Michelle Obama's unnecessary Oscar moment

  • First lady Michelle Obama, appearing on screen from Washington, and actor Jack Nicholson present the award for best picture during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The moment Michelle Obama appeared at the Oscars, the surprise guest at the end of a long and listless night, a collective groan reportedly went through the Dolby Theater media room.

On my East Coast couch, I felt the same dismay: Did they really have to go there? Because everyone knew what was coming next. By Monday morning, the right-wing punditocracy had declared this a national tragedy: wholly inappropriate, brazenly political, proof that the White House is self-serving and elitist and in Hollywood's pocket, or vice versa.

OK, deep breath.

First of all, there is no great standard for "appropriate" at the Academy Awards (which, I suppose, is a defense of Seth MacFarlane as host). This is an evening for wealthy people to name-check their agents while modeling plastic surgery techniques. Beyonc?WC1> could lip-synch here, and no one would care.

Besides, the First Lady's statement was so carefully vetted and depoliticized that it left nothing to actually criticize: Something about the arts being good and movies making us laugh and cry and inspiring our nation's youth. Singer Shirley Bassey, warning young women about the dangers of rich, cold men, was twice as relevant and 10 times more exciting.

On the other hand, given the lack of an agenda to promote or political points to be won, the FLOTUS appearance seemed like unnecessary bait, proof that the White House has tone-deafness problems of its own.

It's easy to see why the White House jumped when Oscar producers came calling. The billion-viewer platform was surely irresistible; Republicans have used it, too, when offered the chance. Ronald Reagan taped a message to the Oscars in 1981. Laura Bush had a cameo in an Oscar-telecast video in 2002.

Obama's trouble was agreeing to be the highlight of the ceremony, the super-secret guest with the most important role in Hollywood's Most Important Night.

It was an odd bad call for a woman who has proven surprisingly good at selling herself. Being first lady is a thankless job — you're supposed to be substantive without projecting too much substance, powerful without projecting too much power — but Obama has managed, better than most, to harness the celebrity for her own purposes. She champions good causes (and, really, somone's going to get upset about nutrition?). She champions fashion; US Weekly quickly reported that her Oscar dress was by Naeem Khan. She dishes with Rachael Ray about her midlife-crisis bangs and mom-dances with Jimmy Fallon.

Usually, she manages a nifty trick: Looking glamorous, but not distant. This is, in fact, the same trick the Oscar ceremony tries to pull off every year, but usually fails, because too many participants get caught up in their own hype.

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