Toronto
3 min

What I learned from Michelle Obama’s convention speech

Don't get your hopes up

I had just finished the laundry and I thought I’d reward myself with Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.

New York magazine had just done a fascinating special issue on the role of race in the US presidential election and Michelle Obama came across as particularly appealing — feisty, funky, down to earth and very much aware. She seemed somebody so calm, cool and sophisticated, you knew just to look at her that she had to be totally cool with gays. And then we cut to the convention floor and that perfect swooping Jackie O haircut, the million-dollar smile and the million-dollar clichés.

Obama’s wife was there to do just one thing: un-scare scared US voters and reassure them that the Obamas are just like them. Not the way Americans actually are — Jerry Springer and family meltdown — but the way they’re supposed to be — the Brady Bunch and 1950s fantasy. In short, we were back in family-values wonderland.

Now, there’s no way you can blame Michelle Obama for selling this stuff. She has a role to play and she played it. The Obamas won’t be elected if she doesn’t. Nor do I think anyone could have done a better job of selling this hokum. Short of putting her kids to bed on stage, I doubt she could have come across as more of a loving mother, doting daughter and devoted wife. And she did it with passion, dignity and class.

But lord, it was hard to watch this obviously intelligent woman pander to yobs by boxing herself into a stale and self-limiting role and pander not just with the debasement (read “softening”) of her own personality, but with a collection of clichés that were invented generations ago to keep working people in their place, women in the home and gays in the back alleys, clichés like hard work, family values, no complaining.

Her father had MS, she said, but he never complained, as though that is some sort of achievement. Well, people who don’t complain often don’t get treatment. As for hard work, it doesn’t get you very far if you’re being paid minimum wage or your job’s been outsourced.

The richest people don’t work at all; they live off other’s people’s work and call it investing. And while most of us derive some solace from our various “families” — I have no doubt that Michelle Obama dotes on hers — the mere fact that she felt she had to say what others might take for granted suggests a particularly bald piece of political calculus.

In America in 2008 it seems you still have to pitch for faith and family if you want to get elected. If that wasn’t perfectly clear when Michelle Obama finished her speech, it was when the CBC ran a clip of her husband’s appearance a week or so earlier at a California mega-church.

Asked about his definition of marriage, Barack Obama said that it was “the union between a man and a woman” and that for him as a Christian, it was “also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” Now, I think we all know what happens when God, or rather a particularly narrow and judgmental version of same, enters the picture: gays tend to get the boot.

Almost every major speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Denver made some sort of nod to gay rights and Barack Obama himself is on record as supporting them. According to The Advocate, Obama has promised any number of pro-gay measures, ranging from improved immigration rights and hate-crime laws to the ditching of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” doctrine that confines gays to the closet for the duration of their service in the US military — pretty much everything in fact but gay marriage.

But Bill Clinton was just as gay-friendly before he was elected in 1992 then he reversed himself and introduced “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s still in effect today and if you don’t think it’s having an effect, check out the profile of one closeted American soldier who died with the admiration of many and the intimate love of none.

(See Ben McGrath’s “A Soldier’s Legacy” in the Aug 4 New Yorker, available online.)

I’m sure the Obamas would like to reverse policies like that but there’s a lot of resistance out there and you can see it in the Obamas’ naked appeals to groups who are not naturally their constituency.

A lot of people, including myself, have a lot of hope riding on the Obama campaign. I haven’t been this excited about a national candidate, American or Canadian, in decades. But I think we’d do well to remember the lesson of Michelle Obama’s speech. A lot of people still don’t like strong bright women with lives outside the home, and those same people probably don’t much like gays either.