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A banner news day for Michelle Obama

June 19, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

To Michelle Obama, the sniping in recent weeks must have seemed endless. She was an embittered "Mrs. Grievance" (National Review), a woman who didn't like her country (numerous blogs) and a suspicious character who exchanged a "terrorist fist jab" (Fox News anchor E.D. Hill) with her husband.

Another volley of media coverage arrived Wednesday, but from an entirely different direction.

A glowing cover spread in US Weekly wrapped the would-be first lady in the warm embrace of friends and family. An hourlong appearance with the ladies of ABC's "The View" confirmed that Obama isn't just a great wife and mother but, yes, a darned good girlfriend.

And on the front page of the New York Times, a profile managed something rarer, a nuanced portrait in which Obama emerged not as a seething closet radical but someone who may be almost as threatening -- a strong and complex woman who doesn't fit into a simple category.

The lesson to an audience bombarded by information is this: Consume it all, if you can, or must. But consider the source. And remember that the simplest conclusions are usually the most flawed.

"The View" was the most anticipated of Michelle Obama's media triple-header -- as ABC had been promoting her appearance as "co-host" for weeks. The daytime chat fest has proven itself a venue where women can voice their opinions without being deemed shrill, an all-for-one imperative that carried the day Wednesday.

When Obama arrived on stage, she promptly greeted all five "View" hostesses with her now-signature knuckle bump (first delivered on stage to her husband, Barack Obama, the night he won enough delegates to capture the Democratic Party presidential nomination.)

Among those extending a warm fist was Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a political conservative whose presence seemed to hold at least the potential for some on-air fireworks. Hasselbeck quickly defused any such notions by deeming it "unfortunate" that some hoped she would fight with Obama.

When it came time to address her much-parsed statement that burgeoning support for her husband made her feel -- "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" -- Obama received only nods and understanding from the television hostesses.

Obama said that "without a doubt" she is proud of America and that her own success story, as a "girl from the south side of Chicago" who went to Princeton and made good, could have only happened in this country.

"What I was talking about was having a pride in the political process," Obama said. "I mean people are just engaged in this election in a way we haven't seen in a long time. And I think everybody has agreed with that."

That bit of politics quickly cast aside, the conversation veered to safer ground. Yes, Obama agreed with the group, it's more comfortable to go without panty hose. And, yes, it's fun to dress up and "look pretty." No, her husband still doesn't help take out the trash, she acknowledged with a wry smile that many wives might recognize.

If anything, Obama got even friendlier treatment from US Weekly, which had dipped a toe in politics before (including with Hillary Rodham Clinton's account of her worst fashion disasters) but rarely devoted its cover to a world so remote from entertainment.

US Weekly Editor Janice Min said that the "smear campaigns" against Obama raised her profile as a "modern-day political celebrity" and warranted the extra splash.

On the cover, a radiant Obama and her husband beam from atop a promise that the magazine will reveal "the untold romance between a down-to-earth mom and the man who calls her 'my rock.' "

The inside pages are given over to a photo-album-style layout and testimonials that depict Obama as loved and loving.

She is a devoted mother who shops at Target for toilet paper, buys clothes for her two girls at the Gap and Limited Too and enjoys planning their trip to the water park. She and her husband can still be dreamy about each other. And although she's disciplined, she's not so uptight she would turn down that second martini.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, but the people with the most experience writing about political figures offered the most nuanced portrait in Wednesday's Michelle Obama-fest.

The New York Times profile devoted considerably more attention than the others to Obama's career, to her complex feelings about race and to her sometimes blunt style.

The story offered the outlines of a flesh-and-blood being, one whose only slowly pulling herself through the media crossfire. She's no '60s radical, a la Angela Davis, but she's not the "Cosby Show's" Claire Huxtable either.

With time and a lot more reporting, we might learn just who Michelle Obama is.


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