Monday, July 14, 2008

Embarrassing Obama?

Why is Barack Obama constantly being embarrassed by his wife?

Maria Menounos (who is moving up in the world, doing segments for Today and the Nightly News) recently did a four-part segment featuring the entire Obama family on Access Hollywood, and Barack rarely spoke, letting his daughter Malia and wife Michelle spill all his dirty secrets, like how he doesn’t like most sweets (except pie).

Most of this stuff is benign, but it was delivered with a hint of hostility, a tone I’ve detected in Michelle’s previous comments about her husband’s personal habits. Her daughter has picked up on this, too.

I don’t understand this impulse at all. I don’t find it endearing or cute. I know people razz on their friends and family members all the time, but usually there’s an undercurrent of affection in the teasing. But with Michelle Obama, I just don’t see it, even though I’m sure she means well. It’s supposed to open up the candidate, showing us who he really is, foibles and all. That’s why candidates and their families do silly puff interviews like the Access Hollywood one in the first place, although Barack has been regretting it of late. I usually don’t mind personal habits—to a degree. Nothing embarrassing, nothing I’m cringing at. It also has to be delivered in a way that makes all parties ok with it, and my problem seems to be that because Barack himself doesn’t seem to be ok with this teasing, I’m not either. He doesn’t look mildly embarrassed, a little sheepish, just coldly nodding his head, letting the facts stand there.

It’s also what Michelle Obama says that irks me. Her comment that he is “snore-y and stink-ey” struck me as low, even if she’s talking about him first thing in the morning. There’s a difference in saying that a spouse is clumsy or forgetful at times; attacking him for personal hygiene habits is too TMI for my taste.

I understand that Michelle Obama is just trying to flesh out her husband and not deify him, to offset this kind of cult rock star figure image that has glommed on to him. As she stated in the Glamour article, as an explanation to her earlier comments:

I think [most] people saw the humor of that. People understood that this is how we all live in our marriages. And Barack is very much human. So let’s not deify him, because what we do is we deify, and then we’re ready to chop it down. People have notions of what a wife’s role should be in this process, and it’s been a traditional one of blind adoration. My model is a little different—I think most real marriages are.

But in the Access Hollywood interviews, his family spends a good portion of time ragging on him; he barely gets a word in. He only eats mint gum. He doesn’t like sweets. He hates to shop. He wears old clothes. Wowee. He might be a little staid, but so are a lot of guys, so are a lot of political guys. Maybe it’s their way of just saying that he fits right in, despite all the ugly rumors proving he’s too much of an outsider. But it doesn’t come off that way; from Michelle it sounds like a litany of complaints. I’m not interested.

I’m not saying first ladies or potential first ladies and campaign spouses have to hold their tongues. Especially nowadays with their own high-powered careers, there is no need for them to be completely demurring and just fawn and smile sweetly when discussing their husbands, but there’s something to be said for discretion. Cindy McCain has acknowledged that her husband was away for her three miscarriages and her addiction to painkillers—something that would kill many other marriages. Like the Obamas, they decided to spend a good portion of their time living in separate places, each working where their career took them and the women largely raising the children. But while Cindy McCain has mentioned these hard times in both her marriage and in her life, she has not denigrated her husband.

Now, because I’m not voting for either Michelle Obama or Cindy McCain, this shouldn’t matter. It should have no bearing on my feelings for either candidate.

But stuff like this seeps through. Cindy McCain says she always knew that John would put the country ahead of her—so should that make us feel confident that he would make a good president because he cares about the country’s needs more than his wife’s? Should I wonder why Obama married a woman who would insult him in public? Is this a good thing, because he knows criticism and can handle it, shrugging it off like he does now? Or is this harmful, because he is immune to criticism? How does this affect—or not—his running of the country?

Recently, Slate’s XX blog has been discussing Ellen Tien’s apparently scathing account of her husband, how she thinks about divorce every day. I didn’t even read the article (written by the woman who does the Sunday Style’s Pulse), but I was appalled. What is the point of trashing your spouse (or significant other), who you are still currently with, in a public forum (print, online, video)? The only logical conclusion would be that you want out, and you want to hurt that person very, very badly.

Which is exactly what Christie Brinkley did in her exceedingly humiliating spectacle of a divorce. She exposed Peter Cook to humiliate him (and her), to get what she wanted, children and propriety be dammed. Exposing such nasty truths only serves as revenge. Michelle Obama, who has said that she won’t let Obama run again if he loses, and Cindy McCain, who is known to dislike the whole running for president thing, aren’t as brokenhearted and humiliated as Christie Brinkley is (we hope), but I don’t think they are saying these things purely out of spite. They are just telling the truth. But the truth doesn’t have to sound like they hate their husbands.


mikhailbakunin said...

I think you're way off base here, Steph. Michelle Obama is ALWAYS building her husband up. She rarely critiques him at all. . . and, when she does, it's typically to complain that "he works too hard" or "he cares too much." The Access Hollywood interview was a total anomaly, and even there I didn't detect any hint of vitriol. The "attacks" all seemed pretty playful--and even a bit contrived.

petpluto said...

I kind of agree with Jer here, though I did find the comments about Obama's snoring habits and smell to be a bit much. I think Michelle Obama has been handling the campaign season exceedingly well; Cindy McCain has too. There have been some gaffes and some missteps by both of them along the way, and they (especially Michelle) have been torn into by the media way more than they have ever deserved.

I think that the Access Hollywood thing was supposed to show that Obama is very much an everyman, to combat the accusation that he is an elitist (and can I just say that I hate we even have to do that?). I would also think that Michelle's comments aren't strictly off the cuff, that there has been some vetting of some kind -even if only she herself was doing the vetting. That kind of takes the spontaneity -and the affection- out of a playful comment.

For myself, I would much rather vote for the man who seems to see his wife as an equal -and a wife who believes she is an equal- than the man whose wife seems to be something of a subordinate. I may be completely off-base, given that I have no idea what happens in either of their marriages- but Cindy McCain, as much as I like her (and I really do), gives off the impression that her husband can do no or very little wrong in her eyes. She's not quite Nancy Reagan, but she's more in that field than Michelle Obama is.

I also think it is important to note that Cindy McCain said the same thing in 2000, that if her husband didn't win she didn't want him running again. And yet, eight years later McCain's wishes are being fulfilled.

MediaMaven said...

Pet, reading the Newsweek article a few weeks ago I did get the feeling that Cindy McCain that she fawns over her husband, that he can never do no wrong. While I prefer people to criticize (obviously), I've just found some of Michelle Obama's comments a little much.

I do agree that the Access Hollywood interview was meant to counter the elitist association that has cropped up around him (it was in an earlier draft of the post), but I've also read comments that said that by being so picky about food he's only reinforcing that label.

It actually never occured to me that the remarks could be scripted, a huge oversight in my thinking. Do you think Obama made a mistake in doing the interview, as he claimed (or that he should have given the interview to another outlet, possibly one more prestigious, like Today)?

petpluto said...

I'm pretty much against candidates going onto talk shows to garner votes and show the American public that they (the candidates) are just like them (Americans). They're not like regular Americans. I hate the need to vote for someone who would be a good next door neighbor. That's how you get Bushes in the White House (though I have less issues with Bush Sr. than a lot of liberals; that whole throwing up on the Japanese prime minister was blown way out of proportion). Anyway, I don't know if Obama should have put his daughters out in the limelight, simply because it makes it easier for the press to go after them. Overall though, I think that it is now all part of the game. I do sort of question the decision to go on Access Hollywood though; The Today Show would have been more... ...on the level.

"I've also read comments that said that by being so picky about food he's only reinforcing that label."
I just flashed on The West Wing episode where it comes out that the president doesn't like green beans and that became a huge issue!

Other than that, I can't see how being picky is very elitist; obviously it is kind of elitist, but I think picky eaters transcend political/economic/social boundaries. And it seems silly to say that something a kid in middle class America is doing probably right this second is elitist behavior, you know?

mikhailbakunin said...

People tell me that I'm a picky eater, but I don't think anyone would ever call my food choices "elitist" because a) that's a retarded charge, and b) the meals I eat are very traditional.

Being "picky" doesn't automatically make you an elitist, but telling Iowa farmers that you're a big fan of "arugula" will probably turn a few heads.

Having said that, I still agree with Pet. I care far less about Obama's eating habits and far more about his policy initiatives.