Michelle Obama And The Oscars

On Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, First Lady Michelle Obama was the surprise presenter of the award for Best Picture.  What isn’t a surprise is that, in the wake of the Academy Awards show, some people have criticized her appearance as frivolous and not befitting her role as First Lady.

I’m heartily sick and tired of this kind of sanctimonious stuff.  I don’t see anything wrong with a First Lady participating in the Academy Awards broadcast if she wants to do so (although I’m not sure that, if I were the First Gentleman, I’d want to be part of the phony, kissy-face Hollywood scene).  It’s not as if Michelle Obama — or any other First Lady — is expected to be pondering weighty affairs of state at all hours of the day and night.  Even her husband, who unlike Michelle Obama was elected to his current leadership position, is not begrudged an occasional vacation, golf outing, or basketball game.  Why should anyone care if the First Lady wants to spend an hour of her time appearing on an awards show?

People who think First Ladies should act like Mamie Eisenhower are kidding themselves.  The line between politicians and celebrities has long since been blurred to non-existence.  Presidents and presidential candidates and First Ladies have been appearing on talk shows for years now; how is the Oscars broadcast materially different?  Hollywood is one of America’s most successful industries, one that employs a lot of people and generates a lot of income.  Would people object if the First Lady presented an award to, say, the Teacher of the Year or recognized the owner of a successful business that opened a new plant?  If not, why object to the First Lady’s acknowledgement of the film industry?

In our struggling country, Michelle Obama’s decision to present the Best Picture Oscar is the least of our concerns.  If the First Lady wants to share a bit in the glitz and glamor of Oscar Night, I’m not troubled by her decision.  Now, can we start talking about the real, important issues of the day?

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The First Lady’s Difficult Job

The First Lady’s job — and I think we all need to view it as a job like any other — is a difficult one that has changed over the years.  Ever since First Ladies moved beyond serving as the gracious White House hostess (and behind-the-scenes influencer of presidential decision-making) to become public figures in their own right, they have been expected to champion a  cause that commands broad public support and serve a kind of above-the-political-fray role in the national zeitgeist.  Some First Ladies — Hillary Clinton comes to mind — seem to have chafed a bit at the limitations imposed by this traditional role.

By all accounts, Michelle Obama has been a fine First Lady who has filled the expected role admirably.  She serves as a role model for many, and she has been an effective advocate for returning veterans and their families and for combating the scourge of childhood obesity.  No one disputes the country’s need to help our veterans, and whether you agree or disagree with how to deal with childhood obesity — and, specifically, how much of a role the government should play in specifying what children should eat, how much exercise they should get, and what should happen if they become morbidly obese — no one denies that encouraging children to eat right, get exercise, and avoid weight problems is a good thing.

Lately the First Lady’s role seems to be changing again, as First Ladies, and potential First Ladies, have begun to make major speeches at political conventions.  There is some tension between that activity and the First Lady’s traditional role as a kind of non-partisan national figure.  Some have dealt with that tension by confining their remarks to extolling the good qualities and hard work of their presidential spouse, how they have been good and caring fathers and husbands despite the weight of their duties in the Oval Office.  That kind of testimonial has been accepted as appropriate:  what loving spouse wouldn’t support her husband and be happy to describe his virtues?

Last night Michelle Obama gave her prime-time address to the Democratic National Convention, and I wonder if in doing so she hasn’t presaged another shift in the role of First Lady.  Mrs. Obama spoke eloquently of President Obama’s character, beliefs, and values, his important role as loving father to their two daughters, and how her story and his story touch upon the well-visited themes of the American Dream — but she also mounted a more full-throated defense of the President’s policy positions than you would expect in a “traditional” First Lady’s speech.  Mrs. Obama did it graciously but also unmistakeably, leading some to wonder whether, like Hillary Clinton before her, she may have her own political career in the future.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  In the modern world, where the endless campaigns demand so much commitment from candidates and their families and political spouses of both genders often are highly accomplished professionals in their own right, it is unreasonable to expect that presidential spouses will simply serve as an ever-smiling, neutral national symbol who never speaks a controversial word.  Perhaps it is time to accept that First Ladies — and First Gentlemen — can properly be advocates for the policies their spouses support and be recognized as such.  In the successful marriages I am familiar with, spouses tend to strongly and vocally support what each other are doing in their jobs and the goals they are striving for in those jobs.  Why should political spouses be any different?

First Ladies And Alien Abductions

It turns out that Japan’s new First Lady has a very interesting life story to tell — one that includes traveling to Venus in a UFO after being abducted by aliens and knowing Tom Cruise in a prior life. Her career has included being an actress, a lifestyle guru, and a clothing designer, among other activities.

I don’t think it really makes any difference whether a First Lady, or First Gentleman, is colorful, or genteel, or sophisticated and trend-setting, or even a bit of a nut. You don’t need to be a master politician or cultural icon to attend a funeral, or listen attentively to a children’s chorus, or lay a wreath on a gravesite, or engage in the other ceremonial tasks that are the lot in life of First Ladies and First Gentlemen. What is really important is that the First Lady or First Gentleman and the world leader have a good marriage and good relationship, so that domestic troubles aren’t piled on top of the other burdens of leadership. It sounds like Japan’s new Prime Minister and his wife meet that test.