During last month’s season finale of "Parks and Recreation," small town government geek Leslie Knope turned the opposite of tongued-tied when she unexpectedly ran into Michelle Obama. "I’m sorry I’m talking so loud!" Leslie bellowed. “I’m getting louder now and I can’t stop!”
Obama didn't raise her voice as she encouraged Leslie to take a National Parks Service post. Unlike Amy Poehler's overenthusiastic Leslie, Obama didn't need to shout.
The First Lady is being heard loud and clear via her increasingly frequent TV gigs, which soon will grow with cameos on ABC's "Nashville" (Wednesday) and Disney Channel's "Jesse" (May 16). While her husband has logged more entertainment program appearances – from "The Tonight Show" to "Mythbusters" – than any sitting president, the First Lady is building an impressive IMDB listing of her own.
Michelle Obama, who famously "mom danced" with Jimmy Fallon last year, is putting her own spin on being First Lady in this quickly evolving media age – and just might be setting the stage for her post-White House public life.
Obama is sometimes compared to Jacqueline Kennedy, who took the nation on a televised tour of the redecorated White House in 1962, a landmark event in the relatively early days of TV. But three decades earlier Eleanor Roosevelt, as a radio voice and syndicated newspaper columnist, began transforming the role of first lady amid the growth of mass communications.
The extent of that role has varied from administration to administration, proving a product of personality, ambition and the times.
Lady Bird Johnson overcame shyness to become an effective speechmaker. Betty Ford overcame addiction and bravely shared her story with the world. Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most divisive First Lady of her lifetime, overcame much animus to become a U.S. senator, a secretary of state and the most talked about possible 2016 presidential candidate.
Michelle Obama's goals are unknown beyond her causes. She used her “Parks and Recreation” appearance to plug her “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity. Her “Nashville” and “Jesse” stints are built around her promotion of support for U.S. troops and military families. Obama surrounded herself with armed forces members last year during a surprise live-stream from the White House when she announced “Argo” as the Best Picture winner.
That moment sparked some criticism, and Obama has her share of detractors. But, as evidenced in part by her popularity as a TV guest, she seems to appeal to many – whether while doing “The Dougie” with Fallon or lampooning her health conscious image during Saturday's White House Correspondents’ Association dinner gag reel in which she gorged on ice cream.
Obama, at least from her TV persona, displays perhaps the most valuable trait of a public figure: a sense of humor. As the First Lady’s media career expands, revisit her most notable television – and Internet – moment as she helps Fallon trace the evolution of “Mom Dancing”:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.