip. And I think I'd leave it at that," Gibbs said.
Gibbs is wrong. Mrs. Obama oversees a major Obama domestic initiative, the child health campaign. In April, she flew to Mexico to launch her "international agenda" of youth engagement. And she supervises an East Wing staff that is responsible for every special event in the White House, from bill signings to state dinners. Mrs. Obama is a public figure and it is reasonable to ask how she spends taxpayer resources.
FOOTNOTE: Before returning to Washington, Mrs. Obama and Sasha on Sunday flew to the island of Majorca to lunch with Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at their summer palace.
The AP, quoting a menu released by the palace, said lunch "was Andalusian-style chilled gazpacho soup, char-grilled turbot, veal escalopes with mustard, Oriental rice with sauteed mushrooms, a Mallorca-style vegetable ratatouille and sliced fruit with ice cream, accompanied by wines from the northern regions of Rueda and Rioja."