On The Tonight Show, Michelle Obama Cements a Legacy of Empathy

One of the final stops on the first lady’s farewell tour found her cheering, commiserating, and giving many, many hugs.

Andrew Lipovsky / NBC

In late November of 1963, the journalist Teddy White traveled to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, to meet with a young woman who had just been made a widow. White made the trip to profile Jackie Kennedy, to tell her story of resilience and mourning to a nation in need of hope; what soon became clear, however, was that the woman in question had other ideas about the story White would write. The piece he would publish in Life magazine would be about Jackie—that’s what the public wanted—but it would be more essentially, she insisted, about her husband and his legacy. White complied. He wrote the rough draft of that story; Jackie herself edited it into its role as a rough draft of history. The piece about Jackie ultimately ran under the title “For President Kennedy: An Epilogue,” and it established the myth—Jackie saw to it—that her husband would be remembered not just as a fallen hero, but also as, for too brief a time, the leader of Camelot.

Michelle Obama, Jackie’s heir as first lady, is similarly engaged in purposeful myth-making as her tenure in the role draws to a close. And she is similarly savvy about the ways the American media can assist in that effort. Obama’s farewell notably differs from her predecessor’s—not just in the circumstances of her departure, but in, perhaps more significantly, the aim of their legacy-building: The legacy she is building is hers. Obama, in her recent media appearances—in a soaring speech, in a fantastic interview with Oprah—hasn’t merely been burnishing her husband’s place in history. She has been establishing her own.

On Wednesday Obama appeared, for her final time as first lady, on The Tonight Show—the program’s only guest for the evening save for Stevie Wonder, who had been invited on to serenade her with a modified “My Michelle, Amour.” The hour—which included, among other segments, a standard at-desk interview, a game of Catchphrase, and a set piece that found Obama and Fallon writing thank-you notes—was one of cheerful elegy. It was, overall, a loving tribute to the first lady and her many accomplishments in the role.

It was also an episode-long endorsement not just of Obama’s legacy, but of the politics of empathy she has embraced during her time in the White House. Jackie Kennedy may have brought glamour to the people’s house, determinedly insisting on America’s significance not just as a geopolitical power, but as a cultural force; Obama may herself have been an icon of style, but she insisted that glamour isn’t enough. She advocated for kids, and for their education, and for their health. She spoke up for military families. She gave hugs, with abandon. She cared, out loud.

Her Tonight Show appearance celebrated—and codified—all of that. So it was appropriate that the most striking segment of the hour found Obama interacting directly with her fans. Fallon, playing an extremely 2017 version of Teddy White, had arranged a set-up in which citizens could tell Obama, via a pre-recorded message, what she has meant to them—professionally, personally, as a role model. The first lady would then, as the people concluded their messages, emerge from behind a curtain to surprise them with her presence. Shock, and hugs, and tears, and so many feels, ensued.

What also ensued, however, was a legacy being bolstered, sentence by sentence, by the people who have benefited from it.

“Because of you,” one woman told Obama, “I know that my race does not define who I am or what I can accomplish. For years, you have shown our nation countless times, that through dignity, compassion, and respect, we can overcome any hardships.”

Another: “First Lady Michelle Obama, thank you for making me a more confident woman. You have helped me and inspired me to walk in my purpose.”

Another: “I feel the same way about you that I feel about the best teachers I’ve ever had.”

Another: “You’re all class, and a total inspiration to all of us…. it was amazing to see a woman with your strength and kindness and just amazingness could have fun on camera. And we’re gonna miss you so much.”

First ladies, like their husbands, reflect their times. Jackie Kennedy’s was an age when women were thought of largely as accessories to men, and were loved, generally, at a distance. (One of the final scenes in Jackie, the 2016 film that tells the story of her interactions with Teddy White, finds the young widow gazing on a series of mannequins that have been styled to mimic her.) Michelle Obama has embraced glamour, too (those dresses!); she, too, has had a tenure of inspiring images. As her appearance on The Tonight Show made clear, though, her legacy, as befits her times, will be defined much more by her work—by her advocacy for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and by, finally, her insistence on empathy. As one man put it on Wednesday in his video message to Obama, before she emerged from the curtain to surprise him with a hug: “The thread that runs through your speeches is kindness. Always kindness.”