Michelle Obama is not the only First Lady to appear on prime-time TV

Anyone remember Nancy Reagan's turn on Diff'rent Strokes? Jaime Weinman has the video proof

Nikki Finke’s gets a lot of traffic when it’s linked by the Drudge Report, and you can usually tell which posts are linked: they’re the ones where the commenters proclaim the reason nobody watches NBC is because of its relentless liberal agenda. But sometimes Finke herself writes like she agrees with these commenters – or is at least trying to empathize with them – and never more so than on Oscar night when she was one of the first to criticize the show for having Michelle Obama on:

As if Hanoi Jane weren’t fuel enough. Oh My God – the Academy actually fans the fire by drafting First Lady Michelle Obama to help present Best Picture from presumably the White House? So unnecessary and inappropriate to inject so much politics into the Oscars yet again. Hollywood will get pilloried by conservative pundits for arranging this payoff for all the campaign donations it gave the President’s re-election campaign. I don’t understand this very obvious attempt to infuriate right-leaning audiences. Clearly the studios only want to sell their movies to only half of America. And here I’d thought Spielberg had overreached at the Golden Globes by bringing Bill Clinton onstage…

I wasn’t even sure if she means it seriously or is just trying to get some link-bait, but it doesn’t make sense either way. I’m all for Hollywood not being out of touch with half the country, but this does not apply to the First Lady, who is married to the president of the whole country. More importantly, the number of people who would be infuriated by the mere presence of an Obama on their TV screens is not the same as the number of people who didn’t vote for Obama. It’s a much, much smaller number.

In a way, it’s quite condescending to “right-leaning audiences” in general to assume that they would be enraged. It’s actually a very small subset of the audience that would be enraged, and while the producers must consider the feelings of the broad public, they can’t consider the feelings of every small subset. It’s like having Nixon on Laugh-In: if it had made Democrats and liberals stop watching the show, it would have been a bad idea, but no one had any reason to believe that most Democrats or liberals would abandon the show because of one cameo, and they didn’t. I think Finke is confusing everyday right-leaning people with some of her more vocal commenters.

Anyway, as many people have pointed out, other first ladies have been as media-friendly as Mrs. Obama, particularly Nancy Reagan, whose famous appearance on Diff’rent Strokes was accused of being a politically charged appearance; like most first ladies, she appeared to plug one of her signature issue, but the issue of illegal drugs is more politicized than, say, literacy (though as we’ve seen, anything can be made into a political issue if you squint hard enough). Anyway, I don’t think the episode drove liberal viewers away or got NBC a lot of accusations of being a right-wing propaganda factory. People are just not that sensitive to every guest and every issue raised on a television show.

Another famous appearance by a Republican First Lady – albeit a liberal Republican First Lady probably more likely to annoy conservatives than liberals by her presence – was Betty Ford as the punchline to a Mary Tyler Moore episode. The story behind this one was supposedly that the person on the phone at the end was supposed to be Gerald Ford, the President (the person it would be most impressive for Lou to know). But because it was an election year, CBS was worried that putting the President on one of their scripted shows would get them in trouble with the FCC over equal-time rules. So the producers turned to Betty Ford, whose appearance would not run afoul of the FCC. It would have been a better punchline with the President, but then again it wasn’t one of the stronger episodes of the season. Though it did help to kick-start the careers of two writers who would become very important in sitcom history: the producers didn’t like the original script, by two freelancers, so they gave it to two young writers named Glen Charles and Les Charles and told them to rewrite the whole thing from page one (they got a special “story consultant” credit at the end for it).

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