To be sure, the applause for First Lady Michelle Obama was rapturous when she walked out onto The Late Show With Stephen Colbert stage Monday night.
When it finally ended, Colbert said, “George Clooney didn’t get that. You’re the biggest superstar we’ve had on the show so far.”
“It’s an honor to be here,” said Mrs. Obama, dutifully.
She was wearing black pants, heels, and a strange peplum top, with Picasso-like painterly scrawls and streaks of color splashed across it. It looked like a fussily designed child’s bib.
As shown in his interview with Donald Trump last week—which culminated with Colbert apologizing to Trump for making fun of him for so many years—Colbert was again on his best, almost too-obsequious behavior.
We had been warned before he took over Letterman’s chair that the Colbert of CBS late night would be different from the “Colbert” of The Colbert Report, who was an act. Of course he would be different, he would be more “himself.”
Colbert fans may be missing Colbert the “act,” on the strength of his blunted political-world interviews so far.
With Mrs. Obama, Colbert chummily noted that the last time they had seen each other was at a state dinner for the French president. He hadn’t heard much from her since then, the host deadpanned.
Well, he’d been busy, had this new show to do, and she really liked his wife, Mrs. Obama deadpanned back.
The story went on and on—of interest only to them.
Colbert has joined the establishment: When any interviewer seeks to ingratiate themselves with their interviewee above their job of asking questions, digging for dish, or at least talking about things a watching audience might care about—when they lapse into anecdote-sharing about their glamorous world—the nation rolls its eyes as one.
Anyway, it turned out Colbert and Mrs. Obama were sitting next to each other at the state dinner, and his wife told him not to blow it by being ill-mannered.
He hoped he hadn’t.
No, Mrs. Obama said, he was charming. (Yes, really, mwah, mwah.)
The French president had a lot of “debonairness” in such a small package, Colbert said.
“You said that,” said Mrs. Obama, smiling but aware that one false verbal move could and would be used against her and her husband in the roiling, toxic Petri dish of the Internet.
If he was obsequious, she, while warm, was wary of treading on any sensitive ground. The closest they got was when Colbert asked Mrs. Obama if there was anything left on her “bucket list” before she left the White House.“Girls’ education is the kind of work Barack and I want to do long after we leave the White House,” she said. “I also want to do things like open a window. I want to go to Target.”
The audience laughed.
“I can’t open windows,” Mrs. Obama said. Her security detail gets nervous if one of the car windows suddenly goes down. As a treat, she was allowed to have them open five minutes before arriving at Camp David one day.
Laura Bush had left her a letter, Colbert said. If we have a female president next, would Mrs. Obama leave her husband a letter?
Mrs. Obama said she would.“I would say, ‘Follow your passion, just be you,’” she replied very safely.
“I think he does,” Colbert said, to roaring laughter from those imagining Bill Clinton’s famously philandering past.
“I think he would,” she replied, flashing a smile at Colbert and chuckling as he clenched his fist in a display of mock-virility.
“I mean that in the best possible way,” Colbert said hurriedly.
“I didn’t say… I’m just sitting here,” Mrs. Obama said, washing her hands of the germs of innuendo.
“I never met Carly Fiorina’s husband, but I imagine…” said Colbert, swiftly digging himself out of a non-hole.
Like any other celebrity, FLOTUS was selling something—the chumminess was merely throat-clearing. They had also seen each other at the Global Citizen Festival, Colbert said, where his issue was girls’ education around the world.
As it was Mrs. Obama’s this very evening: Her latest campaign, Let Girls Learn, is rooted in the damning statistic that 62 million girls were not in school. These were girls she said, just like American girls, who have “promise, potential, drive, and hunger,” but are denied the opportunities to capitalize on them.
Mrs. Obama cited the brave and brilliant example of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history, who—Colbert joked—did card tricks, too.
The campaign has a hashtag, #62MillionGirls, but what was the point of telling the public about it? What could we do? Mrs. Obama said it was imperative to “shine a light” on the topic, and it was necessary to do more work in developing countries to help girls without access to education.
Fine, but surely the tougher questions are ensuring that the governments in those countries are doing right by their young women—even if we share the hashtag, and tweet and Instagram until our fingernails splinter to nothing, the real issue here is the most vicious, entrenched patriarchies suppressing women and their daughters’ right to education and freedom of expression.
But Colbert didn’t ask such questions, or raise such thorny matters. Once you’ve got a hashtag, all discussion is rendered asinine in the self-indulgent exercise of maximizing your own social media presence.
And so, we’re told to use the hashtag to answer one question: What had we learned in school?
Again, how on earth does this practically and effectively help young women being denied education here and abroad?
The question went unasked. Mrs. Obama said the campaign was about raising awareness—a phrase that, if not banned, should at least be interrogated fully whenever it is lazily voiced—and to “reignite the hunger for education here.”
Well again, if we “re-ignite the hunger for education,” and encourage young people to pursue academic excellence and go to college, how does America balance that venerable aim with the years of student loan debt these young people are then inevitably saddled with?
Again, all unasked, and unconsidered. We were on Platitude Planet.She had grown up on Chicago’s South Side, Mrs. Obama said, but had parents who believed in education and pushed her; having that, or a teacher who was a helping hand, was the only difference between her and someone less fortunate. Mrs. Obama went to a “magnet school,” a college prep school. Mrs. Obama said she wants to make sure all girls progress beyond high school, and her passion and commitment appear genuine. Kids don’t know the advantages they have, she said. Well, some do and some don’t, some don’t use their advantages properly, and some don’t want the future she imagines for them. That is utterly separate from the plight of young women in regimes seeking to deny their education.
An American girl may be exercising a choice that displeases Mrs. Obama, but a girl living in a country whose regime denies her access to education has no choice in the first place. Comparing the two is fallacious.
Alongside her use of the hashtag, Mrs. Obama wrote: “In school, I learned how to speak up for myself.”
Colbert’s was that he had learned how to pretend to have read Moby Dick.
Mrs. Obama expressed concern about girls dropping out of education in this country, but said “girls around the world would die to have the opportunities you have here.”
Maybe, but by conflating both experiences, and shaming the undirected here, you don’t improve either situation. A revolution in girls’ education provision here and abroad requires tough questions to be asked about parenting, financing, patriarchy—and yet the substance of Mrs. Obama’s latest campaign seems to be mushy, indistinct, “go girl” cheerleading.
Colbert prepared to say farewell to “Mrs. First Lady,” then laughed at his own over-courtliness, saying he was starstruck.
“Call me Michelle… it’s my name,” said Mrs. Obama, with a shrug as if to say she was totally normal.
But of course she isn’t, but Colbert wasn’t going to question her on that, or indeed anything with a bit of grit in the pearl.Some would argue late night isn’t the arena for difficult questions or challenging topics, and so to be irritated at these softball exercises is a waste of frustration.
Growingly, however, late night is the choice for top politicians and public figures to connect directly to the public whose votes or approval (or both) they desire. Right now, it is one of the few arenas where these figures can and should be asked to explain themselves.
Late night’s hosts, caught between trying to make news and send their audiences to sleep with a smile, don’t know how to shoulder this bizarre responsibility.
The result is becoming something altogether too cozy and safe, and enough—when considering the diminishing art of the TV interview, happening before your eyes—to give you nightmares.