DENVER -- "Just be Michelle."
So said Al Sharpton when asked by reporters yesterday what advice he had for Michelle Obama in advance of her speech at the Democratic convention. Democrats should be happy his advice was ignored.
The Michelle we saw last night wasn't the Michelle who, since reaching adulthood, had never really been proud of her country until she hit the campaign trail. It wasn't the Michelle Obama who paints a picture of an America so hellish that it's hard to go on living.
This was a soft-focus Michelle, a regular working class girl who has been proud of her country all of her life. Here's a sampling from Michelle's Parade of Patriotism:
"I know firsthand from [my parents'] lives and mine that the American dream endures."
"And isn't that the great American story? It's the story of men and women... determined to mold our future into the shape of our ideals."
"I stand her today at the crosscurrents of that history, knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me."
"That is why I love this country. And in my own life, in my own small way, I've tried to give back to this country that has given me so much."
And so on. This was high-gear damage control, a speech crafted to sand down the abrasive surface of Michelle Obama's public image and apply a shiny varnish.
You would hardly guess that this was the same woman who is "so tired and disappointed in the direction of the country," and who has said the we're "still struggling in this nation with a level of cynicism and fear that is drowning" our children.
Teresa Heinz Kerry, another wannabe first lady with image problems, gave a speech at the 2004 convention which was crafted in the model of "Just be Teresa." Pegged as a haughty snob whose husband was beholden to European elite opinion, Teresa doubled down on her image by greeting the audience in five languages and scolding the world for not being comfortable with her because she was (as she pronounced it)"opin-knee-onated."
Michelle Obama knocked her speech out of the park; despite having never run for office, she's a better public speaker than nearly all of the elected officials who appeared on the podium before her. It would be surprising if anyone who encountered Michelle for the first time last night didn't come away liking her. But those who were familiar with her previous rounds of rhetoric may have been left wondering: Who's the real Michelle Obama? Is she a patriot with her head held high, or a dissident with her fists clenched tight?
The answer is most likely that Ms. Obama's attitudes about America are complicated -- quite a bit more complicated than a lot of Americans would approve of. Odi et amo may have worked for Catullus, but it's not a winning political pitch.
The Obama campaign has cannily learned to drop a curtain over Michelle Obama's deep reservations about the country her husband seeks to lead. The question now is whether voters will notice.
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