Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Getting to Know Her

The New York Times looks at the efforts to re-introduce Michelle Obama.

Conservative columnists accuse her of being unpatriotic and say she simmers with undigested racial anger. A blogger who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton circulates unfounded claims that Mrs. Obama gave an accusatory speech in her church about the sins of “whitey.” Mrs. Obama shakes her head.

“You are amazed sometimes at how deep the lies can be,” she says in an interview. Referring to a character in a 1970s sitcom, she adds: “I mean, ‘whitey’? That’s something that George Jefferson would say. Anyone who says that doesn’t know me. They don’t know the life I’ve lived. They don’t know anything about me.”

Now her husband’s presidential campaign is giving her image a subtle makeover, with a new speech in the works to emphasize her humble roots and a tough new chief of staff. On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama will do a guest turn on “The View,” the daytime talk show on ABC, with an eye toward softening her reputation.

A couple of thoughts on this story. First, I can’t remember a time when a presidential candidate’s wife or her background, statements, or presence has made a difference in an election. Second, it won’t be the first time that a president’s wife fulfilled a role that was beyond the scope of the “traditional” role of First Lady, whatever that is. If you think Hillary Clinton had an undue influence on her husband’s presidency, reading a little history will enlighten you to the fact that she was, if anything, more in the tradition than you might think, going back to Dolley Madison. Edith Galt Wilson virtually ran the government after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a stroke in 1919, and Eleanor Roosevelt served as the “legs” of her husband and created her own agenda, often being out in front of the administration on such issues as race relations and labor issues. Betty Ford made a name of her own by championing causes that the Ford administration shied away from and made the public aware of issues such as breast cancer and addiction. Rosalyn Carter sat in on Cabinet meetings, and even Nancy Reagan, believed to be the “traditional” First Lady, exercised a lot of power in the White House to the point that she had a hand in the hiring and firing of senior staff in the West Wing.

So whatever they try to make of Michelle Obama, chances are she will be following in the footsteps of many of her predecessors.

It’s also a sign of desperation that the right wing pounces on her with such force. The undercurrent of subtle — and not-so-subtle — misogyny and racism reveals that when you’ve got nothing else, you attack the spouse, and hiding behind the flimsy excuse that her speaking out about issues such as education and health care make her “fair game” is a coward’s way out. (PS: the same goes for Cindy McCain, and attacks from the left on her because of the right-wing attacks on Ms. Obama don’t make them right.)