Politics

02.05.12

Michelle Obama’s Charm Offensive

She’s cooking with Leno and doing push-ups with Ellen. Margaret Carlson on how the first lady helped defuse a juicy White House tell-all—and why her husband’s campaign should take note.

When Michelle Obama went to set the record straight about Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas—which the White House panned as “an over dramatization of old news” about two people the author “hadn’t spoken to in years”—she was not at her best. The interview, by her friend Gayle King on CBS This Morning, had its moments, but soft and leading questions rarely yield a glimpse of the person inside the person. What’s worse, Obama fell into the trap of saying that she was “not an angry black woman” when that’s an accusation made only rarely by extremists who wouldn’t like any African-American woman in the White House. Kantor didn’t come away thinking so. (In fact, the book was not the vivid and telling look at the first lady the publisher’s publicity machine promised. What it actually delivered was a vivid and telling look at high White House aides like Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs.)

After King, the first lady moved on to do a taped episode of iCarly, shown Jan. 16, in which she helped prep a birthday party for Carly’s dad’s return from active duty, military families being one of Obama’s causes. Obama got a chance to throw herself into a regular feature called “random dancing,” reminiscent of a YouTube clip from Obama’s May visit to an elementary school where she joins the students doing “the Dougie.” That clip has logged more than 4 million hits on You Tube.

As good as those steps were, what could be safer than a school drop-by or a kids' show (Obama also appeared on Sesame Street in 2009)? To get a sense of someone, the best format is a talk show, the most dangerous but riveting entertainment space in America. Think of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch or Joaquin Phoenix going mute, bestirring himself only to stick his chewing gum on the bottom of Dave Letterman’s desk.

At long last, the first lady, the most protected species of political creatures, made her first late-night TV appearance since the inauguration in a format perfected by celebrities who need to promote their new movies at the risk of looking stupid. Jay Leno was his most gallant, the subject her cause of healthy eating—and she had props to hold her up. The sweet potato fries (actually roasted) and eggplant pizza were perfectly prepared. On cue, they were eaten by the vitamin- and-fiber-phobic comedian.

Despite the set pieces, Obama came across so well that even outtakes could save the campaign millions in ads.

Her husband sings all the time, she said, and she knew it would be an Al Green tune he sang at the Apollo at a fundraiser because that’s his artist of choice. As for Malia and Sasha, they want no part of his singing. “Anything we do is highly embarrassing,” Obama said. “They just want us to be very quiet.”

The most memorable moment came when Leno asked Obama what she thought of Mitt Romney’s rendition of “America the Beautiful,” which the likely Republican nominee sings often and uncomfortably as he tries to be a regular guy. Her first—and only—instinct was to be generous and gracious. Hands clasped as if she were applauding Romney, or hugging him, she said it was “beautiful.” The hour was late, the day of the Florida primary long, but sometimes a reporter is just a viewer. The exchange endeared her to me in a way all those shots of her with underprivileged kids in the White House garden have not.

Early the next morning she was up talking to Rachael Ray, who picked up on the first daughters’ line of questioning. Obama demurred. “You said what?” the girls would say when she walked in the door. Still she pulled back the curtain a little. She described the universal problem fathers have when their little girls become little women. She told Ray how she watches the president squirm when Malia “puts on a dress and she's got her hair down, and he's trying to pretend like it's cool, but he's freaking out a little bit."

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Michelle’s been pushing Let’s Move for well over two years, but is there anything more likely to get girls off their duffs than a couple of minutes watching Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres having a push-up contest? Ellen made it to 20; the younger first lady did a mercy stop at 25. It was a picture worth a thousand words—a proud, public lesbian dropping to the floor beside the first lady of the United States, both in buff shape, each a stunning success in their respective worlds. One Million Moms is trying hard to get J.C. Penney to remove Ellen as a spokeswoman; Republicans are just as busy trying to remove Obama from her perch in the White House. Message to the Obama campaign: use the footage for your version of The Right to Bare Arms.

What Obama’s had to counter doesn’t compare to the deficit other first ladies have had to overcome. The public doesn’t know exactly what a first lady is doing all day—and night—so often imagine the worst. Nancy Reagan came in for biting criticism for redecorating the residence, ordering all new china, her simplistic “just say no” effort against drugs, and for “borrowing” designer clothes from Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. In 1982 her attempt to clear the air took her to the Gridiron dinner, one of Washington’s sacred self-congratulatory rituals attended by everyone in power, where, dressed as a bag lady, Reagan sang "Second Hand Clothes" to the tune of "Second Hand Rose."

Barbara Bush, with her white pearls and white hair, was definitely no Nancy, and that helped some. Still, for her sensible pumps, the three strands of pearls and white hair, she was derisively called George H.W.’s mother and for her sharp tongue remembered for her pithy assessment of the first female vice presidential candidate as something that rhymed with rich.

And then there’s Michelle’s Democratic predecessor, Hillary Clinton. Once Clinton eschewed baking and cooking for making policy and broke out of the pink ghetto of the East Wing for an office with the big boys, she was a sitting duck. She refused to engage on personal questions with a press corps that made a federal case of her headband. ("If we ever want to get Bosnia off the front page," she once said, "all I have to do is to change my hair.”) When she went on TV it wasn’t to work up a sweat with Ellen but to discuss health care on C-SPAN. When she came out to defend herself, veering off into a discussion of putting spirituality back in our lives, she was mocked on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as “Saint Hillary.” When her close friend and White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide, she was all but accused of somehow driving him to it if not murdering him.

It’s more comfortable to distrust a first lady than the president—it’s his hand on the nuclear button. Hillary took a big hit for her husband’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. Once the story broke, she got blamed for not keeping her dog on the porch. In fact, if she hadn’t gone out in lawyerly mode and defended him in the early days, Clinton would have been under so much pressure he might have well resigned. We should thank her for keeping that faithless dog sane and in office after the prurient Ken Starr decided to release Clinton's most illicit, yet private, moments into the national arena.

Michelle will be spared that treatment because she’s married to a man as loyal as a Boy Scout who croons love songs. In her whirl of appearances, Obama does not give away much, but her playfulness comes through, a clue that her marriage is a happy one. When Republicans want to belittle President Obama, they congratulate him for having a “strong family,” as Gov. Mitch Daniels did in his reply to the State of the Union. Of course, the most important thing in the world when George W. Bush was running was having a “strong family” in the White House. By the time that trope worked to put Bush in the White House, the country was exhausted by having put Hillary through the wringer day after day and went easy on Laura Bush. The worst thing said about her was that she was a Stepford Wife.

In fact, Obama should be so lucky as to have another book about her come out. Nothing has served her causes and her husband’s campaign better than serving up some veggies to Leno and dropping to the floor with Ellen and discussing the Super Bowl with Rachael Ray—which brings us back to Kantor’s book. From the start, Kantor writes, Obama knew her husband well enough to question the wisdom of inviting dozens of members of Congress over to watch the big game when she knew the president would be more interested in a rush defense than political guests. Kantor was on to something there. The first lady told Ray that it would be a quiet Super Bowl this year. The family would be watching it at home alone.