Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 August 2008

Michelle’s American Story

[For an idea for a commercial on energy policy, click here.]

To say that Michelle Obama hit a home run last night would be an understatement worthy of her husband. You have to go back to Jacqueline Kennedy or Eleanor Roosevelt to find another candidate for first lady even remotely as accomplished.

To those of us old enough to remember, Michelle recalls Eleanor, with her asymmetrical mouth, her fierce earnestness, her forceful articulation, and her passion for justice. You can see the resemblance if you just close your eyes and—for a brief moment in this grotesquely twisted campaign—forget about color and race.

Now that hundreds of millions have seen Michelle’s remarkable performance, it’s easy to take it for granted. But think for a second how hard it must have been for her. It was the most important speech (yet) of her life, and the most minutely scrutinized. The consultants asked her to bare her family’s story and her soul before millions of complete strangers. And as we all know, the pressure is greatest when it’s not your own success on the line, but the success of those you love.

To watch Michelle deliver, you would never have guessed the pressure she was under. As she spoke about her family, its mutual devotion and its love, her words were soothing, erudite, poetic, often soaring. Her diction and elocution were perfect, even better than her husband’s. (She avoided those annoying pauses and all-too-frequent “you knows” that sometimes mar Barack’s delivery.) She had poise, grace, humor, great intelligence, and—above all—strength.

And that—strength—is where Michelle departs from both Eleanor and Jackie. Unlike them, Michelle was not born to wealth and power. Like her husband, she made it on her own. She had only her family’s strong values to support and guide her. Her father, burdened with multiple sclerosis, went to work uncomplaining for decades, just to give her the opportunity for a Harvard Law education that her native talent allowed.

And what a difference that education made! Jackie could speak French, and Eleanor was educated like any woman of her upper class in her era. But both grew up at a time when women, however accomplished, were not expected to lead. Now they are.

That’s why Michelle is a thoroughly modern American woman. With her Harvard Law degree, she could have made a career in corporate America or on Wall Street. That’s where most of the best Harvard Law grads go. That’s where Michelle started out, at the “white shoe” firm of Sidley & Austin. If she had stayed there, she could be living a wealthy, quiet life as an obscure advisor to corporate America.

But that sort of life was not Michelle’s. Like Barack, she left the halls of anonymous corporate power for a public life of public service. She did it not because she had to; her own hard work and superb education left no door closed to her. She did it because she wanted to. Her brilliant speech last night—in which she laid bare her own family life just to show a skeptical country that she is not an ogre—was an important milestone along the difficult path she has chosen for herself.

Now Michelle is a combination of “stay at home” mom (if you can call criss-crossing the country on an endless campaign staying at home), campaign advisor and strategist, and equal political partner. She’s taken that role not because she shrinks from responsibility or because her opportunities are limited, but because that’s what she wants to do. You can easily imagine her “graduating” to the U.S. Senate (or beyond) once Malia and Sasha have gone away to college.

Michelle is thus a fully liberated women. She knows that race and gender discrimination still exist. But I have never heard her so much as hint at any limitations they impose on her. She knows she has the skill, education, strength of character—and yes, love—to achieve any goal, quietly and without fuss. She is Hillary Clinton without the angst.

That’s why the notion of Hillary partisans voting for John McCain is so absurd. Why would any modern woman support a man whose wife leaned on pharmaceuticals and family money rather than her own hard work and native talent? Why support a party whose first ladies (Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan, and Laura Bush) are renowned mostly for gazing adoringly at their husbands and “standing by their man”?

When I want unadulterated adulation from my wife, I jokingly ask her to give me the “Nancy Reagan” look. Is that the tradition that today’s women want to continue? Or would they prefer the tradition of Eleanor and Jackie, now exemplified and advanced by Michelle?

Like Dr. King, I have a dream. It’s not yet a prediction, just an informed hope.

But I dream of the day when the cable pundits have wrung the last bitter drop out of mindless obsessions with race, gender and gossip. I dream of the day when voters, alone in the voting booth, face their consciences. I dream of them recalling what really matters: honesty, uncomplaining hard work, intelligence, knowledge, judgment, self-restraint, and coolness and grace under fire.

And I dream of their voting this marvelous self-made Obama family—a uniquely and proudly American family—into the White House by the greatest landslide since Lyndon Johnson trounced another out-of-touch and out-of-step Arizonan in 1964. That would be no less than they, and we, deserve.

P.S. Campaign Commercial Idea

Much of this blog focuses on energy policy, which, in the long run, will make or break this country. So how about the following commercial contrasting Obama’s and McCain’s approaches?

Clip 1: Dubya walking hand-in-hand with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Caption: “Two oil men” or (for edgier impact) “Two oil men in love”

Clip 2: McCain embracing Dubya. Caption: “John McCain joins the love fest”

Clip 3: McCain at Sturgis, pointing to his feet and yelling “Drill Here! Drill now!” Caption: “John McCain, wildcatter, endorses the Abdullah-Bush-Cheney energy plan”

Clip 4: T. Boone Pickens saying “I have the same feelings about wind as I had about the best oil field I ever found.” (New York Times quote; is there a clip?) Caption: “Texan and former oil man T. Boone Pickens, 80 years old, wants to invest $ 1 trillion in wind energy.”

Clip 5: McCain at his most senile looking. Caption: “Is John McCain too old or just too far out of touch?”


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