Isn't she lovely?

In her prime-time speech Monday, Michelle Obama foiled her harshest detractors and perhaps even won over Middle America.

Rebecca Traister
August 26, 2008 4:32PM (UTC)

Michelle Obama had one job on Monday night: to not be scary.

As the first black woman ever to make a beeline for the East Wing, Obama, a lawyer with degrees from Princeton and Harvard, has been dogged by an aura of suspicion: about her brains and politics and attitude and all sorts of things that stand in for both racial and gender discomfort. Early on, Maureen Dowd tagged her "emasculating"; she's been attacked over her patriotism; there were the insidious "whitey" whispers. The infamous New Yorker cover summed it up by caricaturing her as a slinky, Afro'd Angela Davis, saucily giving her man a so-called terrorist fist bump.


Which is probably why her remarks to the convention on Monday night were the opposite of political, the antithesis of the angry opener delivered by Zell Miller in New York in 2004, or for that matter, the whacked-out feminist barn-burner given by the truly exotic (and scary!) Teresa Heinz Kerry on the second night of the Democratic convention. On paper, Obama's speech was so aggressively comforting, so just-folksy, so daughterly and wifely and motherly, that it made Nancy Reagan sound like an ambitious hussy with a wandering eye.

But man, can Michelle Obama ever slam a soft pitch straight out of the park.

Dressed in a peacock green frock that was surely the hottest dress ever seen on a convention floor, Obama was introduced first in a video by her mother, who referred to her as "my baby" and then by her older brother, Craig Robinson, as "my little sister." See? She's just a baby little sister! Nothing scary about that!


Robinson, now the basketball coach at Oregon State University, bolstered the evening's theme ("Black First Lady Contenders: They're Just Like Us!") with anecdotes about how his lil' sis woke him up early on Christmas morning and memorized every episode of "The Brady Bunch." Then there was how, though she eventually quit her potentially threatening powerful law firm job, she did take something from it: "a young lawyer by the name of Barack Obama." That's right, folks, she got her M.R.S.

The written text of the Robinson-Obama siblings was nearly retro in its firm placement of Michelle in the sphere of acceptable, traditional femininity -- daughter, sister, wife and mother, rather than lawyer, administrator, intellect and political animal. It would have been hard to take were it not for the reality that Obama looks so different, and lives so differently, from so many of the people who must come out to vote for her husband in November, making it crucial to stress everything she shares with great white Middle America.

And for the fact that the woman is a killer on the stump. Throughout the campaign Obama has shown off her gift for delivery: her lilting cadence and hypnotic tone, trying out new jokes at every stop, reading her audience like a book and playing straight to whoever is in front of her.


On Monday night, in her deft hands, the potentially soggy material seemed light as air -- soft and warm, yes -- but also honest and direct and emotional. First, her discussion of her brother conveyed the closeness of their relationship, one that seems to be friendly, long-lasting and funny. After the Clintons and the Bushes, tolerable siblings might just be a refreshing change.

Then there was her tribute to her father, a filtration plant shift worker who suffered from multiple sclerosis and died in 1991, and whom she described movingly as "my rock ... our provider, our champion, our hero." "I can feel my dad looking down on us," said Obama. "Just as I've felt his presence in every grace-filled moment of my life."


Obama has talked a lot about her parents on the trail. It is from them that she gets her idea of what it used to mean to be working class in America, a life that becomes increasingly difficult in today's fractured economy, and which she described again here on Monday night. When her father was in pain from his illness, she said, "He just woke up a little earlier, and worked a little harder," hard enough to put his son and daughter through college. And when she met Barack, with his single mother and Kansas grandparents, the story goes, she recognized in them the American spirit with which she was raised. "Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values," she said, in a line she used often on the campaign trail, "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." Here she got a wild round of applause.

And if it was slightly dispiriting to hear this dazzlingly smart and accomplished woman sum herself up in relation to the other people in her life -- "a wife who loves my husband" and "a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world" -- then it was leavened by the fact that she was using every bit of her power and charisma to keep the crowd wrapped around her little finger.

Obama's assuredness continued as she described her courtship with the young law student she met when he was assigned to her as an advisee, and how she fell for the fact that after graduation, "instead of heading to Wall Street, Barack had gone to work in neighborhoods devastated when steel plants shut down, and jobs dried up."


Her speech then moved on to patriotic idealism and imagery, about how America should be a place where you can make it if you try, and how her husband's idealism prompts those around him "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?"

Just as the speech was threatening to drift into a rhetorical neverland, Obama hit the mother lode, reminding the audience that during the span of this convention, we will celebrate the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage (this got a gigantic cheer) and the 45th anniversary of "that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation." (This also got a big yell, though if it were slightly smaller than the women's suffrage holler, it was perhaps because the crowd is reserving its energy to honor King's legacy by nominating Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for president on Thursday.)

"I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history," said Obama, in what may have been the best part of her speech, because of all it didn't say, but hinted at, about exactly how caught she is in the midst of charged conversations about race and gender, "knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me. All of them driven by the same conviction that drove my dad to get up an hour early each day to painstakingly dress himself for work."


Obama gave shout-outs to the shift workers who "kiss their kids goodnight and then head out for the night shift ... that kiss a reminder of everything they're working for," and to the military families, "who say grace each night with an empty seat at the table." She praised Hillary Clinton -- and here she paused for a predictably long round of applause -- "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." She also lauded Joe Biden, her husband's V.P. pick, who "has never forgotten where he came from." And if the cheer for Biden was a touch louder than the cheer for Clinton, then perhaps it was a show of that much-vaunted party unity.

Obama finished out with a list of what her husband will fight for as president: good jobs and benefits and healthcare for the troops, a better economy, available healthcare, "to make sure every child in this nation gets a world-class education." According to his wife, Barack will achieve these goals "the same way he always has -- by bringing us together and reminding us how much we share and how alike we really are."

Obama continued, "The Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago. He's the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago this summer, inching along at a snail's pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror." And here for a moment it sounded as if she was sniffing, and then for a moment as if everyone in the room was sniffing.

And then she peeled the onion one layer further, telling how when she puts "that little girl and her sister into bed at night" she thinks about the families they will one day have themselves. "And one day, they -- and your sons and daughters -- will tell their own children about what we did together in this election ... How this time, in this great country -- where a girl from the South Side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House -- we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be."


And in case you still hadn't reached for your Kleenex, as soon as Michelle had said her God bless to the country and brought those beautiful girls Malia and Sasha up onstage with her, up popped the mister on the big screen, joking about his persistence in dating her, assuring her that she was "incredible" and "also look very cute," both of which were true.

When Obama announced, in that canned presidential way, that he was sitting in Kansas City with the Gerardo family, young Sasha grabbed the mic and said, "Hi, Gerardo family!" And as Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" played, there was the sense that thanks to this careful, but ultimately bravura performance, somewhere out there, great white Middle America just might be a goner.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Michelle Obama

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