Michelle, Ma Belle

Questions for Mrs. Obama

Wednesday night, Michelle Obama appeared on “Larry King Live.” It’s been a while since the missus had been around, and you would’ve expected King had many good questions stored up for her. You know, questions about the issues, about the campaign, about policy, about what the voters are telling her on the trail.

Or not.

From Larry King:

“Do you take offense to ‘that one’?”

“Did it in any way offend you?”

“How about you and he together, looking at television, and you see a commercial on the other side that really lambasts you?”

“Sarah Palin has been taking the role of attack dog in recent days. Here is an example (he plays the ‘palling around with terrorists’ clip) and we’ll get a comment. That don’t get you mad?”

“When someone calls and she’s running for vice president that your husband associates with terrorists, it’s got to upset you, I think.”

“So you bear her no umbrage?

The Tennessean is quoting Cindy McCain saying your husband is running the dirtiest campaign in American history. Tell me have you no reaction to that….it doesn’t hurt you.”

So basically what King wanted was a good old-fashioned smackdown. Offense, offend, lambast, mad, upset, umbrage, reaction, hurt. Those are the key words of King’s questions. In fairness, he also asked Michelle Obama about how the kids and her husband are holding up, and, at the very bottom of the segment, what she wants to do as First Lady.

Is it going too far to say that relegating an interview with a woman to the “feelings” realm is sexist? Perhaps. But King hardly used his face-time with her to his advantage.

For example, he asked Mrs. Obama to respond to Palin’s Ayers sound bite, and then, as a follow-up, he asks, “Do you know William Ayers?” Jeez. Everyone already knows that they know each other. What the McCain campaign is trying to stir up a fuss about is the extent of their relationship.

Setting aside the point that the Ayers stuff is irrelevant, if King wants to ask the question in the first place, he needs to finish the thought and clarify the situation, instead of adding to the obfuscation at the core of what McCain is saying. The GOP contends not that Obama doesn’t acknowledge the relationship, but that the nature of the relationship is a mystery. So, let’s have. Ask a few more follow-up questions to set the record straight.

These follow-up questions, it should be noted, need not be adversarial, regarded as an attack or a gotcha. Simply alluding to the Ayers charge allows the campaign talking point to hang in the air. Aha! They do know each other. But how? This was undoubtedly a ball dropped.

On The Daily Show, where Mrs. Obama also appeared on Wednesday night, Jon Stewart tried to get her to plot the Ayers-Obama relationship as a point on a bizarro Cartesian graph:

On a scale, palling around with terrorist, William Ayers, in terms of the relationship with the Obama family, between the polls of family ski vacations with the Ayers, and nodding to him while jogging, what is the relationship-—is it strange to have this guy thrown out there? Is there a real relationship?

Let’s be clear. I’m not holding King and Stewart to the same standards of journalistic excellence. I’m just saying, we’re still talking around the Ayers stuff, but we’re not actually talking about it.

Candidates sometimes try to be glib and dismissive when it comes to the opposition’s claims in order to diminish the power of the charge. And in this case, the Ayers allegation is an undoubtedly empty one. But by raising the specter of Ayers without following through and setting the record straight, King is complicit in the McCain campaign strategy.

Instead of trying to get Michelle Obama to admit that she’s hurt by the attacks hurled at her husband—yeah, it probably does bother her, but so what?—King had an opportunity to make the interview about something meaningful. At the end, the interview perfectly achieved the McCain camp’s goal: to keep the Ayers name floating around. King had a chance to advance the story, the squash the rumor, to set the record straight. That didn’t happen, and viewers should bear him umbrage because of it.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.