DENVER — Asking the wife of a candidate for president to address the national convention at which her husband is to be nominated is a relatively recent phenomenon.
And the history is a mixed one.
Hillary Clinton did a good job of it at the Democratic conventions of the 1990s.
Elizabeth Dole was scary bad at the Republican convention of 1996, and Teresa Heinz Kerry did her husband no great favors with her address to the 2004 Democratic convention.
And what of Michelle Obama?
She went into Monday facing a greater challenge than any of her predecessors.
Already the target of a vicious Republican attack campaign–that attacks her patriotism when it’s not accusing her of elitism–Michelle Obama had to introduce herself to a nation that knew very little about her and that was being warned by the GOP not to even think about falling in love with her.
“Everything about this woman has been totally distorted for political purposes,” explained Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat. “That’s what she had to address tonight, and she did it!”
The woman who would be first lady rose to the challenge with a speech that was as gracious as it was politically smart.
At a convention where it is still a bit of a struggle to bring supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton together, Michelle Obama merged the civil rights and women’s rights struggles in remarks that referenced the woman who tried to defeat her husband for the nomination.
Speaking of herself and her husband, she said:
We know what fairness and justice and opportunity look like. And he urged us 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?
It’s the story of men and women gathered in churches and union halls, in town squares and high school gyms – people who stood up and marched and risked everything they had – refusing to settle, determined to mold our future into the shape of our ideals.
It is because of their will and determination that this week, we celebrate two anniversaries: the 88th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, and the 45th anniversary of that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation.
I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history – 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. The same conviction that drives the men and women I’ve met all across this country:
People who work the day shift, kiss their kids goodnight, and head out for the night shift – without disappointment, without regret – that goodnight kiss a reminder of everything they’re working for.
The military families who say grace each night with an empty seat at the table. The servicemen and women who love this country so much, they leave those they love most to defend it.
The young people across America serving our communities – teaching children, cleaning up neighborhoods, caring for the least among us each and every day.
People like Hillary Clinton, 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.
Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton, an early and ardent Clinton backer, hailed Michelle Obama’s speech as “exquisite.”
But Lawton said there was something else that made it powerful.
“She spoke in her own voice,” explained the state official. “There was a lot of message-discipline going on tonight. Even Teddy Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi were speaking to the themes of the convention. But Michelle Obama’s voice, her personality, came through loud and clear. It was so impressive.”
Unlike so many speeches, Michelle Obama’s was understated and elegent.
She has been attacked by Republicans for failing to display sufficient patriotism.
She knew she had to express her love for her country. But she did so with a measure of grace and dignity that few political speakers muster these days.
All of us (are) driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won’t do – that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be.
That is the thread that connects our hearts. That is the thread that runs through my journey and Barack’s journey and so many other improbable journeys that have brought us here tonight, where the current of history meets this new tide of hope.
That is why I love this country.
And in my own life, in my own small way, I’ve tried to give back to this country that has given me so much. That’s why I left a job at a law firm for a career in public service, working to empower young people to volunteer in their communities. Because I believe that each of us – no matter what our age or background or walk of life – each of us has something to contribute to the life of this nation.
“She took charge of her story, built her narrative,” said Lawton. “It was an essential intro to her — and to Barack Obama.”
UPDATE: Video of Michelle Obama’s speech below…