Monday, April 28, 2008

America's Sweetheart

So I'm channel surfing last night and I can't find anything worth watching. The network fare was typically worthless. The cable news channels were still obsessing over Barack Obama's pastor, wondering why he chose this week to make a round of highly publicized speaking engagements and broadcast interviews (maybe because he doesn't much care for his current national image as an anti-American, conspiracy peddling lunatic?). Depending on the channel, ESPN was offering up NFL draft coverage, more NFL draft coverage, or classic women's bowling.

So I found myself flipping over the C-Span, something I almost never do. Don't get me wrong: I think C-Span is a wonderful resource and provides the best unfiltered coverage of politicians and other political types doing what they do best: speaking, debating, and conferencing. But most of their programming is, for lack of a better term, excruciatingly boring. And the call-in shows represent the worst of both worlds of that particular genre—nutty, uninformed callers being given respectful treatment by hosts who are apparently instructed to let them ramble on, no matter how idiotic they appear.

But anyway, there I was parked on C-Span watching Michelle Obama addressing some audience in Nowhere, Indiana. I like Michelle Obama, probably more than I like her husband. She seems as smart as he is, but a great deal more authentic. With Barack, there's always the sense that the audience is being lectured to, even talked down to a bit, by a very bright college professor who knows that most of the class probably won't earn passing grades for the semester. Michelle, on the other hand, seems less practiced, her eloquence less ringing but more personal. She also conveys a toughness that her spouse seems reluctant to harness even in the heat of battle; you just know that she would have come to that Pennsylvania debate the other day and put Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos in their place and probably dusted off Hillary a time or two, as well.

But as I watched Michelle Obama entertain this crowd of mostly white Hoosiers, something else struck me, too. In many ways, she is the equivalent of the 1992 Hillary Clinton. Like Hillary, she is a successful professional in her own right, someone whose self-image and personal standing are not dependent on her husband's accomplishments. She feels no need to project that first lady stare, the one that conveys both adulation and hero worship, but also self-abnegation. She is, in short, no wifey.

If we are in a celebratory mood, I suppose we can remark on how much things have improved in just 16 years. Hillary's independence was considered problematic by many observers back in '92 and people openly questioned whether this outspoken career woman really met America's expectations of a First Lady. Her flippant comment that she didn't plan to stay home and bake cookies was treated as blasphemy by many pundits, the violation of a 200-year old tradition that had been honored by every women in the White House, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Up until the emergence of Hillary Clinton, the role of First Lady had been updated only cosmetically, the way General Mills had gradually modernized the image of Betty Crocker on their food packages. Maybe Betty had graduated from stay-at-home June Cleaver to contemporary soccer mom, but she was still the lady who baked the brownies. Likewise, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter helped modernize their office after 22 years of Mamie, Jackie, Lady Bird, and Pat. But they still conformed to America's outdated expectations of the job.

But here we are in 2008 with another strong, successful woman fiercely defending her husband while refusing to merge her identity with his. This time, however, it doesn't seem to matter. Indeed, the only time Michelle Obama has been controversial was when she chose her words poorly and said that public reaction to Barack's candidacy had made her proud to be an American for the first time. But even then, the attack was not based on the notion that the woman didn't know her place. And in fact, the incident really didn't gain much traction. We all knew what Michelle really meant.

This is progress, I guess. We seem unlikely to get a woman president this year, but at least we are no longer arguing about the proper behavior of the president's wife. What was the stuff of heated debate 16 years ago barely registers today. Of course, Michelle Obama is a successful woman with her own career and her own mind. It's the 21st Century, after all.

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