Standing Tall

What Michelle Means

\Anyone interested in making the acquaintance of the real Michelle Obama has done so by now. They’ve heard her story and (literally) seen where she’s coming from on the big screen behind her at the Democratic convention. Yet even after her from-the-heart convention speech about home, family, and why she loves America, some critics continue to talk about her as if she were Angela Davis in a sheath. It was, according to Fox News, “a very liberal speech.” “The heroes of Michelle Obama’s world are people who march.” Which is especially galling, given that what her heroes really taught her was to march to work every day.

Politics aside, I never met a potential first lady I did not want to hug or offer some homebaked good. In this unpaid and often unwanted role, women must be strong but not overpowering, smart but determinedly oblivious, honest as long as they reveal nothing real. Extra points go to those who are open to one or two minor suggestions about their hair.

Yet in most cases, there is at least something the candidate’s wife can do about the particular way in which she’s being pilloried. Hillary got blonder, blander, and was never again sarcastic about cookie-baking. But the chief knock on Michelle Obama—that she’s an aggrieved “anti’’ who loves victimhood almost as much as she hates America—is completely at odds with her whole life story.

For the longest time I struggled to glean the grain of truth (surely there was one) behind this widely shared view of the Democratic nominee’s wife. In theory, at least, it went back to her comment last February that “for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” Clearly, from the rest of her comments that day, which were cheered by a crowd of ordinary, non-America-hating Wisconsinites, all she meant was that she’d never been prouder. But even now this one sentence is all many people choose to know about her.

When John McCain said something similar—that he’d never truly loved this country until he was deprived of its company—we never dreamed of taking him literally. And we were right not to. But whenever Michelle Obama says we could do better as a country—and if we couldn’t, why would her husband, or any candidate, even want to run?—it’s just an example of her being all negative and critical again.

In his new best-selling hatchet job, Obama Nation, Jerome Corsi writes,

Michelle might have been raised by a middle-class black working family on Chicago’s South Side, but while being educated at an Ivy League school she indulged in the luxury of experiencing alienation, instead of being grateful for the opportunity.

So, when President George W. Bush expresses contempt for his Ivy League education, it shows he’s a regular fella, but if Michelle Obama ever felt like an outsider at Princeton or Harvard Law School, she was failing to be sufficiently “grateful for the opportunity.”

Critics who paint her as aggrieved are hitting her where she’s strong, not weak. Her parents, as she said in Denver, weren’t wealthy people, but they taught her that with hard work and the right attitude there was nothing she couldn’t do. And she proved them right. She got A’s, practiced the piano every morning before school, went to college and law school with student loans, and was so highly regarded at Sidley Austin, the big Chicago law firm where she met her future husband, that one of the firm’s partners says he nearly had a heart attack the day she gave notice. That would not have been the reaction if she had shown the slightest hint of poor-me aggrievement. On the contrary, Michelle Obama has been successful in a number of arenas where black women have to be scrupulously attitude-free to excel.

So why does the smear stick? Though she herself is not allowed to suggest that race has anything to do with anything, I see no other explanation than that some people, looking through the prism of white guilt, insist on seeing her as aggrieved—and then punish her for it. Why? Because (and this is how injustice gets compounded) no one enjoys reminders of his own past mistakes. Thought experiment: You’re at a party and must proceed either in the direction of someone who has wronged you or in the direction of someone you have wronged. Of course, your first choice would be to duck into the bathroom and skip the fun altogether. But if that’s not an option, chances are you would rather shake hands with the world’s biggest jerk than with someone who makes you feel like a jerk yourself. And isn’t there something of that in our reaction to Michelle Obama? It isn’t her, it’s us.

Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: 
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Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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