A Sorry Situation

How do you contain a cable conflagration?

It was all too predictable, what happened after Cindy McCain on Tuesday riffed on Michelle Obama’s recent “proud of my country” comment. All too predictable.

No, not that Michelle Obama would end up having to clarify her original remarks—which she did Wednesday afternoon (turns out, she doesn’t hate America!)—to try to blunt the Republican attack-ad-in-the-making, to try to prevent the media’s dissection of her words for yet another news cycle.

What was all too predictable was what led up to Mrs. Obama’s clarification: how the press and punditry—particularly the Characters of Cable—reacted to Mrs. Obama’s comment (Specifically: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change…”) and Mrs. McCain’s counter-comment (“I’m proud of my country, I don’t know about you if you heard those words earlier. I’m very proud of my country.”)

Places, everyone! And…action!

Here was Fox News’ Sean Hannity Tuesday night:

This is in the country that has paid the price, the blood, the sweat, tears, the financial burden to beat back fascism, Nazism, imperial Japan, totalitarianism, the former Soviet Union, medical breakthroughs because of the greatness of America, the average American raises his family provides goods and services, and a standard of living second-to-none, and for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country only because my husband has a chance to be president? That is offensive. I think she owes America an apology.

And then, when she says she’s sorry, we on cable can cover that for at least another day or so! Was it sincere? Was it effective? Do we forgive her? Should America?

On MSNBC Pat Buchanan and Rachel Maddow had this exchange Tuesday night:

BUCHANAN: The average American is not offended? The average guy down at the American Legion Hall, seeing that, he’s not offended? The average guy coming back from Iraq? The first time she’s proud to be an American? I was proud when we stood up after 9/11.

MADDOW: Pat, I can hear the ads coming out of you right now. But honestly, the country does not look at Michelle Obama and think, wow, she hates the country.

On Tuesday night’s O’Reilly Factor, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly wondered, “Does Michelle Obama Dislike America?” O’Reilly was, charitably, “willing to give Mrs. Obama the benefit of the doubt if she wants that benefit… but again, Michelle Obama should be explaining herself.”

And then, when she explains, we on cable spend hours deciding whether her explanation suffices!

Here was another exchange on Fox News Tuesday night:

MORT KONDRACKE: This is a pattern to [Michelle Obama]. She is the downbeat to his upbeat…I mean, he has a totally different sensibility from hers. He has a positive, upbeat, optimistic sensibility.

BRIT HUME: Why wouldn’t the Clinton campaign jump on this?

FRED BARNES: Because they were letting the press handle it, and we’re doing it. So I don’t think they needed to do it.

HUME: Let me ask you this question — is this sort of a one-day deal and over, or are we going to hear more about Michelle Obama? Does [Barack Obama] need to say something?

JUAN WILLIAMS: He needs to say something or she needs to say something. They have to put out the fire.

Put out the fire? Just how do you contain a cable conflagration? As Fred Barnes said, the Clinton camp, if they had been so inclined, didn’t even need to fan the flames on this because the press is “doing it” for them.

On Wednesday, MSNBC and its stable of invited experts continued their musings on the matter.

MICHELLE COTTLE (The New Republic): Oh, this is a little too edgy. [Barack Obama] has been the candidate who is not scary, hope, change, and soaring rhetoric and his wife has always been a little bit more sent out there to be the hard-hitting, edgier sort of stuff but I think this is going to cause some problems if they don’t get out there in front of this and explain what she meant with that…

KAREN TUMULTY (Time): I actually—I would imagine that, you know, at this point, what’s sort of called for is some sort of explanation or even apology for that statement.

ANDREA MITCHELL: Isn’t it hard, though, for the Clinton people to raise this issue the way they have been raising other issues? You know, how do you have a conference call and attack the candidate’s wife?

COTTLE: Well, I think that they’ve had such scrutiny over Bill that I can see the talking points right now, Why does everything Bill say get parsed and everybody criticizes him and jumps on him and they don’t care what Michelle Obama says? I think they have a good case to try to bait the media into making a big deal out of it.

MITCHELL: It wouldn’t take too much to bait the media these days, especially talking about candidates’ spouses…

Mitchell is right: it doesn’t take too much to bait the media these days, and there’s no better chum to get reporters and pundits circling than a so-called spouse-on-spouse squabble. (Also, it’s interesting to notice how, when the Cable Characters refer somewhat derisively to the actions of “the media,” they act as though they themselves are not included.)

Yesterday, MSNBC’s First Read floated the following:

Speaking of spouses, anyone else getting flashbacks to Hillary Clinton ‘92 when hearing Michelle Obama make news and, well, speak her mind? We can hear the divisive whispers about her already and some of the critiques come across like the ones Republicans leveled at Hillary ‘92. Barack may be coated in the same Teflon Reagan and Bill Clinton soaked in during their campaigns, but like Nancy and Hillary, Michelle Obama may not be as lucky.

Michelle Obama is lucky, however, that Newsweek published its cover story about her just prior to this dustup. The cover line: “He Calls Her His Rock. The Real Michelle Obama.” Awww.

Had Newsweek run this piece after ProudOfMyCountryGate, it might have looked more like the magazine’s cover story on Teresa Heinz Kerry, the spouse of 2004’s Democratic presidential nominee. That cover line: “Is John Kerry’s Heiress Wife a Loose Canon or Crazy Like a Fox?”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.