CNN secured an interview in Indiana with "steely-tough" Michelle Obama and Caroline Kennedy on Wednesday night for Anderson Cooper 360, but the interviewer, CNN reporter Suzanne Malveaux, saw her job as deeply feeling the Obama family pain. Her idea of a rough question on the Jeremiah Wright controversy was "Did he betray you?" She also asked "How painful was that?" and "At what point did you stop empathizing with your pastor?" With Caroline Kennedy there, Malveaux avoided the obvious question of how either woman greeted Rev. Wright’s mockery on Sunday night in Detroit of how badly John F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy spoke English.
Rev. Wright impersonated Kennedy in a nasal voice, as when a black comedian cracks wise about a stereotypical white person:
In 1961, it's been all over the Internet now, John Kennedy could stand at the inauguration in January and say, "isk not what your country can do for you, isk rather what you can do for your country." How do you spell isk? Nobody ever said to John Kennedy that's not English, "isk." Only to a black child would they say you speak bad English.
Kennedy got killed. Johnson stepped up to the podium and Love Field, we just left Love Field. And Johnson, said [slurring, lower voice] ‘my fulla-Amurrikans." How do you spell fulla? How do you spell Amurrikan? Nobody says to Johnson you speak bad English.
Ed Kennedy, today, those of you in the Congress, sister [Rep. Carolyn] Kilpatrick. You know, Ed Kennedy today cannot pronounce cluster consonants. Very few people from Boston can. They pronounce park like it's p-o-c-k. Where did you "pock" the "cah"? They pronounce f-o-r-t like it's f-o-u-g-h-t. We fought a good battle. And nobody says to a Kennedy you speak bad English. Only to a black child was that said.
You can see this part of the speech on YouTube (about three minutes in). I don't think most people would agree that President Kennedy said "isk" instead of "ask." (That's here, about four minutes in.) CNN also avoided the other controversy emerging from Wright’s Detroit speech, that black children and white children learn with different parts of their brains.
But the first question remained: Was it classy for Obama’s (just-retired) minister of two decades to mock the Kennedys, who endorsed Obama to great media fanfare? Is it funny to remember what President Johnson said as the nation was rocked by a president’s assassination? This certainly would not be avoided if the speaker were connected to the Bush White House or the McCain campaign, or if the speaker were a major conservative talk-radio host. CNN’s Malveaux began:
Michelle, obviously, the headlines here, Reverend Wright. You have known him for more than 20 years. He officiated your wedding. He baptized your children. When he went up there before the national press and said your husband criticized him because he's a politician, because that's what they do to get elected, did he betray you?
Mrs. Obama made no comment on Wright in any way, no statement about the offensiveness of any of his remarks, but just asserted old talking points about how "Barack's race speech was one of the most powerful, emotional speeches that he's written in his life. And I think the response to that speech spoke for itself. That wasn't a speech of a political opportunist." The answer went on for about two minutes. The interview continued:
MALVEAUX: Let me ask you about this. I mean, how painful was that? This is somebody who you confided in.
MALVEAUX: And, at one point, obviously, you have been misunderstood. You have been taken out of context. At what point did you stop empathizing with your pastor, and you thought, here's something that's over the line. It's over the top. This is it. How did you make that decision?
OBAMA: With all due respect, we're just -- we're moving forward.
After Mrs. Obama spent almost a minute of trying to generate talking points and move on, Malveaux tried one more time to wonder if Rev. Wright can be silenced so this controversy can be killed and buried: .
MALVEAUX: There are some people who I spoke with who have been trying, on your behalf, on your husband's behalf, to close this and to go to him and say, look, you know, this is enough. Enough is enough. One of the people I spoke with said, we're trying to establish a detente here. But they also describe him as someone who is vindictive, and perhaps there is no buttoning up when it comes to whether or not he's going to come out and talk again. Do you feel confident that you -- you can move forward, that -- that he is not going to speak out again? Or do you think this is something that is going to dog him in the election?
Mrs. Obama looked Malveaux in the eye and insisted the press needed to lay off: "Barack and I and our campaign, we are going to, with everything in our power, if allowed to by the press, to move forward."
So Malveaux turned to Caroline Kennedy, saying "I want to turn the corner here. I want to turn the page." Mrs. Obama cracked with a smile, "No, you don’t." And so Malveaux tried to flatter her: "Well, you know, you...You're nicknamed the rock behind Barack. And there's -- there's a reason. I know -- I know you can handle all of -- all of the questions that we're going to throw at you." She then asked Caroline Kennedy two bland horse-race questions about how Obama can improve his standing among women and white "working class" folks.
This Michelle Obama, fearlessly intimidating CNN’s reporter on the Obama campaign, was hailed by CNN anchor Campbell Brown at the show’s beginning, filling in for Anderson Cooper:
Tonight, everybody, a steely-tough Michelle Obama up close, speaking out for the first time since her husband started dealing with the fury of a pastor scorned. She talks about the controversy, how her husband finally put the hammer down about race, about the possibility of Hillary Clinton as a running mate.
After this first segment of the interview – the only segment where Caroline Kennedy spoke – Brown interviewed Malveaux about Mrs. Obama, and Malveaux dutifully repeated every move-forward spin Mrs. Obama had just used, as if she were reading a press release.
Well, you know certainly there was a sense that obviously this was painful -- and she actually acknowledged that -- this Reverend Wright controversy. But you really get the sense from her that they are ready, ready to move on here, that this is not something that, when you -- actually, when you cover Obama and you see, it's not something that really comes up with a lot of the voters here.
Then, after a commercial break, the taped interview continued with the question of whether America was too racist for Obama to win:
Michelle, there's been talk about really winning over the blue-collar white families in the contests ahead.There's an 800-pound elephant in the room, too, which is that this race, a lot of people see as becoming more racially polarized. Do you think that, at a certain point, Barack Obama can work as hard as he can, and he can give him message to people, but there's always going to be a group where they're going to look at him, and they're not going to give their support because of his race, because he's black?
Hold it. If voters – Democratic primary voters – now choose Hillary over Obama, based in part on the controversies over Rev. Wright and the bitter-people-clinging-to-guns-and-religion comments, why would CNN describe that as Obama rejected "because he’s black"? Mrs. Obama argued that her husband was popular and a unifier:
And our job is to become better known. One of the reasons why we try to do interviews like this is not to talk about Reverend Wright, but to talk about who we are, beyond that caricature. And, sometimes, things get bogged down. And, you know, we do our best to say, this is who we really are. And that takes time. But with time comes familiarity and -- and growth. And we're confident that the American people are ready to move to a different place. And we just have to be confident and give them the benefit of the doubt, that they get all the information and we sort of come out of the muck, that they will be ready to embrace the truth.
So America needs to accept Barack Obama, so it can show "growth" and embrace the "truth." Malveaux went really soft at the end:
– Are you still confident that your husband can win?
– The last time you were asked about a possible Obama/Clinton ticket, you said, well, I need to think on that a little bit. You have had some time to think. What do you think about an Obama/Clinton ticket?
– This has been a very long campaign of 16 months. Barack Obama says on the trail -- he kind of jokes, and he says, people -- babies have been born, and they're walking now...and he's still running in this race. What is the most trying, what is the most difficult thing about -- about being in the race now, the toll that it's taken on your family?
– Do you -- do you think that your husband has been treated fairly? Are you surprised at how nasty this race has gotten?
– And, Michelle, I under -- I understand, win or lose, that [daughters] Sasha and Malia get a dog...But of them is allergic to the dog...How are they holding up?
It was almost comical for Brown and Malveaux to repeat the move-forward talking points when the interview was finished, after it commanded the first half-hour of the program:
BROWN: Suzanne, this was a lengthy interview. You spent a lot of time with her. You guys covered a lot of ground. What did you find about her to be the most striking thing to you?
MALVEAUX: I think she's very determined. I think she really is very confident in her husband and their ability to move forward.
A lot of ground? CNN didn’t ask Mrs. Obama a single question about policy matters. It was all horse-race politics, scandal-dampening spin, and tired questions about how hard and nasty the campaign trail is.