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 fourpart 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.

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