Let it be said that Michelle Obama knows how to command a stage - at least a stage as small as the faux-kitchen-table set of ABC's "The View." During her guest-host turn on the women's talk show yesterday, she walked onto the set latched to Barbara Walters's arm, looking almost shy. But once settled in her seat, she briefly took over.
"I have to be greeted properly," she told her fellow panelists. "Fist bump, please."
It was perhaps the most newsworthy moment of the show, which says a lot about how few waves the sometimes-controversial Obama made in a friendly hour of daytime TV. That was surely the campaign's intent. Yesterday's appearance had been touted as an effort to burnish Obama's image, softening the public's view of a woman who has emerged, fairly or not, as one of the campaign's hardest-edged figures. (Even Hillary Clinton, after all, was known for almost shedding a tear.)
Still, Obama's turn on "The View" proved how much the would-be first lady will remain on the front lines of her husband's presidential bid. She's too interesting a figure to linger in the background, an unHillaryesque mix of unapolo getic femininity and headline-drawing presence. When Cindy McCain guest-hosted the show in April, the conversation was largely about the men in her life: her husband, her father. Her toughest trial was a question about a scandalette involving plagiarized recipes on the campaign website.
Obama, by contrast, went on "The View" in large part to explain herself. Walters pointed out a Time magazine headline that asked, "Will Obama Hurt Barack in November?" And she offered Obama another chance to explain her much-maligned four-month-old remark that "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country."
Walters and the other hosts were generous, and less combative than they'd been when her husband appeared on the show in March, in the heart of the Jeremiah Wright scandal. Obama, for her part, reiterated her pride in her country, and attributed the brouhaha to the political process: "In this media age, where the Internet is so pervasive and there are 24-hour newscasts, it's sort of like, I fill up some space." She also said she was touched when Laura Bush publicly defended her, and declared that she was learning from the first lady's image.
"I'm taking some cues," Obama said. "There's a balance, there's a reason why people like her. It's because she doesn't sort of fuel the fire."
But it's hard, at this point, for Michelle Obama to fade into the background, Laura Bush-style. Her hour on "The View," unlike McCain's, was assiduously live-blogged by news outlets. And by virtue of both her media exposure and the 5-foot-11-inch figure that she cuts - she towered over her co-hosts yesterday, as well as over guest Matthew Broderick - it was inevitable that this hour would be, first and foremost, about Michelle.
It even came down to wardrobe. For her "View" appearance, McCain wore a dark pantsuit, stylish but demure. Obama chose a bold black-and-white-print sundress with a shiny flower pin attached to one strap. The hosts took notice of her bare arms and her lack of pantyhose, and Obama described her outfit happily.
"It's fun to look pretty," she said, describing the varied sources of her clothes, from a Chicago-based couture designer to the retail shop where she had found her black-and-white shift. "This is the dress," she said. "You put a little pin on it and you've got something going on."
Talking about a dress is easy, of course. The far more complex and interesting aspects of Michelle Obama's image have to do with race. And on this subject, co-host Whoopi Goldberg did most of the talking, describing the need for diversity training and comparing Obama, in un-politically-correct terms, to the black women she usually sees on the TV news: "They have no teeth, and the teeth that they have have gold around them and they can't put a sentence together."
Obama, Goldberg said, represents a different public model for black women, "and not very, very fair-skinned women. I'm talking about dark black women. I just want to say thanks."
Obama smiled, said nothing, and didn't object when Walters quickly changed the subject.