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Michelle Obama makes fundraising swing through Southern California

At one stop, she pleads with the entertainment industry to tell the stories of military families. The first lady is expected to hit the trail regularly as the campaign heats up.

June 14, 2011|By Kate Linthicum and Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • Michelle Obama sits on a panel with Capt. Kelly Smith, National Guard aircraft commander, as Smith's pilot sister appears via Skype from Afghanistan.
Michelle Obama sits on a panel with Capt. Kelly Smith, National Guard aircraft… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

In one of her first political stops since her husband announced his reelection bid, First Lady Michelle Obama hit the campaign fundraising circuit in Southern California on Monday and also pleaded with the entertainment industry to bring the story of military families to the big and small screens.

At a $1,000-per-person lunchtime fundraiser in Pasadena, she lauded President Obama's accomplishments.

"We've gone from an economy that was on the brink of collapse to an economy that is starting to grow again," she said. She mentioned the healthcare overhaul and the repeal of restrictions against gay service members. She praised "justice" in the killing of Osama bin Laden and cited the withdrawal of troops from overseas.

"We are responsibly ending the war in Iraq and have brought home 100,000 servicemen and women," she said.

The first lady, a constant campaign presence in the 2008 race, is expected to be deployed regularly as the reelection campaign heats up. Even as her husband's popularity has ebbed in the two years since he entered office, she remains one of the most popular figures in Obama's circle.

Then, as now, she serves to humanize a president often criticized for his cool demeanor. She did so Monday, describing at the Pasadena event the anxieties that come with the nation's highest office.

She described late nights at the White House, "after we've put the girls to bed," when the president sits hunched at a desk, reading letters from Americans about their problems.

"I see the sadness and the worry that's creasing his face," she said.

In the evening, the first lady attended a fundraiser at the Westwood home of Michael S. Smith and James Costos. Smith, a designer, decorated the White House when the Obamas moved in. Costos is an executive at HBO.

Ryan Phillippe, Drew Barrymore, Ellen DeGeneres, Vanessa Williams and Brian Grazer were among about 380 people who attended. Tickets ranged from $1,500 to $35,800.

The money from both fundraisers goes to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint venture of the campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Earlier in the day, Michelle Obama took up one of her favorite projects — helping military families — and called on Hollywood's creative community to do more to bring their stories to viewers.

She told 500 people crammed into the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills that the sacrifices and challenges facing military families deserved more attention — and that one of the best ways of drawing that is through movies and TV shows.

"The work isn't that hard because the stories are already compelling," Obama said. "So I would urge you to do what you do best: Be creative. Be funny. Be powerful. Move us. Move America to think differently about these families and our men and women who serve so graciously."

At the event, organized by a task force representing Hollywood's talent guilds, Obama spoke on a panel moderated by director J.J. Abrams. The guilds recently pledged to support the first lady's "Joining Forces" initiative that promotes volunteering to assist military families.

The effort includes three public service announcements performed by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey, each describing how families of troops are coping with deployments.

The PSAs are scheduled to run in July on TV and in theaters.

This is "our way of giving back to so many who've given so much to us," said Katherine Fugate, creator of the cable show "Army Wives" and a volunteer in the effort.

To promote the cause, Obama said, she was preparing to record a few lines Monday for a brief appearance on an upcoming episode of the Nickelodeon comedy "iCarly," whose lead character is a military kid whose father has been deployed.

When Abrams asked about her television appearance, Obama said: "Let's just say I'm the coolest mom on the face of the planet. Can you believe we have friends of my children who don't believe I'm going to be on 'iCarly'? But I was like, 'Look, I've stayed in Buckingham Palace. Why is this such a huge leap?' "

Joining Obama on the panel were military families, including retired U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Jarman from Ft. Irwin, who raised four children while his wife was deployed on her second tour in Iraq; and Capt. Kelly Smith, a National Guard aircraft commander, who was connected live via Skype to her sister, a combat pilot in Afghanistan.

Smith quibbled a bit with how the military is portrayed in Hollywood — the uniforms are often incorrect, she said — but praised one film in particular for its depiction of troops.

"One of my favorite portrayals is Will Smith in 'Independence Day,' " Smith said. "He just kicked butt."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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