Does Rush Limbaugh's Criticism Of First Lady Cross The Line?

The Tell Me More "Beauty Shop" tackles news and pop culture stories from a woman's perspective. This week, topics include conservative talk radio host's Rush Limbaugh's recent criticism of First Lady Michelle Obama's eating habits. Also hear reaction to talk show host Oprah Winfrey's much talked-about reunion with life coach and author Iyanla Vanzant following their fallout 11 years ago. Weighing in on the discussion with host Michel Martin is Danielle Belton, author of the blog "The Black Snob," and GQ magazine Washington correspondent, Ana Marie Cox.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment: Just in time for the Oscars, an Oscar winner tells us about the tunes that are tickling his fancy. That's in our "In Your Ear" segment, just ahead.

But first, it's time to step into the Beauty Shop. That's where - just like our Barbershop segment with the guys, which is on Fridays - we want to be sure to get a woman's perspective on things that are happening in the news and in pop culture.

We start today with Rush Limbaugh. On his radio program, the conservative talk show host took aim at first lady Michelle Obama. Well, actually, he took aim at her healthy eating initiative and her waistline. Limbaugh questioned the first lady's diet, and whether she was sticking to the advice she's dishing out to Americans about eating right. He took issue with Mrs. Obama, who said she enjoyed ribs while vacationing with her kids in Colorado. And he talked about her looks. Here it is.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Radio Talk Show Host): The problem is - and dare I say this - it doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice. And then we hear that she's out eating ribs at 1,500 calories a serving with 141 grams of fat. Yeah, it does -I'm trying to say that our first lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, or of a woman Alex Rodriguez might date every six months or what have you.

MARTIN: Well, you get the picture. Here to share their opinions on this: Danielle Belton, author of the blog The Black Snob, she's also money and politics editor for TheLoop21.com; and Ana Marie Cox, Washington correspondent for GQ magazine. Welcome back to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. DANIELLE BELTON (Blogger, The Black Snob): Thanks for having me.

Ms. ANA MARIE COX (Washington Correspondent, GQ Magazine): Good to be here.

MARTIN: You know, I have to tell you, there was a big debate in our office about whether this was even worth talking about. Some people said Rush Limbaugh gets ratings by insulting people, especially people who happen not to be on his side, politically, and who aren't politically useful to him. Others said this is exactly the kind of, you know, double standard that needs to be called out, that conservatives would never tolerate personal insults about the appearance of, say, Laura Bush or Barbara Bush, or dare I say it, white first lady. And so that's why we're talking about this. So I wanted to ask each of you - how do you react to this? Ana Marie, do you want to start?

Ms. COX: Well, he does - this is definitely a Rush Limbaugh trademark move here. And he's probably loving that we're talking about it right now. But that doesn't mean that it's not worth talking about. You know, he does this kind of thing regularly. He seems to go for the - he does seem to go for the lowest sort of common denominator insult whenever he's at a loss for anything else to insult somebody for. And so when you think about it, of all the things you could criticize the first lady for, her looks or her eating habits are like really, the most trivial things that you could insult.

And that's not even getting into like, whether or not it's a legitimate thing to talk about, and whether or not one should ever enjoy ribs if you promote healthy eating. I think one of the things that she said, in fact, in her healthy eating initiative, is it's fine to eat whatever you want as long as

MARTIN: In moderation.

Ms. COX: Is moderation.

MARTIN: Moderation, exercise, increase your physical activity, balanced diet.

Ms. COX: And she's one of the hottest first ladies we've ever had. I mean, there's sort of like also, like a reality check about this, too.

Ms. BELTON: Like, if she's fat, I want to be that fat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COX: Yeah, exactly.

Ms. BELTON: Oh, please, God, let me be.

Ms. COX: And then, also, there's the racial part of it, which you didn't play that part of the clip, but he definitely sort of went there and talked about how she should look like an Ethiopian if she's on the kind of diet that she talks about. I mean, it's a really appalling thing to

MARTIN: Well, to your point, we were debating like, how much of his show we needed to play on our show because there are those who will hear that voice and just turn, click.

Ms. COX: Right.

MARTIN: And other people feel that it is appropriate, as we said - big debate about whether to discuss this at all. Danielle, what is your take on this?

Ms. BELTON: I think what I find amazing about this, 'cause it really falls into line with Andrew Breitbart on his Big Government blog, where he had the illustrator who drew the first lady as fat - it's kind of this ludicrous thing where OK, here's this fit, trim, attractive woman, let's call her fat. And let's criticize her eating habits when it's obvious she's really athletic and takes good care of herself. And let's say the word ribs - like, you know, like she sat down and ate like, a Kansas City famous like, two full backs of ribs when, you know, really, she had a small portion of short ribs with, you know, a side of vegetables.

Ms. COX: Or, they might as well - I mean, there is the racial component in this too.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah.

Ms. COX: It's, like, I'm surprised he didn't, you know

Ms. BELTON: There's a black person eating ribs.

Ms. COX: ...talk about her eating watermelon.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah...

Ms. COX: I mean like, it's really, really...

Ms. BELTON: Was there collard greens with the ribs, you know?

Ms. COX: Yeah, I know. It's really repulsive on so many levels. I wish there was a way to discount it beyond the fact of pointing out that it's just not true.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah.

Ms. COX: I mean, that should be the first thing that we all talk about.

MARTIN: The question I'm curious about is that why is this like, open season on the first lady because she's a liberal or because she's African-American, or both? I mean, I do recall that there were inappropriate, a lot of cross-the-line comments made about Hillary Clinton, about Chelsea Clinton, you know, when they were in the White House. And people can say it didn't happen; it did. But I don't recall and I'm saying maybe it's me these kind of comments about the physical appearance of non - you know ...

Ms. BELTON: Yeah. Well, I think what's different in this case with, you know, with Hillary Clinton, when people criticized Hillary Clinton's looks, they didn't just like, make up a thing. Like, they were exaggerating or being mean-spirited about, you know, the fact that, you know, she was, you know, short in stature and, you know, she - you know, older woman who'd gained a little bit of weight.

But with Michelle Obama, she's an athletic, thin woman, and to sit there and portray her as she's this fat hypocrite is really patently ludicrous because it's so false.

Ms. COX: I can't - also, thinking back, I can't imagine - and I think I would be attuned to this stuff - people saying anything liberals saying anything even close to mocking Barbara Bush or Laura Bush. I mean, Laura Bush, if anything, liberals loved her because they secretly thought she was on our side.

Ms. BELTON: And plus, the equivalent of this would be - like, Laura Bush's big issue was reading. This would be like liberals coming after Laura Bush and saying: You're an illiterate.

Ms. COX: You actually can't read.

Ms. BELTON: You actually can't read.

Ms. COX: Or that she reads trash.

MARTIN: Nobody should read.

Ms. COX: Which, I mean, I suspect that she did.

MARTIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of cross-talk)

Ms. BELTON: But no, it's completely false. It's like accusing Laura Bush of not being able to read at all while pushing a reading agenda.

Ms. COX: No. No.

Ms. BELTON: I mean, that's what they're essentially doing here.

Ms. COX: I think that the corollary here probably is not the first ladies, not the most recent Republican first ladies, but Sarah Palin. And it's true that on this case, the Republicans and the conservatives want to have it both ways. They were like Sarah Palin for being hot, but they want us to not, us sort of on the critical side...

MARTIN: Acknowledge it.

Ms. COX: ...to not acknowledge her for being hot, or to make fun of her for being hot.

MARTIN: So what - so worth talking about or leave it alone, would be my final question to you, Danielle, on this topic, is 'cause the debate is call it out, or leave it alone and ignore it? What is your thinking?

Ms. BELTON: I think it's worth making fun of just to point out the ludicrousy(ph) of calling a non-fat woman fat. But outside of that, no.

MARTIN: And none of you has pointed out that Rush Limbaugh is not exactly Denzel Washington, either. That was one...

Ms. BELTON: No.

Ms. COX: Not Denzel Washington, and also doesn't follow his own advice, either.

Ms. BELTON: No.

Ms. COX: I mean, the guy's been married three times, you know; he's been, he's a drug addict. I mean, like he...

MARTIN: Well, he says he's not, but that's...

Ms. BELTON: Well...

Ms. COX: But he has...

MARTIN: But we can verify with truth that he's not George Clooney.

Ms. COX: He has his own hypocrisies, that he wishes us not to call him out on.

MARTIN: We should not call out. Another topic - and if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having our visit to the Beauty Shop. We're talking about issues that we think, you know, we particularly want to hear what women have to say about.

Ana Marie Cox, Washington correspondent for GQ magazine; Danielle Belton, money and politics editor for the Loop 21. She's also "The Black Snob," if you follow that blog, and many do.

I wanted to talk about another issue that a lot of people are talking about. Oprah Winfrey is on her final season of her show. She had this on-air reunion with somebody who was once a regular on the show, and this was riveting television. I know a lot of people think, so what? Well, it's just - it was this, just - it was riveting. I mean, people have been blogging about it and talking about it. And what happened was that Iyanla left when she was offered her own show by Barbara Walters, who was the executive producer. It didn't go well. It caused a rift and 11 years later, they sat down. Things didn't go well for Iyanla after that. They sat down and talked about it. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host): I had offered - not only did I like you, I would leave the stage and give you the stage because I liked you so much.

Ms. IYANLA VANZANT (Author): Can you hear, I didn't know that. Can you hear...

Ms. WINFREY: But what did you think that meant? What did you think that meant?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINFREY: Wait. What did you think that meant, when I am sitting in the audience and letting you sit on stage and run the show?

Ms. VANZANT: I hadn't worked hard enough for it. I couldn't recognize it. I didn't even know what it was. I thought you wanted the work. I didn't think you wanted me.

Ms. WINFREY: Oh, my God. I got it. I got it. I got it. I got it.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: And this was, you know, this is a very tearful, emotional thing. And the reason that - we had a lively debate about this too, which is another reason we invited you ladies to talk about this. There are some people who said keep - this is personal business; who cares? Other people thought, you know, it's important to watch women - two high-powered women - airing out a disagreement in public, and showing that you can get beyond a personal and professional disagreement - because a lot of people think women can't do that.

So I wanted to ask what you all think. Danielle, you want to start?

Ms. BELTON: I thought it was a fascinating example of how, you know, you don't want to like, be on Oprah's wrong side. Even if Oprah doesn't purposely try to destroy you, bad things apparently befall you - because God shines on Oprah. It's like you rejected Oprah. She like, lost all her money, you know, she owes all this money to the IRS. She's like, living in this rinky-dink house; they're like, making fun of her with that scarf and hat and coat ensemble she had on yesterday, because she kind of looked like a hobo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So you think really, this shows, don't cross the O.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But there are those who would say, look, you know, that Oprah is powerful. Why should she apologize for being powerful? She felt this was a business deal. She didn't like how she was approached, and that two men would never do this. And some people would say, well, so what? You know, you win. I lose. You know, you made a power play. It didn't go well. But other people say, well, that's exactly why people should talk about it, to say that you can disagree.

What do you think, Ana Marie?

Ms. COX: Well, it's - I'm not sure if it's true that two men would never do this. I mean, I think in the age of reality television, the idea of airing your grievances on air...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COX: Of really airing your grievances, is one that's just more and more dominant. And I think, actually, if we thought about it for little while, we could probably come up with some examples from reality television of men having it out, whether it's on "Million Dollar Listing," which is, I think, all guys - all male Realtors that sometimes like, get feisty with each other or whatever. But definitely like, people's both come-uppances and reunions are fodder for our entertainment. I think what we can say about this, in particular, is that Oprah is a master at making this not just an interesting sociological event, but riveting television. I mean, would it have been riveting television with anyone else? I mean, it's hard to believe that it would be.

MARTIN: That's hard - that's a good question.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: So finally, while we're talking about TV - we just have a couple of minutes left. Maybe you can file this under guilty pleasures. Do you Bravo premiered "The Real Housewives of Miami" on Tuesday. It's the seventh in the franchise, "The Real Housewives" franchise. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. Watch. No watch.

Ms. COX: Not as good as Atlanta.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Ana Marie says...

Ms. BELTON: I can't watch, you know...

MARTIN: Any of it.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because?

Ms. BELTON: The fancy women and the houses that will eventually be foreclosed, and the money that they don't actually have, and the credit that they've extended so far, and the men that really aren't their...

Ms. COX: And again, I'll fall back on, it's fascinating sociologically.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COX: It's also just fascinating. I mean, I actually think...

MARTIN: Why are you fascinated? Tell me.

Ms. COX: I don't know. I think the Atlanta one is the most interesting. It's the most popular of - I think it's Bravo's most popular show, period. It's definitely the most popular housewives show. And I would guess, just by looking at it and sort of the clues, it's probably the least wealthy of the seven as far as like, the women involved. And they actually have somewhat real lives. I mean, not really...

MARTIN: By reality show standards?

Ms. COX: By reality...

MARTIN: Yeah, Kandi is a producer.

Ms. COX: Yeah. They have most of them have at least pretend jobs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. COX: I mean, it's actually I mean, whatever. I think it's all a guilty pleasure. I think they're sort of reaching with Miami. I think eventually, the whole series is probably going to get tired. But I think the lesson I would draw is that it's good to have women who actually do things, on television.

MARTIN: OK. Danielle, but you're like, nix on that. Better things to do.

Ms. BELTON: Well, I mean, I would rather see like, a real housewives of some, you know, dying city in the Midwest.

Ms. COX: Detroit.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah.

Ms. COX: I think Detroit would be fascinating.

Ms. BELTON: Exactly. Where you have women who've lost everything, who have now like, had to take a step back. That would be much more fascinating.

MARTIN: Danielle, you are harsh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Danielle Belton is the author of "The Black Snob." And now you know why. And she's money and politics editor for the Loop 21.com. Ana Marie Cox is Washington correspondent for GQ magazine. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studio.

Ladies, thank you all so much.

Ms. BELTON: Thank you.

Ms. COX: Thank you.

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