Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Was Michelle Obama's Oscar Appearance a Presidential PR Blunder?

Yesterday, when I watched the 85th annual Academy Awards in the middle of Monday afternoon Australia time, I purposely did so in a bubble. There was no checking out Facebook status updates to see what everyone was saying. When I blogged my impressions afterwards, I didn't want to be corrupted by any outside influence other than my friend Lori's.

Hours later, when I finally started reading through the impressions of my Facebook friends, a few things jumped out at me: 1) I wasn't the only person who was disappointed by the live performances of Adele and Barbra Streisand. 2) Daniel Day-Lewis aside, there was no clear consensus on who should have won in any of the major categories. 3) Seth MacFarlane wasn't as terribly received as I expected him to be. 4) Michelle Obama's co-presentation of the Best Picture winner might not have been the best PR move.

My initial inclination was to disagree with the Obama digs, possibly even comment, but it deserved some more thought. Was it really such a bad thing for the First Lady to so closely align her husband's administration with Hollywood by appearing at the Oscars? Would onlookers take this as a sign that the Obama administration was frivolous, not just in bed with celebrities but basking in afterglow, too?

Hmm...

Hasn't Washington been in bed with Hollywood since John F. Kennedy invited Marilyn Monroe under his covers (a one-time urban myth that's apparently now widely regarded as fact, judging from the last episode of Smash)? My Facebook friends weren't the only ones scowling, though (see what the Washington Post had to say here). It took me less than 24 hours to respectfully dissent and conclude that if people hadn't already drawn this conclusion, why should they start now?

The political times they have a-changed. We now live in a world where its leaders are far more accessible to the general public, if only as living, breathing celebrities -- tabloid fodder. It's a world where a former U.S. Vice-President can narrate an Oscar-winning documentary (Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth), where Presidents and First Ladies can be called "Grammy-winning," where controversy over Beyoncé's performance of the national anthem can upstage everything else at a Presidential Inauguration, where actors and actresses can regularly score Oscars for playing world leaders, where the Queen of England can costar in an Olympics skit with James Bond.

There's no longer any meaningful separation of church and state where the official religion is Hollywood and celebrity. After all, we're talking about the wife of a politician, Barack Obama, who ascended to the most important office in U.S. politics in much the same fashion as Daniel Day-Lewis ascended to the position of the most-important man in movies (a three-time Best Actor!) on Oscar night -- amid rapturous applause and breathless enthusiasm. Obama was the first American rock-star celebrity President.

Years ago when I was an intern at People magazine, I was assigned the task of fact-checking the Managing Editor's annual year-end sit-down interview with the President (then George Bush Sr.). I was astonished and impressed that the magazine I worked for could actually get such access. What did the President have to gain by talking to the magazine that regularly covered all the semi-sordid details of the love lives of Princess Diana and Julia Roberts? I was thinking like a PR queen.

But by that time, the U.S. President already was increasingly no longer seen as a political windbag, trotted out occasionally to throw the first pitch at baseball games. The unofficial start of the President's march toward modern celebrity is open to debate: Did it begin with JFK? Was it when the country's voters hired a former actor (Ronald Reagan) as their 40th President? Was it when Bill Clinton turned the U.S. Commander-in-Chief into tabloid bait by constantly feeding the rumor mill with his alleged dangerous extra-marital liaisons, which culminated with his nearly career-destroying tryst with White House intern Monica Lewinsky?

Wherever and whenever it began, today the limits to what the Presidential inner circle can do in the name of celebrity are being pushed further and further back. We regularly see them on talk shows, hear them weighing in on celebrity scandals (after Kanye West dissed Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Barack Obama publicly declared him a "jackass"), and not too long ago, I distinctly remember seeing Michelle Obama doing push-ups with Ellen Degeneres on Ellen.

Is co-presenting the Best Picture Oscar with Jack Nicholson (who, by the way, wrongly said it's traditionally a job for one person, as I can recall seeing it being handed out by Kirk and Michael Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the not-so-distant past) worse than getting down and sweaty with Ellen? One can argue that from a PR standpoint, both were excellent moves on Michelle Obama's part. We always talk about humanizing our political leaders to make them more appealing to the general public, and what is more humanizing than exercising on daytime TV and telling the world that you love watching movies, too?

In a year in which so many of the Best Picture nominees had a political bent (Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Django Unchained and frontrunner Argo), the timing couldn't have been better -- or worse, depending on how you feel about the controversy over whether the makers of Zero Dark Thirty were given inappropriate access to top-secret information by the U.S. government. But it also was the year in which one candidate -- one that had a far better chance of staging a Best Picture upset -- depicted the 16th U.S. President's quest to free the slaves.

The Best Actor award had just gone to Daniel Day-Lewis for portraying the man who was largely responsible for making Michelle Obama's husband's presidency possible, and having her flanked by decked-out personnel was in keeping with the whiff of cheesiness that dominated the rest of the Oscar proceedings. I wonder how people would have reacted had God Himself ventured down from heaven above to give Best Picture to Life of Pi (speaking of shameless propaganda masquerading as storytelling).

While I can understand the concerns over Washington being too closely tied to Hollywood, it's not like the Obamas made the bed that Washington and Hollywood now lie in together. Zero Dark Thirty didn't even have much of a chance of winning anyway. Furthermore, political pundits and PR experts were possibly the only ones tsk-tsking over Obama's involvement. The rest of us were probably too blinded by the starpower -- hers, not Jack Nicholson's -- what she was wearing, how she keeps her bangs looking so great, to care about the political implications.

And in the end, the grand prize went to Argo, a film that canonized CIA operative Tony Mendez, hailed Canada, and gave no significant props to the American President. If director Ben Affleck was going to leave the U.S. Commander-in-Chief off to the sidelines of the action, how fitting that Michelle Obama would sneak him back toward center stage just in time for the grand finale. I'd call that the most genius PR move of the night.
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