PBS's Ifill Fawns Over Michelle Obama on MSNBC

Gwen Ifill of PBS, MSNBC News Live | NewsBusters.orgLive from Denver, Colorado, on Monday, Brian Williams hosted the 1 p.m. hour of MSNBC's "News Live" and featured guests Gwen Ifill of PBS and Michele Norris of NPR to talk about Michelle Obama’s upcoming primetime speech at the Democratic National Convention. The segment turned out to be a love-fest of Michelle Obama and her humble roots.

Williams started off the segment by asking the typical question of "what does Michelle Obama have to do tonight in this hall?" Ifill immediately went into gushing mode, first about Senator Ted Kennedy and then about Obama:

Michelle Obama has to find a way to be more amazing and more emotional than Ted Kennedy. If it looks like Ted Kennedy actually walks across that stage tonight and appears in some fashion in person and speaks, it’s gonna be an emotional highpoint. Michelle Obama, however, also has to deal with preconceptions about who she is. A lot of people have never seen anything that looks like a Michelle Obama before. She’s educated, she’s beautiful, she’s tall, she tells you what she thinks and they hope that she can tell a story about Barack Obama and about herself.

Williams then threw in some cooing of his own by describing Obama as "a mother of two girls, and the head of a family that has to sustain itself while Dad is otherwise occupied for the last couple of months. No easy feat." Ifill then rhapsodized over the Obama family:

Two amazingly precocious girls who walked out on the stage today at the sound check rehearsal with them and wanted to play with the gavel. I mean, they have the ringlets, they have the little girl dresses. This family wants to let you know they are Cosby with Norman Rockwell overtones. They want people to look at them and say, “oh, I get you. I understand you. You don’t threaten me. I get this family.” That’s what Michelle Obama’s trying to do.

Later, after Williams described Michelle Obama’s "south Chicago experience" as "more of the kind of American story than [Barack Obama's] Kansas, Kenya, South Pacific, you know his bizarre life story," Ifill talked up Michelle Obama’s humble roots:

It’s rooted. It is rooted. Her father was a city worker, a retired pump operator who fought all his life with a congenital disease and never complained, never missed a day of work. Her mother, who is 71 years old, takes care of the kids when they’re traveling. She's here with them, Mary Ann Robinson, everybody will find her instantly recognizable as the grandma who indulges the kids with the treats.

The segment's other guest, NPR’s Michele Norris, also got in on the praising of Michelle Obama. In response to a question by Williams about how Obama could compensate for the "emotional highpoint" of Senator Kennedy's potential appearance during her own speech, Norris gushed:

There's a lot of pressure on her but I did get a chance to talk to her earlier today and you wouldn’t know it by talking to her. I mean, she's an athlete so she carries that pressure very easily on her shoulders. She's quite confident about what she has to do tonight. She knows what she has to do. And as Gwen said, she has to show people that if they look closely, if they listen closely, if they look at this family tableaux which is unlike anything that we've ever seen on a convention stage, that people will see something that looks different but if they listen carefully they might hear something that resonates in their own lives. She's going to talk tonight not just about their triumphs, she's going to talk about their struggles. How they both come from fairly humble roots. How they had to climb up the rough side of the mountain to get where they are now and they’re hoping that people in hearing that message will say, "Oh, I learned something about Barack Obama that resonates in my own family. I know someone who’s had a similar struggle." That's her goal tonight.

Williams ended the segment by asking if Obama suffers "any delusions or any disappointments that, you know, in some quarters her negatives are high?" In answering the question, Norris touted that Michelle and Barack Obama "together made a compact at the beginning of this campaign that when they got to the end of the process they were gonna look at each other and see the same person across the table that started on this journey and they were gonna try very hard not to let this change them." Norris also worried that because of the "angry black woman" characterization of Obama, she might not be able to "rise up and defend her husband."

A transcript of Monday’s "News Live" segment, which aired at 1:04 p.m., follows:

BRIAN WILLIAMS, host: Let’s talk about tonight’s duel themes at this convention. There’s going to be an emotional tribute to Ted Kennedy. All afternoon long yesterday it was rumored the senior Senator from Massachusetts would perhaps try to make the trip. Then we heard that his doctors wouldn’t allow it. Then we heard last night that he had indeed slipped into Denver and plans call for him to make at least a brief appearance before this convention. We’ll hear from Caroline Kennedy tonight as well. Then when the networks enter the prime of the primetime schedule, 10 to 11 o’clock east coast time, the evening gets handed over to Michelle Obama. We’ll hear her introduction from her brother, a tape will be played, a short biography of Michelle Obama. And then we will hear from her. And along those lines to talk about tonight, we’re joined by two old friends, Michele Norris from NPR and Gwen Ifill from PBS. Gwen, we’ll begin with you. Tonight’s overall theme, and as they say in politics, what does Michelle Obama have to do tonight in this hall?

GWEN IFILL, PBS: Michelle Obama has to find a way to be more amazing and more emotional than Ted Kennedy. If it looks like Ted Kennedy actually walks across that stage tonight and appears in some fashion in person and speaks, it’s gonna be an emotional highpoint. Michelle Obama, however, also has to deal with preconceptions about who she is. A lot of people have never seen anything that looks like a Michelle Obama before. She’s educated, she’s beautiful, she’s tall, she tells you what she thinks and they hope that she can tell a story about Barack Obama and about herself.

WILLIAMS: And a mother of two girls, and the head of a family that has to sustain itself while Dad is otherwise occupied for the last couple of months. No easy feat.

IFILL: Two amazingly precocious girls who walked out on the stage today at the sound check rehearsal with them and wanted to play with the gavel. I mean, they have the ringlets, they have the little girl dresses. This family wants to let you know they are Cosby with Norman Rockwell overtones. They want people to look at them and say, “oh, I get you. I understand you. You don’t threaten me. I get this family.” That’s what Michelle Obama’s trying to do.

WILLIAMS: This video tape we’re looking at was a quick walk through --

IFILL: See the ringlets?

WILLIAMS: Yep. The aforementioned precocious daughters and who among us doesn’t have at least one of those at home? Michelle Obama getting just the basic feel of the stage. Very common among people who have a date with the podium later in the evening or later in the convention. And Michele, I think Gwen raised such an important issue. We -- not to be gross about it, but we don’t know about Ted Kennedy’s physical appearance. We don’t know about his physical abilities tonight. All we know is he’s in the fight of his life, he’s been involved in a rigorous chemotherapy treatment program, so, you know, this, that will be the prior emotional highpoint and then, oh by the way, Mrs. Obama please have at it.

MICHELE NORRIS, NPR: It’s tough. I mean, she’s the keynote speaker but Ted Kennedy’s appearance could be the emotional highpoint of the evening. There’s a lot of pressure on her but I did get a chance to talk to her earlier today and you wouldn’t know it by talking to her. I mean, she’s an athlete so she carries that pressure very easily on her shoulders. She’s quite confident about what she has to do tonight. She knows what she has to do. And as Gwen said, she has to show people that if they look closely, if they listen closely, if they look at this family tableaux which is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen on a convention stage, that people will see something that looks different but if they listen carefully they might hear something that resonates in their own lives. She’s going to talk tonight not just about their triumphs, she’s going to talk about their struggles. How they both come from fairly humble roots. How they had to climb up the rough side of the mountain to get where they are now and they’re hoping that people in hearing that message will say, “Oh, I learned something about Barack Obama that resonates in my own family. I know someone who’s had a similar struggle.” That’s her goal tonight.

WILLIAMS: And if anything, her south Chicago experience, Gwen, is more of the kind of American story than his Kansas, Kenya, South Pacific, you know his bizarre life story in the kin of most Americans.

IFILL: It’s rooted. It is rooted. Her father was a city worker, a retired pump operator who fought all his life with a congenital disease and never complained, never missed a day of work. Her mother, who is 71 years old, takes care of the kids when they’re traveling. She’s here with them, Mary Ann Robinson, everybody will find her instantly recognizable as the Grandma who indulges the kids with the treats. And they’re hope -- and her brother who will be introducing her, is a basketball coach at Oregon, I think, and he is, um, looks exactly like her. I mean, they look like they were spit out in the same -- also tall and also went to Princeton.

WILLIAMS: Michele, does she suffer any delusions or any disappointments that, you know, in some quarters her negatives are high?

NORRIS: You know, I asked her about that and particularly how the word “angry” is so often attached to her name. And she, you know, she didn’t quite do what Barack Obama did and sort of brush the lint off her shoulder in suggesting that it doesn’t bother her, but, you could, if you look carefully you could see that it’s something that does perhaps get a little bit under her skin, but she said that she tries very hard to create a psychological and emotional bubble and that she and Barack Obama together made a compact at the beginning of this campaign that when they got to the end of the process they were gonna look at each other and see the same person across the table that started on this journey and they were gonna try very hard not to let this change them. The difficult thing is whether or not this hamstrings her in any way because, you know, in a rough and tumble campaign there are moments where she might want to rise up and defend her husband and there’s this fine line between assertiveness and aggressiveness. And if she’s so often labeled as the angry black woman, can she throw in an elbow if she has to? If the situation call for it?

IFILL: Can he?

WILLIAMS: Well, that’s a question for the next three days. Um, my thanks to both of you. What a great conversation to kind of set up the night and the week. Michele Norris and Gwen Ifill, old friends both.