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Category: Politics, Race/Ethnicity

Michelle Obama Wows the Critics

| August 26, 2008

Michelle Obama talked about parents who struggle to make sure their children can get a share of the American dream. She talked about every-day principles of life, taught by parents and grandparents and passed on to the next generation.

She filled in the blanks about herself for millions of Americans—and wowed the commentators as well as those at the Democratic convention Monday evening.

Conservatives fell over themselves to praise her, including former presidential candidate and conservative TV critic Pat Buchanan, who said that rather than “an angry militant, she came across as a smiling mom.” 

That, of course, referred not just to some controversial Michelle quotes early in the primaries but to the sardonic New Yorker magazine cover that featured her—with an Afro, in combat boots, a machine gun slung over her shoulder—in the Oval Office sharing a power-knuckle rap with Barack Obama in Muslim garb. The cover, which wrapped together all the “horribles” critics could envision with an Obama team in the White House, came out just as Obama triumphed over Hillary Clinton in the down-to-the-wire primary elections.

The controversial cover was supposed to satirize increasing attacks on both Michelle and Barack Obama as “not one of us.” One conservative talk show host had justified raising questions about Michelle Obama by asking, with incredulity, “ARE there any non-angry black women?”

The Tennessee Republican Party sanctioned ads in its primary last spring that alleged Michelle was unpatriotic after a comment about heavy turnout early in the primaries. She said that “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”

That was enough, for the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha. AKA international President Barbara A. McKinzie denounced the Tennessee GOP ad, racism on internet chat rooms and slurs by conservative pundits. She said distortions of Michelle’s comments to imply she is unpatriotic send a polarizing message that stokes “historical racial prejudice. We must snuff out the embers of racial fear that the ad attempts to ignite.”

The AKA’s centennial convention this summer coincided with publication of the New Yorker. One delegate, Michelle Johnson of Chicago, said she recognized “a lot of silent messages” embedded in the portrayal of the Obamas but was especially offended about the images of Michelle: “that hairstyle…the weapon behind her back. It was like a 1970s movie.”

Johnson, a former educator who owns an international wellness company, predicted that the attacks on Michelle might backfire, energizing many voters who aren’t political junkies and hadn’t kept up with the day-to-day campaign warfare.

“It takes these others to say ‘enough is enough.’ So, in actuality, it might turn out to be in Obama’s favor.”

That may be playing out now. At an early August tenants-rights meeting in Washington, D.C., activist Linda Leaks passed out fliers urging people to send postcards in support of Michelle that specifically would “reject anti-black, anti-woman attacks.”

The Democratic convention offered Michelle Obama a chance to re-introduce herself to the country and she rose to the occasion and then some.

One commentator called her “authentic.” Another said it was an “extraordinary speech” resonant of other black women pioneers who broke barriers politically, including Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Shirley Chisholm. A presidential historian said many spouse-of speeches fall short but hers soared and she succeeded in showing some segments of the U.S. population that “if Obama is not one of us, he’s a lot more like us than we knew.”

Michelle recalled meeting Obama when he was a community organizer working with people whose jobs had disappeared, who wanted work but found no jobs. He urged them to “believe in ourselves—to find the strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be. And isn't that the great American story?”

It was the story of her family, she said, and of Obama’s upbringing with a  single mom and supportive grandparents, but also the story “of men and women gathered in churches and union halls, in town squares and high school gyms—people who stood up and marched and risked everything they had—refusing to settle, determined to mold our future into the shape of our ideals.”

Because of their will and determination, she said, this week the country celebrates two anniversaries: “the 88th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, and the 45th anniversary of that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation.”

She praised the people she met on the campaign trail who work double shifts to make a better life for their families, “the military families who say grace each night with an empty seat at the table. The servicemen and women who love this country so much, they leave those they love most to defend it. The young people across America serving our communities—teaching children, cleaning up neighborhoods, caring for the least among us each and every day.”

And, she added, to the loudest applause of her speech, “people like Hillary Clinton, who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters—and sons—can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher.”

Some on-the-scene commentators said that might have provided some catharsis for the Hillary holdouts. They said many women were in tears as they heard Michelle speak.

But Michelle’s larger goal was to demonstrate how she and her husband grew up in working-class families who struggled to save so their kids could have a better life—and who passed on to those kids every-day rules of life.

“What struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he'd grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.

“And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values:

  • that you work hard for what you want in life
  • that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do
  • that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them.”

The Democratic crowd had been quiet, listening with rapt attention. As she finished that list of family values, a wave of applause swept the convention. It wasn’t a rah-rah convention cheer; it was an appreciation of what she had just said.

That, in itself, was an early indicator that she had succeeded.