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I Heart Michelle Obama | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

I Heart Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama's performance Monday night was spectacular. She was confident, warm, relaxed and eloquent, also smart, beautiful,radiant, gracious, stylish, humorous and tall. I want to be her when I grow up. She accomplished, seemingly effortlessly, what she had to do: she replaced the angry-black-Pantherish terrorist- fist-bumping Michelle of right-wing (and not only right-wing) fantasy with Michelle, the normal, everyday, working-class-rooted loving wife and (working) mother. She presented herself and her family -- her parents, her brother, her daughters, and her husband -- as part of an ongoing all-American story of devotion to faith, family, hard work,community, sports, and, yes, country.

When she talked about her childhood--her father and his slow deterioriation from multiple sclerosis, her parent's hopes and sacrifices for her and her brother--I cried. I know, I know, how hokey that is, but I'll bet all over America, people were wiping their eyes.

In her column about the speech, even Mona Charen paused momentarily in her Obama-bashing labors to declare herself moved and impressed. Then, of course, it was back to business: Michelle's 1985 Princeton senior thesis, the Rev. Wright, a quotation from a New Yorker profile suggesting that Michelle Obama thinks America has some problems--because that is just so, so not true.

About that thesis: How desperate must conservative pundits be that they are combing this ancient document for traces of black militance? How would Mona Charen like to be judged by a paper she wrote in college? Christopher Hitchens joined the hunt in a particularly unhinged and paranoid column in Slate back in May. Beginning with a lordly sneer at young Michelle's prose ("not written in any known language"), he seizes on a passing acknowledgment of Black Power, a book which Stokely Carmichael co-authored with Charles V. Hamilton in l967, to tie her to Carmichael's subsequent career as a black-nationalist Pan-African separatist, and thence to African dictators, antisemitism, Louis Farrakhan and the murder of Malcolm X.

I should have written about this column when it first appeared, but frankly, I didn't want to join the let's all-talk- about-Christopher-incessantly circus. I was remiss: It was a low, disgraceful smear, tantamount to accusing a writer who cites Marx of being a Soviet spy-- or, for that matter, a man who briefly attended a nominally Muslim school in childhood of being a secret Muslim and best friend of Osama bin Laden.

First Ladyhood is a retrograde job, sort of like being the national spokesmodel. Still it's a great thing that an accomplished black woman might soon be taking it on. It doesn't speak so well of the electorate, though, that Michelle Obama has to hide her light of career-womanhood and, yes, African-American experience under a great big bushel of bland middle-American family-values conformity. The whole speech was about reassuring white Americans that she was just like them, (as they imagine themselves to be): none of her relatives are on drugs or welfare or in prison.

For all her evident-but-never-specified professional success, she's basically a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother: black people have families! If you closed your eyes, the only way you'd know she was black was her emotional reference to Martin Luther King. According to her brother's video introduction, her favorite TV show as a child was The Brady Bunch. Whew! What if it had been Soul Train?

I would love to see Michelle Obama living in the White House and representing America abroad. But she must really love her husband-- and believe that business about being the change you want to see in the world -- -- to be willing to spend four, or even eight, years soothing white America's racial and gender anxieties.

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