Remember last year when the consensus seemed to be that Candidate Obama's wife Michelle would surely mean his demise? There was all that business of her never having been proud of her country and being a terrorist fist-jabber and then she was awarded the ultimate, inexcusable title of angry black woman. Oooh, scary.
Over the course of the last several months, specifically since her husbands' installation as leader of the free world, that scary, angry black woman has fast become America's sweetheart. Mrs. Obama is proving to be a new brand of First Lady.
I don't mean to imply that the accomplishments of previous First Ladies should appear petty or insignificant. Elenor Roosevelt transformed the role of First Lady and fought for the rights of underprivileged people of all races and all nations. Hillary Clinton certainly brought intelligence and competence as she tried to take on the national health care system with assurance and command, a refreshing respite after Barbara Bush's authoritarian, grandmotherly gaze from atop her three-tiered, pearl collar. Rosalind Carter, a charming southern woman, took a strong interest to promote programs to aid mental health and the elderly as well as championing the performing arts. Betty Ford did terrific things during her tenure as First Lady to promote awareness of breast cancer and substance abuse issues and even Laura Bush showed kindness, generosity and compassion, working to end literacy during the time her husband's administration was gutting our judicial system. Many previous First Ladies have accomplished great things in their chosen areas of charity and in the agendas they've championed.
Filling such an iconic role as the first black First Lady is no small feat but Michelle Obama seems to be pulling it off effortlessly. Her journey from the south side of Chicago to Princeton, Harvard Law School then into the role of lawyer, mom to two beautiful daughters, Sasha and Malia, while being a devoted daughter and loving wife seems almost super human. Add to all this the significance of the fact that she is a descendant of American slaves and she is living in the White House! Is it any wonder that this woman is on, seemingly, every magazine cover?
Voices from the GOP continue to bad mouth and trash the Obamas. Rush Limbaugh, with three divorces and a well documented prescription drug addiction history, continues to throw ugly verbal stones at the Obamas while they, seemingly unaffected by these accusations, appear to live in idyllic Eisenhower-esque married bliss.
Have we ever had a First Lady from an urban, middle class, blue-collar background? I don't know. We've certainly never seen a woman bring this level of education to the role of First Lady. Sure, Hillary was an educated woman with a law degree but her lack of softness and the almost twenty year age difference between them creates the contrast of one who is a feminist lioness and one who shrugs it off.
If carrying off the improbable roles of educated, modern woman, super-mom, devoted daughter, loving wife and American icon simultaneously wasn't enough, a couple of weeks ago Mrs. Obama served food to homeless people at a soup kitchen in Washington DC. Of course this was arranged as a press opportunity but Mrs. Obama possesses a certain amount of sincerity and down-to-earth-iness that simply cannot be manufactured. She wasn't only feeding homeless people because some public relations guy thought it would be a good idea she wanted to be there.
Just last week our First Lady left the capitol for Fort Bragg, North Carolina to commence her agenda of reaching out to military families. The news footage of her greeting these military families tugged on my heartstrings particularly hard and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because of just how genuine and approachable she seemed as she was shaking hands and embracing these military men and women and their spouses. Maybe it's the still, surprisingly emotional punch the image of an African American First Lady has. Maybe it's just the simple authenticity and freedom from hypocrisy that emanates from her smiling face after these previous eight years of questionable, even nefarious government conduct.
Mrs. Obama seems to be striking a chord with her focus on the needs of military families. In her first television interview since her husband took office Mrs. Obama told ABC news, after hearing about military families on food stamps:
"It hurts. It hurts. These are people who are willing to send their loved ones off to, perhaps, give their lives _ the ultimate sacrifice. But yet, they're living back at home on food stamps. It's not right, and it's not where we should be as a nation."
"I encourage everyone out there, within the sound of my voice, to reach out on your own _ through schools, PTA, Little Leagues, churches, workplaces _ and find out if there's a soldier or a soldier's family right there in the community who needs a little extra support," Mrs. Obama said in her speech to community leaders in nearby Fayetteville. "They're there. Something as simple as offering help with car pool duty can make the world of difference to a parent who's trying to hold the family together during a very stressful time."
"Our soldiers and their families have done their duty _ and they do it without complaint," Mrs. Obama said. "And we as a grateful nation must do ours _ do everything in our power to honor them by supporting them."
Topping off the news coverage of her Fort Bragg visit Michele Obama was shown reading "The Cat In The Hat" to children ages 3 to 5, at a Fort Bragg child development center. Seated on the floor she said "I used to read this book to my daughters" a small boy ran up to her, hugged her around her neck and said,
"I know Sasha!"
"You know Sasha?" she replied.
And the two continued to hug as the other children sidled their way in for hugs of their own.
Mrs. Obama's iconic persona seems to have become a conduit for the message of this new era. This message is not just ringing true for military families or women or black people or even Americans (think back to the crowds gathered for then Candidate Obama's speech in Berlin or the celebrations in Kenya on election night). This administration's promise of authenticity, encouragement and inclusion, this message of hope, is being felt by everyone - even children.