Watching Michelle Obama on The View.

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June 18 2008 3:50 PM

Michelle Obama on The View

Decoding her outfit, her aspect, her mouth full of granola.

Michelle Obama on The View. Click image to expand.
Michelle Obama guest-hosts The View

The guest on The View (ABC) this morning was Matthew Broderick, who is now 46 and yet looks more boyish with every passing film release. He sat in the center of the show's creamy lemon sectional sofa, and his defenselessly childlike quality—his embryonic quality—was heightened by the way he was comprehensively embosomed by the half-dozen female hosts. To his immediate left was the day's "special guest host," Michelle Obama. To his right, brassy Joy Behar. Both carried themselves in tea-party postures, with the aspiring first lady clasping her hands and perching alertly, as if scanning for chances to elicit sparkling small talk, and Behar sizing up Broderick with somewhat more desire in her eyes, as if he were, maybe, a poppy-seed scone.

Michelle told Matthew she'd heard that her husband had a fan in the actor's household. He replied that James Wilkie, his 5-year-old son with Sarah Jessica Parker, was indeed supporting Barack's campaign, explaining that during primary season, the boy had mostly been interested in seeing "the man beat the lady." At this point, Michelle brandished a 10-foot pole and refused to touch that comment with it. She didn't, in fact, say anything of interest or controversy during her live performance, which means that she and her handlers should right now be enjoying the glow of perfect success.

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Obama had approached the appearance, to quote Barbara Walters' on-air reading of the morning's New York Times, "with an eye toward softening her reputation." To this end, she did not do her hair in the Jackie Kennedy flip that André Leon Talley—the Vogue editor who Page Six alleges to be her style guru—pegs as central to her "image strategy." Nor did she go for the leonine sweep featured in a forthcoming US Weekly cover story ("The untold romance between a down-to-earth mom and the man who calls her 'my rock' "). She went with a coif that, though chic, was studiously nonthreatening and positively cubicle-ready. If you stuck with The View during commercial breaks and caught the Tums ad starring some Hanna-Barbera characters, you will realize that she borrowed the look from Jane Jetson.

Obama's dress, she said, was from a boutique that makes only black-and-white clothing. Some pundits will wonder whether this was a statement of ebony-and-ivory unity, and others will note how the brand's name, White House | Black Market, points to Pennsylvania Avenue. But the real importance here is that the clothing line is a subsidiary of Chico's—a middlebrow outlet for middle-aged ladies, a line exactly as fancy as the Gap. She dressed it up with a flirty brooch. The dress was sleeveless. "You are setting this trend where everyone wants to go sleeveless!" co-host Sherri Shepherd cooed. "Everyone" includes Shepherd's colleague Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who is far more conservative in her politics than in her attire. Her tomato-red, one-shoulder top treaded a fine line between merely inappropriate and plainly sluttish.

Some observers had hoped, with a convivial sexism, that Elisabeth and Michelle would have a catfight—"the claws could come out," salivated the New York Post—but it was not to be. Elisabeth preferred to share a printout of her son's dinner calendar, exhibiting the kind of shamelessness that's a crucial showbiz skill. Michelle, quiet, pretended to be engaged by little Taylor's feeding schedule, exhibiting the kind of acquiescence that's a crucial political skill: pandering by omission.

Both the hosts and the guest host stuck to their agendas with military discipline. Obama talked about her working-class roots and her daughters' recitals, and Barbara talked about press coverage and her own pantyhose, and it was all perfectly charming in a mind-numbing way. One question: Was it a gaffe or gift that, during a show-closing segment about breakfast—"Is it really the most important meal?"—Michelle, munching on granola or whatever, talked with her mouth full? An anti-elitist gesture, true, and also a humanizing one, but I will bet you that she doesn't behave that way at $10,000-a-plate fundraisers. And will anyone notice? WABC's noontime news show ran a bit about Obama's View appearance that suggests how her image strategy is shaping up. Michelle bumped fists with her hosts, they reported. She restated her pride in her country, they reported. She wouldn't comment on Hillary Clinton's status as a potential running mate, they droned on, simultaneously talking about nothing and saying everything about the politics of style.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.