September 6, 2012
At the risk of inviting legions of conservatives to swoop down and tell me I'm drowning in the Obama Kool-Aid (actually, it's not just a risk; it's a guarantee), I'm just going to come out and say it: Michelle Obama was spectacular at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. She managed to do in 25 minutes what her husband has been struggling to do for nearly four years: remind us why we were once so excited about the prospect of seeing this family in the White House.
Almost immediately, the speech was being called "politically masterful," "a devastating attack on Mitt Romney" and "history making." Twitter reported that, by the end, tweets were going out at a rate of 28,003 per minute, double the number being sent as Romney wrapped up his address last week.
Oh, and speaking of the Romneys, Ann Romney gave a perfectly good speech last week. But it was little more than a wedding toast compared to Michelle's words. For all the charm of Ann's memories of the basement apartment she and Mitt occupied as newlyweds (the desk that was a door on sawhorses, the fold-out ironing board as dining table, the empty chair they occasionally held conversations with … oh, wait), Michelle's forthright comments about the Obamas' combined student loan debt exceeding their monthly mortgage payments rang far truer. (That's not to say, though, that the ironing board trick won't make an appearance on an upcoming episode of "Design on a Dime").
There are, of course, the reliable dissenters. In the postgame chit-chat Tuesday night, CNN commentator and former Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the speech played well "in a hall of zealots," and Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer allowed that it was "a great speech, but I don't buy a line of it." Meanwhile, Breitbart.com served up a charming, tabloidy post about the "false fairy tale of struggle," writing of the "expensive law schools" that engendered all that debt (neglecting to mention that Mitt Romney attended that same school, minus the loans), the "expensive tastes" reflected in the $227,000 two-bedroom condo the Obamas bought after they were married and the "lavish lifestyle" they enjoyed thereafter.
The "we were young and poor" narrative has played a big role in this presidential election, and not just because some people have had difficulty swallowing that line from the Romneys, who were actually living off a stock investment during those basement apartment years and who were later given $42,000 from Mitt's father to buy a house. (Said Ann Romney back in 1994: "You know what? The mortgage payment was less than rent … we stayed there seven years and sold it for $90,000, so we not only stayed for free, we made money. As I said, Mitt's very bright.") It's played a big role because a lot of Americans are feeling not so young but still poor these days. They're eating off some version of that fold-out ironing board and looking for leaders who have at least some inkling of what that feels like.
But just because both candidates are talking about their early ambitions doesn't mean those ambitions had much in common. And that's why, to me, the most powerful moment of Michelle's speech was not the line that most of her fans seem to be talking about — "I've seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who are you; it reveals who you are" — but the part where she talked about all the people who contributed to her and her husband's success story.
"We learned about gratitude and humility; that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean; and we were taught to value everyone's contribution and treat everyone with respect."
This idea is, of course, what the president was trying to get at when he mangled his words in July and stepped into the "you didn't build that" gaffe (an idea, incidentally, he swiped from Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, whose riff in a similar vein was caught on video and went viral last year.)
That Michelle managed to say it far more eloquently is a testament to the power of rehearsed speeches. That she bothered to bring it up at all is a testament to just how important it is as a guiding principle, not just to liberals like the Obamas but as a traditional American value.
Strangely, however, in a political culture that likes to robotically scream out "U.S.A!" at every opportunity, gratitude and humility have fallen pretty far down the list of traditional values. In fact, to Ayn Rand-worshipers on the right, the idea that the ladder to success is held steady by a great many people on the ground smacks of touchy-feely liberalism in the "it takes a village" vein. It's the kind of thing that gets President Obama labeled a radical socialist by people who have no idea what socialism is; the kind of thing that prompts people like RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to sneeringly suggest that the president wasted his time community organizing when he could have been developing important business skills by running a lemonade stand.
That's why what struck me about Michelle's sentiments was actually how old-fashioned they sounded; how steeped they were in real conservatism, the kind that values all types of hardworking people, not just those who are businessmen or would like to be. And that's also why I hope that the excitement around her speech will afford us the opportunity to consider just how un-radical these supposed radicals are. From the looks of things, they're walking down the center of Main Street. It's the far right that's in danger of driving off the road.
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