Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michelle Obama, Superstar

photos by Evan Robinson

Monday night was the first time I've ever been on a convention floor. In some ways, it was very much what I expected -- an explosion of light and noise and color as I came out of the tunnel onto the main floor; the constant low roar of conventioneers chatting, even as the speeches unwound on the dias in front of them; the dazzling stage set (and it is dazzling); and the speeches, which for the most part were vast wilted bouquets of the same florid rhetoric that's been recycled (near as I can tell) for every convention since Andy Jackson was president.

Even Claire McCaskill spoke in cliches. Even Ted Kennedy, whose surprise visit found him looking astonishingly hale and hearty, couldn't get away from the hoary old applause lines. Tom Harkin charmed the crowd briefly when he came out and spoke his first sentence in sign language: "I see so many people with disabilities here -- we are so proud to have your support for Barack Obama for President." (I probably would have been more impressed if I hadn't been parked right at the feet of the full-time sign language translator at the time.) As speakers came and went, the energy level in the room stayed flat, the applause stayed sparse, and the din continued as if what was going on on the dias was a mere distraction from the real work.

The evening's theme was "American Voices, American Values." It was, as first convention nights usually are, the biographical moment where we meet the candidate -- where he came from, the people who influenced him, the events that shaped him -- and connect with all the ways in which his story is our story. This time, the program carried some extra freight, because the details of Obama's story are the best antidote there is to the McCain campaign's charges of "elitism."

But even so, the going was slow and boggy....until there was Michelle.

She came out alone, glowing in a turquoise blue dress (these photos show its true color) that metamorphosed into a beautiful emerald shade in the TV camera's eye. She strutted out to Stevie Wonder's sexy, soaring, joyful anthem, "I Was Made To Love Her," which was just hip and perfect. For the next half hour, she told us about her husband -- and in the process, told us that we're in line for the kind of First Lady we haven't seen in decades. And in some respects, she also told us that she'll be a kind of First Lady we've never seen before.

Hillary Clinton, of course, tried (and largely failed) to redefine what a First Lady should be. "I'm not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man," she insisted, famously disparaging the cookie-baking moms of America in almost the same breath. She saw herself as a fully equal partner -- and thought the country lucky to have elected a two-fer in her and Bill. The country very quickly made it clear that, as far as they were concerned, she hadn't been on the ticket; and within a year or two, the effort to turn the Office of the First Lady into shadow Office of the Vice President was abandoned in no small amount of disgrace.

Laura Bush has been a cipher -- a face seldom seen, a voice never heard. We know more about the misbehavior of her famously ill-reared daughters, whom she woefully excuses ("They never asked for all this, poor dears"), than we do about the woman who endures what we imagine must be a desperately miserable life with W. Nor was her mother-in-law, she of the gimlet eye and the perennial triple strand of imperial-sized pearls, much noted for either her grace or her warmth; and Barb eventually made herself a political pariah -- and revealed her bone-deep classism -- with her horrifically out-of-touch remarks about the Katrina evacuees.

So it's been better than 20 years since we had a First Lady who really wanted the job, and enjoyed it, and understood where both its limits and its power lie. On Monday night, I saw a woman who viscerally understood and reveled in the power -- who gracefully accepted the legacy of the job of "presidential help-meet," and yet seems entirely capable of walking in and re-defining it in Gen X's low-drama, high-competence style.

It's been common wisdom for years that the GOP is the "daddy party," obsessed with finances, security, defense, and other global power sports; and that the Democrats are the "mommy party," interested in domestic issues like health care and education, housekeeping matters like the environment, and social issues like maintaining a good reputation with our planetary neighbors. One of the things that always bothered me about Hillary (and the brand of equality feminism she espouses) is how thoroughly she accepted the frame that real power lies in being able to do everything the boys do, exactly the way the boys do them. The problem with this narrow definition of "equality" is that it denies and disparages the inherent cultural and moral power of the traditionally "feminine" concerns of the Democratic Party -- and fails to notice that when you give that nurturing perspective short shrift, you are effectively abandoning the party's core values.

And the fact is: right now, this battered, bruised nation could use a lot more of the Mommy Party. It could use fresh cookies. And long naps, hot baths, clean jammies, and home-cooked meals. It could use more visits with Grandma, and being read to. It really needs a better acquaintance with that hairy-eyeball look that Mom gets when you're veering dangerously close to the line of what's socially acceptable, and queuing yourself up for a fresh lesson on family standards of behavior. And it needs Mom to stand up and tell Daddy that he needs to shape up, come home, man up, and stop wasting the family's cash on big guns, global gambles, and get-rich-quick schemes. There are kids to feed, a mortgage to pay, college tuition to save up, and old folks to look after. After 40 years of Daddy-party abuse, we're ready for Mom to be back in charge.

Last night, Michelle showed what that kind of Mom might look like. We saw the brilliant young woman who became a hot-shot corporate lawyer -- there's no question that she's the intellectual equal of her husband, and a worthy and respected partner in his career. But we also saw a woman who, over and over, made choices that go to the core of Democratic values. She left corporate law to take jobs serving her community's poor. She left the working world to put her daughters first. (And they seem like nice kids, though they're going to need to watch that Malia -- she's a natural ham, always ready to flirt with the crowd.) It's easy to believe that Michelle bakes cookies without for a moment worrying that having batter on her fingers will somehow compromise her as a force in the world.

Hillary thought she was better than that. Michelle knows that there's nothing more important. In fact, you get the sense that her ability to nurture is the source of her power -- as the entire Democratic Party's ability to nurture the country has always been a source of its power. We do best when we focus on being fully present for people, and use our gifts to enlarge their futures. Michelle showed us what it looks like when a Democrat seizes on those old nurturant-parent values, and speaks out of them authentically and without apology.

Much has been in this election cycle made about how the president will respond to a 3 a.m. phone call. But far more important is whose voice will be whispering from the pillow next to his at 3 a.m. during those long, dark nights of the soul that come with the job. Michelle Obama promised us last night that she'd be her husband's better angel -- and showed us why he adores her so much that he's likely to listen.

Michelle's speech had to carry a lot of political freight. As noted, she had to assure us that she wasn't going to be Hillary, grasping for parity in power. For those of us who enjoy equality-based relationships, what we saw should satisfy us: an easy-give-and-take, permeated with mutual adoration and respect, but leaving no question as to who the President will be.

She also had to defuse the right-wing's persistent tarring of her as an angry black radical feminist. That beautifully-made up woman in soft green, talking about her love for her mother and daughters, was probably as good a rebuttal as we'll ever get.

Finally, she had to make the point that the "elitist" slander doesn't wash -- at least, not to anyone who has a clear understanding of what attributes Americans value. There's a huge difference in America between aristocrats who got where they are because of a fortunate choice of parents or spouses, and gifted people who started out on the lowest rungs and made it up and out on their own merits. We saw enough of both Barack and Michelle's families last night to understand that they've made it this far because they were blessed with exceptionally loving, close families that were entirely focused on helping their children succeed. If that's "elitism," we could use a whole lot more of it.

Michelle is no elitist. But she is a superstar-in-the-making, a new kind of presumptive First Lady who seems likely to knock the dust out of the East Wing's old sofas and add some new shine and sass -- and a fierce moral voice -- to a tough old job.

And cookies. I have no doubt there will be really awesome cookies.