Obama’s other running mate

Times Staff Writer

They loved to hate Hillary Rodham Clinton. They loved to hate Teresa Heinz Kerry. And now, it appears, conservative voices are energetically taking on Michelle Obama.

“Mrs. Grievance” bellowed the cover of a recent National Review, which featured a photo of a fierce-looking Obama. The magazine’s online edition titled an essay about her stump speech “America’s Unhappiest Millionaire.”

Michelle Malkin, the popular conservative blogger, called her “Obama’s bitter half.”


Even the relatively liberal online magazine Slate piled on. In a piece subtitled “Is Michelle Obama responsible for the Jeremiah Wright fiasco?” the contrarian Christopher Hitchens blamed her for her husband’s pastor troubles since she was a member of the church first.

The would-be first lady does not make pronouncements about policy and has insisted that her priority in the White House would be her two young daughters. But Obama has an earthy sense of humor that sometimes gets her in trouble. And in speeches, she shares her belief that the country’s spirit is broken and in need of repair -- by her husband, whom she often describes as “special.”

It was an unscripted remark as she spoke in February about the enthusiastic response to his message of hope that set off conservatives: “And let me tell you something,” she told a Wisconsin crowd. “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.”

The Obama campaign clarified her remarks right away: “What she meant is that she’s really proud at this moment because for the first time in a long time, thousands of Americans who’ve never participated in politics before are coming out in record numbers to build a grass-roots movement for change.”

But conservatives pressed the attack. John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, wrote that she had inadvertently revealed “the pseudo-messianic nature of the Obama candidacy.”

The issue has shown no signs of going away.

In what could be seen as a test run for future attacks, the Tennessee Republican Party last month posted a Web video crosscutting her gaffe with declarations from average folks about how they’ve always been proud of their country.

Bill Hobbs, spokesman for the Tennessee GOP, said the party was stunned and delighted by the national publicity garnered by the cheaply made video, which coincided with a fundraising visit to the state by Michelle Obama.

“Our goal was to get the local media to play that clip of what she said back in February,” Hobbs said. “The amazing thing was this thing blew up nationally before any local media even covered it.”

A few days later, the candidate took umbrage.

“These folks should lay off my wife,” said Sen. Barack Obama, as she sat beside him on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “She loves this country, and for them to try to distort or play snippets of her remarks in ways unflattering to her I think is just low-class.”

With Obama’s complaint came a torrent of opinion about whether Michelle Obama was “fair game.” Most commentators agreed that the 44-year-old Harvard Law School graduate -- a powerful surrogate for her husband who has made many high-profile solo appearances -- should not be immune. But the harsh tone has bothered many, even some who don’t support her spouse.

“It’s exactly why I hate politics,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “It’s wrong. It’s attempting to demonize someone who is very smart, very accomplished, but not totally tuned to the dangers of political discourse.”

Mark Mellman, who was Sen. John F. Kerry’s pollster when he ran for president in 2004, agreed: “I think it’s despicable on one hand, but to be expected on the other.”

Michelle Obama’s antagonists ignore her when she says: “We have overcome so much in this country: racism, sexism, civil wars.” Instead, they focus on: “Life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime.” Or: “Our souls are broken. . . . The problem is us.” Or: “We’re too cynical. And we are still a nation that is too mean -- just downright mean to one another. We don’t talk to each other in civil tones.”

In the current climate -- where sound bites are recycled endlessly and context is ignored in favor of impact -- her more dour pronouncements have paved the way for brutal critiques.

“This is a huge debate among Republicans,” said Malkin, who noted that until Obama’s “proud” remark, “she was the new, glamorous Jackie O, and most stories focused on her pearls and wardrobe.” But, Malkin added, “from what I’ve seen, despite her husband’s admonition to lay off of her, she’s not stopping what she’s doing, and I don’t think the rest of us should ignore her and treat her with kid gloves.”

Picking on potential first ladies is nothing new.

In this campaign, Judith Giuliani, the third wife of former Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, was the subject of merciless profiles that depicted her as a husband-stealing social climber.

Hillary Clinton was derided in 1992 after saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

In 2004, Heinz Kerry was a target. Sometimes, the outspoken heiress brought it on herself, as when she told a reporter to “shove it” and said -- incorrectly -- that Laura Bush had never held a “real job.”

John Kerry, who has campaigned with Michelle Obama, said the attacks could backfire. “She’s a mother of two young daughters, and her self-made story is America’s story,” the Massachusetts senator said. “I think a lot of people will be repelled by the attacks on her, because it’ll feel like an attack on their own family. Republicans smear her at their peril.”

Some Republicans, notably Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, denounced the anti-Michelle Obama video, but Kerry predicted that future attacks would be made by groups unaffiliated with political parties. “They won’t launch these vicious attacks through Sen. McCain,” Kerry said. “They’ll use proxies and surrogates.”

Indeed, in a Washington studio, a conservative outfit called Citizens United is scrambling to finish a 90-minute anti-Obama documentary. According to the group’s president, David Bossie, it will probably include the Michelle Obama “proud of my country” clip.

Bossie, a longtime Republican operative, bridled at the charge that singling her out is uncivil. “Nobody’s picking on her; nobody’s being unfair to her,” he said. “She needs to be mindful that those types of statements will be used against her husband.”

Recently, rumors about divisive comments allegedly made by Michelle Obama have swirled about the Web. Although unsubstantiated, they were appearing so often that a newspaper reporter asked her husband about them.

“There is dirt and lies that are circulated in e-mails, and they pump them out long enough until finally you, a mainstream reporter, asks me about it,” Obama said. “That gives legs to the story. . . . Frankly, my hope is people don’t play this game.”

It’s unclear, however, how much difference a spouse makes in a campaign.

Voters will say they discount the spouse, Mellman said. But “beneath the surface, it can help in forming an overall impression of a person,” he said. “People assume if they don’t like the spouse, they don’t like the candidate.”

In the current campaign, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, Bill Clinton’s heated remarks alienated many black voters. (The former president implied that Obama’s win in South Carolina was unimportant since Jesse Jackson had also won the state in 1988, and accused the Obama campaign of “playing the race card” on him.)

“That’s a really good example of a candidate paying the price for the things a spouse said and did,” Walsh said.

She regards the Tennessee GOP video as a warning to the Obama campaign. “This is the kind of thing that’s coming,” she said, “so it’s time to be careful.”