NBC's Lee Cowan: Michelle Obama Dresses 'As Brightly As Her Husband's Smile'

In what was, more or less, a puff piece about Michelle Obama on Thursday's "Today" show, Lee Cowan took Obamagasms to new heights when he described Michelle's fashion sense:

"In victory and in defeat Michelle Obama had always been there, dressed as brightly as her husband's smile, determined though, not to steal the spotlight but to put her signature touch on what's become their campaign."

The above Cowan observation came during a set-up piece for an interview segment with Doris Kearns Goodwin, in which "Today" co-anchor Meredith Vieira strategized with the presidential historian about how Michelle can improve her image. While the segment did mention Michelle's "For the first time in my adult lifetime I'm really proud of my country," gaffe at times it sounded like an E! red carpet fashion breakdown (audio available here):

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I hope they're not talking about a physical makeover though. Because, you know, it was funny, she's got those pearls, she's got that sleeveless dress, making her look much like Jackie Kennedy. When, when Jackie was in the race in 1960 these handlers, these same strategists thought, "She's much too chic. Too sophisticated. The country won't like her after Mamie Eisenhower. Let's keep her off the campaign trail." What a mistake.

MEREDITH VIEIRA: Yeah well you know Doris, the cover of "The Daily News," I actually have it. "Stylish Michelle Wows 'Em In Her $148 Dress," which is now flying off the racks after her appearance, which is really the start of this makeover for her, when she sat down with the ladies of "The View."

The following is a complete transcript of the segment as it was aired on the June 19, "Today" show:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: And now to the race for the White House and a look at Barack Obama's wife Michelle. She is her husband's most passionate advocate who can wow some people, but she's also sometimes a lightning rod for criticism. And now both Obamas are trying to reintroduce themselves to the nation, but even that comes with some controversy. Here's NBC's Lee Cowan.

[On screen headline: "Image Control, Re-Introducing Mr. & Mrs. Obama."]

LEE COWAN: In victory and in defeat Michelle Obama had always been there, dressed as brightly as her husband's smile, determined though, not to steal the spotlight but to put her signature touch on what's become their campaign.

MICHELLE OBAMA: I grew up on the Southside of Chicago.

COWAN: While polls show Michelle is better known than John McCain's wife, Cindy, Michelle's also viewed as more controversial.

MICHELLE OBAMA: I have to be greeted properly. Fist bump, please.

COWAN: To combat that image the campaign, though, isn't pulling her back, they're putting her out front, selling the Michelle Obama brand.

MICHELLE OBAMA: That I wear my heart on my sleeve.

COWAN: Her debut appearance on "The View" Wednesday, was "vintage Michelle," says her staff. "Honest and straightforward."

MICHELLE OBAMA: But when you put your heart out there, there's a level of passion that you feel and it's a risk that you take.

COWAN: There are now front page profiles of her in the "New York Times," and she's even on the cover of "US Weekly."

MYRA GUTIN, FIRST LADY HISTORIAN: It's a way to soften her image a little bit, to re-present her to America.

MICHELLE OBAMA FROM FEBRUARY 18, 2008: For the first time in my adult lifetime I'm really proud of my country.

COWAN: It was that comment, some say, that made her sound unpatriotic. Others say she seems too independent, or too sarcastic, but apparently not above advice. Michelle Obama recently sent a letter here, to First Lady Laura Bush, thanking her for coming to her defense over the whole "proud" comment. And she says she's taking some cues, saying the reason she thinks Laura Bush is so popular is because she doesn't feel the fire. But the fire still burns the brightest on her husband. Barack Obama's appearances before the media are now choreographed more carefully than ever. This week reports surfaced that volunteers at an Obama rally in Detroit told Muslim women with head scarves to move out of camera range. The campaign quickly apologized for the volunteers and sent out pictures to prove that it is not campaign policy for Muslim supporters to be kept away from Obama at photo-opportunities. For both Obamas, whiles fresh faces seem pretty welcome sight on the political scene, fresh also means unknown. And managing their introductions is now a full-time job. For "Today," Lee Cowan, NBC News, Washington.

VIEIRA: And Doris Kearns Goodwin is a presidential historian. Doris good morning to you.

[On screen headline: "The New Michelle Obama, Changing Role Of The First Lady."]

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Good morning, Meredith.

VIEIRA: You know when Michelle Obama first hit the national stage she was called, impressive and refreshing, now some people say that she's unpatriotic, an angry black woman, the kind of person that sort of wags her finger at people. And the campaign is saying she needs to re-introduce herself to the American public. In, in, in your estimation how does she do that? From your perspective?

GOODWIN: Well I think, I think the most important thing right now is for her to get out there and just talk and talk and talk. You know that endless loop of those 15 words she said about being really proud of America are really what a lot of people know about her and that's all. I mean when they talk about a makeover I think it just means telling her story about coming from the Southside of Chicago, a descendant of slaves, working hard, getting to Princeton, getting to Harvard, being the mother of children. I think the more we know, then the less that little comment will stick up like a mountain. I hope they're not talking about a physical makeover though. Because, you know, it was funny, she's got those pearls, she's got that sleeveless dress, making her look much like Jackie Kennedy. When, when Jackie was in the race in 1960 these handlers, these same strategists thought, "She's much too chic. Too sophisticated. The country won't like her after Mamie Eisenhower. Let's keep her off the campaign trail." What a mistake.

VIEIRA: Yeah well you know Doris, the cover of "The Daily News," I actually have it. "Stylish Michelle Wows 'Em In Her $148 Dress," which is now flying off the racks after her appearance, which is really the start of this makeover for her, when she sat down with the ladies of "The View." And during the interview she said, you heard a little of it before, "The challenge I have is that I wear my heart on my sleeve and when you put your heart out there, there's a level of passion you feel and it's a risk that you take." So how does she get her story out, without alienating people? And stay true to herself?

GOODWIN: Well I think what it's gonna mean is that she will have to take that risk. In this world of our Internet there may be some mistaken language, but if she tries to put a girdle on her and become something she's not, it's not gonna work. I mean Eleanor Roosevelt said things, at times, that may have seemed embarrassing but she was who she was. And I think the important thing for every First Lady coming in there or any potential First Lady is they've got to with their strengths. You know I met Michelle, I met Michelle Obama in 2004 before he made his famous speech. And I came home and I told my husband, this is [an] incredibly impressive person, in her own right. And she's funny and she's, you know, she can be sarcastic at times. But if she loses that, you lose who you are. So I say let her make some mistakes, have that war room there, ready to correct them, but not lose that sense of vitality that she truly has.

VIEIRA: She also said that she would be taking cues from the current First Lady, Laura Bush. Talked about the fact that she doesn't add fuel to the fire. What does that mean?

GOODWIN: Well I think what it means is that Laura Bush has allowed her to be on center stage and has been careful about what she does, in a certain sense. But she can also take a cue from Laura in the fact that, remember Laura said at the beginning, "I promise that I'm not ever gonna have to make a speech," and she's become a much more active, very dignified and very effective First Lady. The role of First Lady gives a platform, as Lady Bird Johnson once said, to anyone there to really do something for your country. And even if you're gonna have more professional women coming into the White House they're gonna want to use their resources and talents to do something. So I think the key is to retain your dignity, to let your husband be center stage, not be a distraction but to be yourself and let the country see that full personality that I think Michelle Obama clearly has.

VIEIRA: Alright, Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you, as always, for your perspective.

GOODWIN: You're welcome.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.