First lady Michelle Obama announced the Best Picture winner at the end of Sunday night’s Oscar telecast, in case you went to bed early and missed it. It was a remote satellite feed from the White House, with Mrs. Obama stepping out of a National Governors Association dinner to open the fabled envelope and tell the world “Argo” had won the Academy Award.
In retrospect her appearance makes sense, given that so many Best Picture contenders had political themes. There was “Lincoln” of course, which wasn’t about Lincoln cars, and the search-for-Osama bin Laden movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” as well as “Argo”, about the escape of US hostages from Iran. (Yes, you know all that, but editors make us fill in the back story, all right?)
But here’s the question of the day: Was this an appropriate mix of real and pretend politics? Or was this a step too far on the part of the White House and the academy?
Lots of people loved it, if Twitter is any guide. Many gushed about the first lady’s gown and her new bangs and the dignity of her little speech.
The nominated movies “made us laugh,” she said. “They made us weep and made us grip our armrests just a little tighter. They taught us that love can endure against all odds and transform our minds in the most surprising ways.”
The first lady has much higher approval ratings than her husband, and there’s a reason for that. She’s great at this kind of stuff and has appeared on everything from "Dr. Oz" to "The View" to "Sesame Street" and now the Oscars. Leading up to the 2012 election, the Obama campaign was much more adroit than the Romney camp at getting its candidate and and his spouse on popular shows and websites. That’s just one aspect of a perceived Democratic lead in dealing with technology that was the subject of a long piece in a recent New York Times Magazine.
However, it’s 2013 and the election is over. Mrs. Obama’s Oscar turn did not get universal hosannas. Critics on the right pointed out that nearly half the United States did not vote for President Obama and thus might not be happy about the insertion of presidential-level politics into their evening’s recreation. Nor were they pleased that it appeared members of the military in dress uniforms stood behind the first lady as she talked.
“I’m sure the left will holler that once again conservatives are being grouchy and have it in for the Obamas,” writes conservative Jennifer Rubin Monday morning on her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post. “Seriously, if they really had their president’s interests at heart, they’d steer away from encouraging these celebrity appearances. It makes both the president and the first lady seem small and grasping.”
It wasn’t only conservatives who were displeased. At The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody writes that while he greatly admires Mrs. Obama, he found her appearance to be out of line.
It was “wildly inappropriate in its affirmation of the hard power behind the soft power – the connection of real politics to the representational politics of the movies, of the peculiar and long-standing symbiosis of Washington and Hollywood – all the more so when the matter of access to inside-government information is a key issue with the making of ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ” Mr. Brody writes Monday.
As he notes, the Washington-Hollywood connection is well established. The Motion Picture Association of America has long been one of D.C.’s smoothest lobbying operations, in part due to its ability to hold private screenings of hot films for small, elite audiences, including small, elite audiences at the White House. Its current chief is Chris Dodd, the former Connecticut senator who was a power on the Senate Finance Committee for years. Prior to that, the association was run for 38 years by the legendary Jack Valenti, a longtime LBJ aide and skilled inside-Washington operator.
Given that, the real question might be why more first ladies haven’t appeared on the Oscar stage.