CNN's Gushing Coverage of the Obamas' Presidential Portraits

February 12th, 2018 12:52 PM

On the tenth anniversary of Chris Matthews’ “thrill up the leg” comment with regards to then-candidate Barack Obama, the media’s coverage of Obama has not changed very much even in his post-Presidency. It remains overwhelmingly positive. 

CNN Newsroom spent nearly the entire 10:00 a.m. ET hour Monday morning gushing over the release of the Obamas’ presidential portraits that will hang at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Based on the media’s coverage, the portraits definitely gave members of the media a collective thrill up the leg.



Just minutes before the unveiling of Michelle Obama’s portrait, CNN reporter Kate Bennett began the love-fest by saying “this is probably the most anticipated unveiling of presidential portraits and first lady portraits that we’ve had so far to date.” She also praised the “underlying hint” of social justice that artist Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, generally tends to include in her work.

After the reveal of Michelle Obama’s portrait, host John Berman brought in Matt Pfizer, Alice Stewart and Brian Fallon. The whole trio had nothing but kind words for Michelle Obama’s portrait. Stewart, who has apparently become one of the media’s favorite Republicans, said that she disagreed when the former first lady said that “she had a small part in the success of the administration.” Stewart went one step further, saying that “she had a huge part in the success of this administration.”

The love-fest took another brief recess when the former President took the podium as his presidential portrait was unveiled. After remarks from former President Obama, the love-fest quickly resumed. Matt Pfizer pointed out “the history of being in that room, with all the white presidents. The history of having, we forget sometimes, you know, the first African-American President, and the portrait is, is unique and fitting as well.”

Throughout the entire hour, the panelists, as well as the Obamas themselves, made sure to mention the historical significance of the Obama presidency. 

The day will come when President Trump will have his own portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. He can only dream of equally fawning media coverage. He would find himself lucky if the media even bothered to take a break from regularly scheduled programming to cover the unveiling of the portraits.  

Here is a transcript of the February 12 coverage:

CNN Newsroom


10:08 AM ET

JOHN BERMAN: Happening right now, the Obamas, back on the public stage. You’re looking at live pictures. This is the unveiling of their official portraits that will hang inside the national gallery. CNN’s Kate Bennett standing by with what we’re seeing now. Kate?

KATE BENNETT: So John, this is probably the most anticipated unveiling of Presidential portraits and first lady portraits that we’ve had so far to date. The Obamas picked really contemporary artists to paint their portraits for Former President Barack Obama’s painting. He chose Kehinde Wiley, who depicts mainly African-American men in poses of the old masters. So he juxtaposes contemporary culture with very formal, sort of heroic poses. So here we’re seeing Michelle Obama come to the stage. She selected the woman there in the glasses, Amy Sherald, a Baltimore-based painter whose also famous for her depictions of African-Americans. And here comes the former President, Barack Obama. So clearly not know, we’re anxious to see them but the art world has really been very anxious to see these very different presidential portraits.

BERMAN: I think you bring up a great point here, Kate. And again, as we’re watching this live unfold before our very eyes here, it’s an interesting political moment because we just don’t hear from the former President and first lady all that much, particularly not in Washington, D.C., just down the street from The White House. But artistically, this is fascinating. These are likely to be very different kinds of official portraits. And it will be very interesting to see.

BENNETT: We’re so used to seeing portraits that look life-like, right? Like the goal of portraits is to look exactly like the person. We saw that in George Bush, we saw that in the Clintons. And this is going to be very different. Kahinda Wily paints with big sort of wallpaper backgrounds and bold colors and Amy Sherald paints her portraits, the skin of her, her subjects, she paints in gray scale, she says it’s to remove the color of her subjects so we see them just as the people they are. So there’s an underlying hint there of social justice as well. As you said, this is really going to be a very, a marked diffference in these Presidential portraits that will hang in the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington.

BERMAN: All right, Kate, stand by. What we’re going to do here is we are going to take a quick break. When we come back, we will see these portraits for the very first time and we will also hear from the Former President and Former First Lady. We don’t hear from them much. So this will be fascinating. Stick around.

10:27 AM ET

BERMAN: You’ve been listening to Michelle Obama, the former first lady, at the unveiling of her official portrait. Her first reaction was wow, wow, when she saw it. It is a fascinating, beautiful work of art by the artist Amy Sherard you’re looking at right there, who paints in gray tones when she has African-American subjects. She likes to say it’s her subversive comment on race and she gets to include the viewer as well in that comment. Look at that right there. Joining me now to talk about this and the news of the day, Matt Pfizer, Alice Stewart and Brian Fallon. Alice, you know, first to you, Michelle Obama noted she’s the first person in her family who’s ever had a portrait that will hang in the national gallery. I think, I think all of us could say the same thing about that. She also noted the fact that, that young girls, particularly girls of color, can now go to the National Gallery, look up and see someone who looks like them hanging on the walls there.

ALICE STEWART: And that’s a tremendous legacy for her to have and one thing that I disagree with what she said, she said she had a small part in the success of the administration. She had a huge part in the success of this administration with her program she worked on herself, and also the support that she gave to the President was, was just tremendous. And, and I think it is phenomenal that they had someone to paint them, someone that they were comfortable with, someone that they know would capture who they were. I was involved in the portrait process for Governor Huckabee and Nancy Harris was the artist and she followed us around for, for, for quite some time and virtually moved to Little Rock to get the painting done and it’s a very personal process. And it was great to hear Michelle Obama talk about how they were able to have this rapport, which really comes out in the portrait. It’s a, it’s really beautiful painting.

BERMAN: You know, Brian Fallon, like all of us, because we cover so much politics, I was listening very carefully to see if there was any subtle message that the former first lady would make there. And I did pick up on one sentence and really one sentence only. She said, as we sit here today, we have a lot more work to do. She was saying, I wonder if in the context of what we’re seeing in Washington today, she was trying to send a message there.

BRIAN FALLON: I don’t know, John. I think if, even if Hillary Clinton were President today, I think she might have the same observation because I think the Obamas throughout the eight years of the historic Presidency were always well aware that as huge and historic a step as Barack Obama’s election represented, the country still has a ways to go with tackling the problem of institutional racism. And so I think that it’s, it’s always refreshing to see the Obamas out there. It’s a reminder that we don’t need to live like this. We don’t need to be part of this white knuckled existence where every day we wake up to some new headache. And it’s a reminder that we can have a President and first lady we as a country regardless of party are proud of and that carry themselves with grace and dignity and a sense of purpose. So, It’s always refreshing to see them out there. They have purposefully, I think, kept a low profile because they’re not, they’re trying to abide by the precedent of letting the next person do the job. But I think some of the commentary there is unspoken with just the way they present themselves.

10:46 AM ET

BERMAN: Listening to President Obama at the official unveiling of his portrait that will hang in the national gallery. The artist there is Kehinde Wiley, who does, as the former President noted, like to elevate his subjects, paint people in more classic heroic settings, although with Former President Obama, he chose to paint him sitting in front of greenery, I should say. President Obama did something that, that all husbands and sons-in-law perhaps should do, which is to remark openly and quickly about the hotness of his wife and his mother-in-law in the speech, as, as he was commenting on former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait. I’m joined again by Brian Fallon, Matt Pfizer and Alice Stewart. And Matt, I’m going to start with you only because of the outpouring on Twitter the last ten minutes or so after the unveiling of the President’s portraits. A lot of different interpretations of the former President sitting where he was in front of what he was. Your take, which I happen to read sir.

MATT PFIZER: Yeah, I mean, it is unique. And there’s been a, some commentary of this being the White Sox fan in front of Wrigley at Wrigley Field. You know, the green tapestry in the back of Wrigley. You know, it’s different, it’s unique. And I think the history of this being in that room, with all the white Presidents. The history of having, we forget sometimes, you know, the first African-American President, and the portrait is, is unique and fitting as well. So I mean I think it, it stands out. And it is something that the President and the first lady both seem to like their, their paintings; which is important.

BERMAN: I will note there will be official portraits that will hang inside the White House as well. Jeff Zeleny, our friend, White House reporter, points out that these may be more informal, the ones that will hang in the White House will almost surely be more formal. Alice, Brian, Matt, thanks so much for being with us. I know, a little different take than we normally get here. And Brian, I will only note, as a Democrat, a former campaign official and Democratic official, your smile the whole time you’re watching President Obama, the former first lady was notable in and of itself. Matt, Alice, Brian, thanks so much.