A few weeks ago I was at the Denver airport when I overheard a conversation between two men sitting near me. They were eating some form of grab-and-go airport lunch when one man, between bites, suddenly raised his voice and called Michelle Obama something that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.
“She wants to control what we eat!” he continued. “She wants the government to be in charge of what’s in our fridge!”
These were respectable-looking businessmen: mid-40s, Dockers, wedding bands, cellphones on belts. I wouldn’t have expected either one of them to burst forth with an obscenity, especially not in the United terminal, surrounded by innocent children and people trying to enjoy their Cinnabons.
But it turns out they aren’t the only ones who believe Michelle Obama wants to come into our homes and replace our Doritos with seaweed. Certain members of the GOP — and, from the looks of it, the entire “tea party” — have decided that the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign, which seeks to fight obesity by improving school lunch programs, increasing focus on physical education and giving poor people better access to healthful foods, is an example of government intrusion and even a socialist plot.
Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann accused Obama of trying to implement a “nanny state.” Sarah Palin gave her a ribbing on her reality show when, while searching for s’mores ingredients for a camping trip, she said, “This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who the other day said we shouldn’t have dessert.”
Oh, and then there’s that paragon of physical fitness, Rush Limbaugh, who suggested last week that the first lady “does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.”
What’s going on here (besides the last gasps of an increasingly irrelevant radio blowhard) obviously has nothing to do with keeping kids from being obese. Surely even the most obtuse tea partyers know deep down that Michelle Obama is not planning to force-feed you vegetables and hijack your desserts any more than Laura Bush, who advocated for reading, was interested in foisting books on people and carting away their televisions. Instead, Republicans are turning a patently apolitical issue into an opportunity to bash the president, suggesting that the first lady has wasted tax dollars with her campaign and that the president’s budget proposal, which includes adding $1 billion a year for the next 10 years to fund children’s nutrition programs, will ruin the nation because it caters to her elitist whims. (Does anyone remember that Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign “Just Say No” coincided with $1.7 billion in funding to fight the growing drug problem?)
Maybe if the rhetoric surrounding Michelle Obama’s efforts was confined to budget issues, it would be defensible, but as it stands, it’s astonishingly ugly. Attacks on the president come with the job. With the exception of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who effectively waived her rights to be treated like a traditional first lady, Michelle Obama is taking an unprecedented beating.
Is that simply a function of the divided, divisive times? If Lady Bird Johnson were in the East Wing today, would her beautification project be viewed as shoving flowers down people’s throats? Would the literacy campaigns of Barbara Bush and Laura Bush be seen as a slippery slope to government mind control? Would Nancy Reagan, who was mocked but never outright demonized for “Just Say No,” have been dubbed a fascist for denying people their God-given right to be drug addicts?
I suspect so, at least to some degree. But I also suspect that the resistance to Michelle Obama may have as much to do with people’s food issues as their political issues. Eating, unlike hiking among wildflowers or bibliophilia or taking drugs, is something we all do. And like most relationships, it’s often as frustrating as it is satisfying, as guilt-inducing as it is comforting. More than just the contents of a dinner plate or a restaurant menu, food makes up a large part of the contents of our brains. And when something so integral to our being is threatened with change, no matter how benign, the instinct is to fight it, or at least shout about it in airports.
That’s only human. But guess what? So is logic. And on that front, we appear to be in the midst of a famine.