Progressive Revival

obma michelle.jpgWives of politicans are supposed to cast light on a different side of their husbands.  In the tough and tumble world of politics where candidates are expected to be tough and unblinking, voters (according to conventional wisdom) want to be assured that the candidate has a softer, regular-guy side also. One that only his wife and children can prove that’s there. That’s what wives of political candidates are supposed to do when they speak on their husband’s behalf. That’s what Michelle Obama’s spectacular speech last night at the DNC was supposed to assure the American public: Barack Obama is a regular guy.

Michelle Obama played the age-old role of wife as character witness for a politically ambitious husband, in this case a husband with a strange last name and a dubious religious affiliation.   As for questions about her own character, Michelle Obama had to be her own character witness. Michelle Obama had to speak for Michelle Obama. And that she did last night, beautifully so. It was a proud moment for women in general, and African American women especially.

From her story about her proud stay-at-home mom Marian Robinson to that of her blue collar father Frasier Robinson who worked hard, suffered silently, and died much too soon from complications from mulitiple sclerosis. From the choice of her impeccable make-up and the color and cut of her dress which were all intended to soften her look, to her charming facial expressions and the gentle movement of her hands while speaking, Michelle Obama deftly took up the task of recasting herself for the sake of the her husband’s career. 

In her speech Michelle Obama had to dispel any suspicion Americans might have about her being an angry black woman. In her speech she had to debunk the stereotype some in the media have attached to her as sassy, opinionated and unpatriotic. In her speech she had to reassure jittery Americans that there’s no difference between Michelle and Barack Obama and their families of origin from that of the typical (white) American family.  She drew repeated parallels between the values she (and Barack) was raised with and those shared by average hard-working American families. Yes, we come from strong struggling mothers and fathers who instilled in us values and a strong work ethic. There is nothing to fear, we aren’t that different.

 But the most adorable, meta-laden, tone-setting line for Michelle Obama’s speech, in my opinion, was not spoken by Michelle Obama, but by her brother, basketball coach Craig Robingson, who introduced his sister by confiding that even though, as children they were only allowed to watch one hour of television Michelle was the one who managed to commit to memory every episode of “The Brady Bunch.” Not “The Adams Family. Not “Good Times.” Not “The Jeffersons.” And definitely, not “All in the Family.” 
I wish I could recall previous speeches by wives of former presidential candidates and presumptive nominees, but I can’t at this moment. Teresa Heinz Kerry. Tipper Gore. Hillary Clinton.  Laura Bush. Barbara Bush. Rosalyn Carter. (That’s as far back as my political memory goes.)  Blank. 

I’m sure each politician’s wife spoke well and said what she had to assure the American public that her husband brought to the job as nominee and to the office character and good, sound family values.  
Michelle Obama’s speech was no different from that of other wives of politicians. At the same time it was a lot different. Her own character as an African American woman was on the line as well. And that of millions of other women of color whom she represent.

Michelle Obama proved last night that she is warm, caring, confident, intelligent, well-educated, and very comfortable standing before thousands to speak.  Did I mention that Michelle Obama is smart? In fact, Michelle Obama did exactly what a woman with her background and credentials was supposed to do and what women like her do all the time when they stand up to speak. She spoke like a woman in charge. What’s so strange about that? Nothing. But it’s just not an image of black women that America is accustomed to seeing. Makes you wonder whose character ought to be questioned.



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