Would-Be First Ladies in the Spotlight As the presidential election season marches on, the spotlight has also fallen upon the candidates' wives. Gina McCauley of the Web site Michelle Obama Watch and Judy Muller, a professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication, talk about how they are being covered.
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Would-Be First Ladies in the Spotlight

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Would-Be First Ladies in the Spotlight

Would-Be First Ladies in the Spotlight

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes, I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

The general election campaign is well underway. John McCain and Barack Obama face more scrutiny than ever before, but what about their wives? How will the images of Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain affect the candidates' run for the White House? Joining me now to explore this questions are Gina McCauley who runs the website MichelleObamaWatch.com and Judy Muller, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. Welcome to both of you.

Prof. JUDY MULLER (Associate Professor of Journalism , USC's Annenberg School for Communication): Hello.

Ms. GINA MCCAULEY (MichelleObamaWatch.com): Hello.

COX: Let's start with this one. We are going to talk about both Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, but let's begin with Michelle Obama. Gina, you are running an entire blog monitoring her. Why are you doing that?

Ms. MCCAULEY: Well, I have another blog, my first blog is called "What About Our Daughters?", and one of our founding principles is that we fight the negative portrayal of African-American women in popular culture. And I started to get so many emails and complaints from my readers specifically dealing with Michelle Obama, that I feared that over the course of the general election campaign I'd be doing a Michelle Obama post every day, and I didn't want to overshadow all of the other important issues we cover on "What About Our Daughters?" So - and I also didn't have the time to keep track of everything going on with Michelle Obama. So I decided to set up a separate blog that is completely staffed by volunteer contributors, and that's the reason why there is a separate blog just dedicated to her, because I don't know that we've ever seen an African-American woman that is going to receive the amount of sustained media scrutiny that she will between now and November.

And also, I was a little bit miffed that there didn't seem to be a better defense of her on some of these issues that have taken root, and she - they are still dealing with, such as her statements regarding her pride in her country and the fact that hope was on a comeback, and then this ludicrous rumor that eventually spread to cable television, about her using the word "whitey" on videotape. And I just felt like people weren't properly addressing those. That's one of the reasons we have the blog.

COX: AlL right, let me stop you there, just to bring, I want to bring Judy into the conversation as well. But you mentioned something that I want to hit on, talking about the media scrutiny of Michelle Obama. As we all know, yesterday she appeared on ABC's "The View" television show to kick off what some are calling a campaign to soften her image. We are going to talk about that in just a moment. But here is a clip of Michelle Obama's appearance on that show yesterday.

Mrs. MICHELLE OBAMA (Wife of Senator Barack Obama): When you put your heart out there, there is a level of passion that you feel, and it is a risk that you take.

Unidentified woman: Of course.

Ms. OBAMA: But one of the things I'm counting on is that people will see through it. You know, that the more they get to know me, they get to know our family, that it will become clear who I am and what I care about. So I don't worry about it.

COX: Judy Muller, two things. Is this an attempt, do you think, to create a softer image for Michelle Obama? And does she need one?

Prof. MULLER: Well, I think that is an interesting comment, because I think the idea that they are out to create a softer image has been created somewhat by the mass-media, starting with the New York Times yesterday. And in fact, on "The View," they held - Barbara Walters held up the headline and read it to her, and said, is this what's going on? And I think she kind of laughed at that. She said, you know, I am who I am , I thought she handled it very well, and said, you know, I am who I am, and I think when people get to know me. I don't think - she came across this saying, I am not out here in a calculated campaign to put across an image.

My image is who I am. And now, you can argue with that, because all campaigns are conscious of image, for sure, and the Obama campaign is no different. But I think she really wants to make it clear that she is genuine. Remember, Cindy McCain also went on "The View," and that was when she was in trouble over stealing recipes of all things, from Rachel Ray, I mean, like this. It gets so silly, you know, really, it is the bump with a fist, is that, you know, what does that mean? Does Cindy McCain steal recipes? Oh my gosh! I mean, it is really so absurd, and I think it is going to get more absurd, quite frankly. I'm not sanguine about the next few months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Well you know, Cindy McCain is in Vietnam this week, and, Gina, she actually talked to ABC News in a fairly rare interview with Kate Snow. Here is a clip from that interview. Let's hear it.

Mrs. CINDY MCCAIN (Wife of Senator John McCain): I've led my life differently, and I've never been, I'm not the candidate, I've never been front and center. I do the things that I enjoy, and I do the things that are important to me, and do them in the way that I like to do them.

COX: So is this consistent with what we know about Cindy McCain? Or is this an attempt to somehow massage her image?

Prof. MULLER: Well, if you are asking me…

COX: Well, I was about to ask Gina first, and then come back to you.

Prof. MULLER: Yeah. I think what we don't know about Cindy McCain could fill volumes. And I think that we, in a way know more about Michelle Obama. Cindy McCain has been fairly, or unfairly, sort of cast as a Stepford wife kind of person. I think there is probably a lot more to it than that, as there are with all human beings. But she's been very careful, I think, to be the supportive wife. The fact that she is, you know, a multimillionaire in her own right, isn't brought up much. I really think that she's made a conscious effort to be in the background of her husband's campaign.

COX: Gina, do you, I'd like to get your response to that, and also to tack on to that question whether or not you think that Michelle Obama has to position herself in some way against Cindy McCain?

Ms. MCCAULEY: Well, I think with Hillary Clinton, she found a mark the first time, that you have, in my life time that I can't remember, I'm fairly young, I haven't been in to many presidential elections. But she marked the first time where there was a woman who was married to the presidential candidate, who had a career that was equal to, or in some cases, when it came to making money, was greater than that of her husband. And I think you are seeing the same phenomenon with Michelle, and they are lawyers, and so they're out there, and they are speaking as they would anyway.

And I think Cindy McCain is taking a quote more traditional roll in her husband's campaign, the kind of be the adoring spouse that, you know, applauds him, but really isn't out there necessarily being one of his campaign surrogates in the same way that Michelle Obama is while she is making her arguments for Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States. And I think that maybe one of the reasons why we don't know as much about Cindy McCain as we, you know, know about Michelle Obama, she hasn't really been made a target of the campaign. And one of the things that bothered me really early on, was (unintelligible), is that earlier in the campaign, during the primary, Michelle might have been taking more hits than her husband, and she wasn't even a candidate, and that bothered me as well.

COX: Let me jump in with this thought for you, Judy Muller, and that's this. Is there a model for this? You know, we have obviously women running alongside their husbands - well the husbands were running, and the women were running alongside of them. And in the case of Hillary Clinton, obviously, there was a flip-flop for that, for during this primary season. But my question is, is there a model for the kind of behavior or the appropriateness for the spouse, particularly the female?

COX: Particularly the female.

Prof. MULLER: Well Yes, I think that ironically the model is Hillary Clinton as we were just talking about. I think that Hillary Clinton was a lightening rod in many ways and she said I am standing by my man sitting around baking some cookies. Well that had legs forever. And then she had to revert and say, oh, no, it's OK to bake cookies. I mean, you know. She was the first candidate's wife who really had a very good career on her own, could hold her own right along with the candidate and I think obviously Michelle Obama is that person as well. She carries the added burden of being the first African-American woman and I think that is an enormous new territory and it's fascinating to watch. I think it's exciting and yet I sort of hold my breath. You know, hoping that it doesn't degenerate into silliness.

COX: Do you think that in some ways the candidacy of George Bush, the second George Bush with Laura Bush, has had some kind of impact on this behavior? You mentioned Hillary Clinton, but do you think that it's changed in any way?

Prof. MULLER: Oh, it's actually funny, as I was trying to think, what do I know about Laura Bush really, other than that she, you know, was a former librarian, is in favor of literacy, you know, watches over her daughters, one of who kind of gotten into trouble there and another the wedding. What do we really know beyond through these broad brush strokes? Not much.

COX: But you know, her being quiet, so to speak, is a contrast to say someone like Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was a powerful woman in her own right and caused some problems for his husband's campaign. Did she not, Gina?

Ms. MCCAULEY: Yeah I mean anyone who takes on a role that is more similar to Hillary Clinton's role in the '92 campaign versus Laura Bush's role in 2000 is going to come under that scrutiny. Teresa Heinz Kerry came under that scrutiny. Elizabeth Edwards, had John Edwards been the Democratic nominee, we would be talking about Elizabeth Edwards getting a softer image and being kind of converted into, you know, a home-maker image and that because that's the image that we're dealing with. As far as Michelle Obama needing a makeover, I think the racial aspects involved can't be overlooked with the fact that Michelle Obama really doesn't fit into any other popular stereotypes about African-American women.

And one of the reason you see newspapers like the New York Times stumbling over their coverage of her is because they're trying to make her fit into boxes that she just doesn't fit in. And that's something - and that's one of the reasons why, you know, you have to hold your breath and wait for somebody else to make a huge faux pas as relates to Michelle Obama. Because not only are they dealing with the issue that they have with career women being engaged and involved in their husband's campaigns, but they're also dealing with the fact that they just don't know what to do with a woman like Michelle Obama. And so they try to put her in this box as being this angry black woman, or put her in this box having this strong personality that needs to somehow be made over. But I don't see anything that Michelle Obama has done on the campaign trail that indicates to me that she isn't a soft person. That she isn't compassionate. That she doesn't love her country. So why are we even having this discussion about making her over?

Prof. MULLER: Yeah and I really...

COX: We've got about 10 second, Judy, for you to answer that.

Prof. MULLER: Pardon me?

COX: I said we've got about 10 seconds for you to respond.

Prof. MULLER: OK. I think that the power of this couple is that they transcend race and that, you know, in many ways she carries that burden but she also transcends it and I think that's what's so new here.

COX: Thank you so much. Gina and Judy, thank you a lot. Judy Muller is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, and Gina McCauley founded the blog MichelleObamaWatch.com.

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