Michelle Obama Wows Journalists at G-20 Summit

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009

The woman accompanying the president of the United States to London "has already created a sensation," Diane Sawyer observes.

"Everybody in Europe is enthralled by her," Meredith Vieira says.

"Millions of people are just watching Michelle Obama, wondering what she will wear, wondering where she will show up next," Brian Williams reports.

President Obama may be grappling with a global economic crisis and Russian arms control, but his wife has clearly stolen the show.

"She's a real breath of fresh air," CBS anchor Katie Couric said yesterday by phone from London. "I think Michelle Obama is very modern, very of-the-moment, and people want to get to know her better. She reaches out. She's a beautiful woman, stylish without being pretentious."

Oh, and have we mentioned her wardrobe? An MSNBC headline Wednesday morning announced: "Mrs. Obama Wearing a J.Crew Ensemble for First Events Today."

The Michelle gush-a-thon is growing louder by the day. To be sure, she is a fascinating first lady with a 76 percent approval rating in this week's Washington Post-ABC News poll. And presidents' wives tend to get softer coverage, at least when they're not put in charge of health-care reform. If they're dealing with swing sets and china, instead of swing districts and China, they generally hover above the fray.

But this first lady has generated endless media chatter about everything from her sleeveless dresses to her vegetable garden, which landed on the front page of the New York Times. And she has a disarming candor, telling the Times that she doesn't like her husband questioning her about her clothes: "It's like, Why don't you mind your own business? Solve world hunger. Get out of my closet.''

But this week's coverage has an over-the-top feel. If we didn't know Obama flew abroad on Air Force One, we might suspect she had walked across the Atlantic. The European trip has boosted her to an even more rarefied zone, with pundits debating whether she was wrong to have breached protocol by throwing an arm lightly around Queen Elizabeth II.

"I find it odd that President Obama goes to Europe and all the reporting I'm hearing is about how Michelle looks in J.Crew," says Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. "I feel like I'm drowning in it." For American reporters, he says, "if she's wowing the British press, that's the story. Don't tell me how cool you think she is."

Are journalists in danger of exhausting their supply of superlatives? NBC's Dawna Friesen noted "her Ivy League education and relaxed, easy charm. . . . She's been hailed by the fashion press as a modern-day Jacqueline Kennedy."

Couric reported that "all of Britain seems to be embracing America's new first lady," before tossing to a CBS piece on the Brits being gobsmacked that Obama doesn't carry a handbag.

The blogosphere is equally aflame. On the morning of the Buckingham Palace visit, Tina Brown wrote on the Daily Beast: "The excitement British women feel . . . is spiked with awe. She's so big-time. So self-confident. So devoid of rainy, British diffidence. In a country where most political wives and female members of Parliament are the stylistic equivalent of a tufted ottoman, Michelle's kind of striding self-assurance, glamour, and broad demographic appeal feels thrillingly 21st-century. The fact that she's African American adds an inspirational magic."

In a breathless account, the Chicago Tribune reported: "Changing into an elegant black-and-white Isabel Toledo dress from springy J.Crew pieces Wednesday in London, first lady Michelle Obama showcased her versatility and officially became one of the fab four of the political fashion world in the modern era -- joining Jacqueline Kennedy, French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Princess Diana." Formidable company indeed.

The New York Post struck a contrarian note, saying Obama met the queen in "her office sweater. . . .Britain's sovereign looked fresh and spring-like in a pink dress, but Mrs. Obama, grin notwithstanding, looked more like she was on her way to a funeral."

The British press shed its customary snark. The Daily Mail said Obama "practically shimmered in the early morning sunlight," while the Evening Standard offered a culinary comparison: "Her mint green shantung silk skirt, sparkly silver mules and cute little sequin-speckled $298 (£207) cardie by US high street chain J.Crew were the equivalent of a granola fresh fruit plate: full of texture, with a dose of healthy colour on top. In contrast, Sarah Brown's ruffle-fronted dress . . . was perfectly smart, but about as exciting as a bowl of corn flakes."

The delicious coverage continued yesterday when Obama spoke of her upbringing on Chicago's South Side and CNN asked its hyperactive London correspondent, Richard Quest, for his reaction: "Michelle Obama is an absolutely extraordinary woman in an extraordinarily ordinary way. . . . She's taken the city by storm."

This is not yet finis. The French press gets its chance today.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company