Who needs Fightthesmears.com when you have the New York Times?
Reporters Michael Powell and Jodi Kantor (pictured at right) helped Michelle Obama soften her image in Wednesday's big front-page interview, "After Attacks, Michelle Obama Looks for a New Introduction." The long, laudatory piece was anchored with a large photo, taking up half the upper fold of the front page ,of Michelle Obama listening thoughtfully to her husband's famous race speech back in March.
The Times portrayed criticism of Michelle Obama as either hurtful or out of line. Her controversial comment in Wisconsin, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," which suggested for many both a lack of pride in America and an unpleasant self-absorption, was dismissed by the Times as a mere "rhetorical stumble," with the implication that the media overplayed it (the Times certainly didn't).
At least the Times did a rowback on its previous false assertion that conservative bloggers had been behind the rumor about Michelle Obama's "whitey" speech, when in fact, as the Times now writes, it was a "blogger who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton" (Larry Johnson) who circulated the claim.
Michelle Obama's eyes flicker tentatively even as she offers a trained smile. As her campaign plane arcs over the Flathead Range in Montana, she is asked to consider her complicated public image.
Conservative columnists accuse her of being unpatriotic and say she simmers with undigested racial anger. A blogger who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton circulates unfounded claims that Mrs. Obama gave an accusatory speech in her church about the sins of "whitey." Mrs. Obama shakes her head.
"You are amazed sometimes at how deep the lies can be," she says in an interview. Referring to a character in a 1970s sitcom, she adds: "I mean, 'whitey'? That's something that George Jefferson would say. Anyone who says that doesn't know me. They don't know the life I've lived. They don't know anything about me."
Now her husband's presidential campaign is giving her image a subtle makeover, with a new speech in the works to emphasize her humble roots and a tough new chief of staff. On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama will do a guest turn on "The View," the daytime talk show on ABC, with an eye toward softening her reputation.
Her problems seemed hard to imagine last fall and winter. Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, appeared so at ease with the tactile business of campaigning and drew praise for humanizing, often with humor, a husband who could seem elusive.
Then came some rhetorical stumbles. In Madison, Wis., in February, she told voters that hope was sweeping America, adding, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." Cable news programs replayed those 15 words in an endless loop of outrage.
Barack Obama often blurs identity lines; much of his candidacy has seemed almost post-racial. Mrs. Obama's identity is less mutable. She is a descendant of slaves and a product of Chicago's historically black South Side. She burns hot where he banks cool, and that too can make her an inviting proxy for attack.
Fox News called her "Obama's baby mama," a derogatory term for an unwed mother. Christopher Hitchens, a Slate columnist, claimed - with scant evidence - that her college thesis proved she was once influenced by black separatism. National Review presented her as a scowling "Mrs. Grievance."
(Hasanyone except perhaps Hitchens and the Obama campaignreadMichelleObama's225-page graduate thesis on race relations at Princeton in its entirety? The Times seems to be giving Michelle Obama the benefit of the doubt, even though that choice of topic itself bespeaks a bit of an obsession with race.)
Reporters Powell and Kantor continue:
The caricatures of Mrs. Obama as the Angry Black Woman confound her, friends say. Her own family crosses racial boundaries - her mother-in-law and a sister-in-law are white - and she has spent much of her adult life trying to address racial resentment.
In her senior thesis, she asked: Does immersion in an elite white institution draw blacks away from their community? She surveyed black Princeton alumni, finding their ties weakened after graduation.
"The path I have chosen to follow by attending Princeton," Mrs. Obama wrote in the introduction, "will likely lead to my further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society, never becoming a full participant."
Mitchell Duneier, a sociology professor at Princeton who reviews undergraduate theses, noted that Mrs. Obama rejected some of her own theories. "Her senior thesis is being misread as if it is a polemical essay about her alienation," Professor Duneier said.
Rather than pulling Mrs. Obama behind a curtain, her husband's campaign is pushing her farther out on stage. She remains a charismatic presence, and when she gives her husband a fist bump or talks of him as a father, she is telling voters, this is a regular guy. This South Side woman anchors him in her reality.
Mrs. Obama has already had to check her brutally honest approach to talking about race. Now she co-stars in a campaign that would as soon mute most discussion of race.