Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Real Michelle Obama & The Media Gaze

Michelle Obama's appearance on last night's Larry King Live made me wonder.

Are folks still more interested in Michelle Obama than they are in Cindy McCain, or even Joe Biden?

Michelle certainly has captured the public imagination with her poise, her grace, her obvious devotion to her husband and, a key element American public life is nearly void of , "realness"

In her interviews, she's passionate, thoughtful, and authentic. Does she know the Obama talking points? Yes.

But she also knows herself and her thoughts well enough to speak from the position of a player at the table, not that of an automaton in knit suit and heels.

You get the sense that she's, well, real.

She's the type of woman the country wants to know. In fact, we haven't known some past First Ladies as well as we already know Michelle Obama. Now she's being chronicled in two forthcoming biographies, Liza Mundy's Michelle: A Biography and Elizabeth Lightfoot's Michelle Obama: Grace and Intelligence in a Time of Change (the thoroughness of the latter's research has been questioned).

This week, she's been the subject of a Washington Post article by Mundy and an interview with the same journalist for NPR. And she's a constant fixture on the blogosphere.

But maybe this is part of a larger trend.

In any Presidential election, the candidate's spouse plays is a critical role. But according to some recent media theories, Americans are coming to expect more and more from a President's other half.

Gone are the days when folks analyzed only the potential first lady's outfit and her choice of jewelry, they argue. Today, folks are looking for a Presidential team - from the candidate, to the spouse, to the VeeP pick - and the credentials of each player are on the table.

(Of course, we then also want "the tea" on the potential First Lady's outfit and a run down on precious stones or semi precious stones versus pearls.)

All of that may be so, but no one can convince me that anyone is half as interested in Cindy McCain as they are in Michelle Obama.

Sure, folks have made a bit of a math game of appraising the amount of bling and designer clothing she manages to jam on for each event. This despite the fact that her demonstration of such wealth may be somewhat inappropriate given the current economic crisis.

But that's about where it ends.

Besides the bling, her status as a mega-rich philanthropic heiress, and her shady real-estate connection to the Keating 5 scandal, there isn't much to talk about. Except for that time in the 1990s when she pimped a medical charity to fuel her prescription drug habit.

And well, there is also the fact that she had a documented affair with John McCain, then a married man, while his first wife lay at home recuperating from injuries she'd sustained in brutal car accident while hoping anxiously for her POW husband's return from Vietnam.

Come to think of it, journalists really should be doing a little bit more digging into Cindy McCain, her character, and her history than they have.

But can you blame them? (Of course you can; that's the job of the press)

She just isn't as compelling as Michelle Obama.

(And she doesn't have her fabulous, thick hair. Or the ability to do so much with a dress she scooped at the GAP....or White House/Black Market.)

And as for Joe Biden - Despite his many years in the senate, his charismatic personality, and his unavoidable tendency to lodge his foot in his mouth, I'm guessing he doesn't bring in the ratings or sell the papers the way Michelle does.

Perhaps we can get away with that this go-round. We got to know Biden pretty well during his time in the primaries, and he's been in the public eye long enough to provide us with a thorough track record.

And let's face it - no matter his past - he just can't sling racially tinged, hateful phrases the way that his rabid Republican counterpart can, so no one's listening to him anyway.

And of course, there are very good reasons to get to know Michelle - she's her husband's closest adviser. Before Biden or any of the 300 folks Sen. Obama checks in with, it's Michelle's counsel that could tell us the most about what an Obama presidency would look like.

Michelle Obama's drive has taken her from a solid base in black, working-class, Southside Chicago to the towers of Princeton and Harvard. She's worked in corporate America, public service, in the halls of academia, and in the halls of local government. She's raising two children and supporting her husband's run for the Presidency of the United States. She's faced an icy press, survived, and with media savvy and a compelling speech, turned the tide.

That kind of experience speaks to her strength, her motivations, and her character.

And now that she's won many folks over - that fact is a great plus for Barack Obama's candidacy. She's made quite an impact, according to Time Magazine's Curtis Sittenfield:

"...I've encountered more people who, if anything, seem more infatuated by Michelle than by her husband — including the white woman I know who bought her first-ever issue of Ebony magazine because Michelle was on the cover, and the cameraman I met in Denver who finagled a fist bump with Michelle and then proclaimed that he would never wash his hands again. He assured me he was usually jaded in these kinds of situations, but Michelle was the second coming of Jackie O.!"

And the Barack/Michelle chemistry can be viewed as a very welcome change, say the Huffington Post's Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks:

"...Michelle and Barack do something we've never seen before in a presidential couple: they actually look directly at each other when they're speaking to each other. They also laugh at each other's humor, and they allow their sexual attraction for each other to be visible...They're real."

There's that word again.

So yes, maybe the country is more interested in what Michelle Obama has to say.

The media seems to think so, and this blogger is betting that public interest is prophetic.

Clearly, that doesn't let the press of the hook in terms of it's responsibility to the public - we shouldn't allow strangers to vie for the highest posts in our nation. Yet depending upon where you're sitting, this golden media gaze seems to be working out well.

That's good for Barack Obama's campaign. It's good for many in the country who could use an education on the diversity of black women.

And it's good for America. How else are we going to get to know our next first lady?

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