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Michelle Obama: Keeping the Public at a Distance

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First Lady Michelle Obama will soon grace the April Vogue cover. I'm happy for her, bangs, biceps and all, but restless, too. What will she be remembered for, really, beside fashion and fitness?

With the spring wind full of words about women "leaning in" and marking the 50th birthday of Betty Friedan's game-changing "The Feminine Mystique," it's a ripe time to come to clarity about the most visible woman in America.

Now past her halfway point, Mrs. Obama still seems opaque and distant, though popular with the people. Mrs. Roosevelt she is not — not even close to leaving her writing on history's wall. She hasn't articulated a vision of the civil rights and the women's movements that happened in her lifetime. She is 49.

So I see an opening to discuss her days in the White House as highly traditional and conventional, except for dancing with Jimmy Fallon on late-night television. Sorry, that wasn't very First Ladylike.

Other than that, she hasn't broken any barriers except the color line in her unelected office. Maybe that's enough. Some say she's savvy to skip a huge policy goal, as Hillary Clinton devoted herself to health care reform, which ultimately went under.

(Chelsea Clinton's Sidwell Friends School nurse was reportedly told to call her father if she was sick; her mother was too busy.)

Mrs. Obama designated herself "Mom-in-Chief," which is a bit disappointing and simple, considering her household help. In playing her role on a public stage, she selected military families and childhood obesity, along with a vegetable garden, as causes to champion. Nobody can argue with those bland choices. Safe as they are, they don't really sing to us of her character. Or do they? Is she keeping it real as a stay-at-home mom writ large?

Frankly, I had higher hopes and expectations for this bright flower of Chicago's South Side.

I say that as a true believer when the Obamas first came to town. And I'm ready to break the silence from the same side of the political spectrum. We belong to the generation of American women for whom so many doors and opportunities opened when we were young. Just as her husband is our generation's first president, born the year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, she's our first First Lady.

Like President Obama, Michelle Robinson took an amazing voyage growing up: in her case, from the South Side to Princeton University and onto Harvard Law School. Yet she hasn't breathed a word about her odyssey or obstacles overcame along the way. Her husband Barack wrote a dreamy memoir about his coming-of-age journey. Michelle may be more hard-headed. A public figure, yes, but it's not the life she chose.

Jacqueline Kennedy embraced the arts and the White House restoration as her projects; Lady Bird Johnson led a charge for outdoor beautification; and Laura Bush founded the national book festival. These causes were all reflections of them, authentically close to their hearts and talents. Betty Ford was disarmingly open about seeking help for depression and alcoholism, born of her own experience.

Let me suggest a meaningful national conversation Mrs. Obama could convene. The discovery that she's descended from South Carolina slaves: what a dialogue for 150 years since the Civil War. But she stayed silent on that heritage, too.

Mrs. Obama's decision not to pursue her profession or a policy goal may reflect a wider retreat by the generation that inherited the gains our mothers gave us. Our privileged set has done little to advance the state of play, which is why Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" hit the ground like a revolutionary manifesto. Let's hear more on Mrs. Obama's workplace experience. After all, the Obamas met when she was his supervisor one summer at a posh Chicago law firm.

If she shared more freely, telling her story, how much more inspirational she'd be.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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Comments

4 Comments | Post Comment
I can't believe I'm going to write a comment defending the first lady, but seriously, back off her. Just because she dosen't meet your idea of what a first lady should be dosen't mean she's doing it wrong. Whats wrong with being "mom in chief"? Are you saying raising kids is too mundane a task for the elustrious first lady position that should always include social change? And who the heck are you to tell her she can't dance with Jimmy Falon? And who are you to tell her to bring up her ancenstors slavary? Perhaps she wants to leave the idea of slavary in the past, because we've moved forward to a time where blacks can become president. Not every first lady needs to carve their name in the stone and they certainly don't need to aspire to any kind of feminist standards you have in your head for them.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Mar 22, 2013 6:33 AM
Ma'am;... I am not black, and I am glad of the fact... I am enough of a stranger in a strange land as it is and I am a white guy, having the perfect disquise to see things as white guys see them... I have worked with natives, and do what I can to help... Even taking a tax deduction of over 5000 dollars for shipping clothes to NAHA in South Dakota, because they need them, and they provide me with a great receipt for tax purposes, allowing $14.72 cents a pound as a contribution... And now that I have plugged my main charity, let me say that the many books I have read about native American culture, though they gave me knowledge many of those people did not possess themselves, could not ever in a million years tell me what it is like to be one of them...
As a man I have everything in common with Mr. Obama...Yet there are differences... He is black and I am white... Yet each of us are mongrel American pups... I am German and Irish, and he is Kenyan and American... Apart from this; there is something different about Mrs. Obama and Mr...
What she has is what most American black people have as a hypersensitivity to a former relationship... I was married to a Jewish girl in my childhood, and at that time I was culturally aware as most people my age were not... I knew about the holocaust, and something of the formation of Israel... Nothing prepared me for the hypersensitivity of my mother in law to anything that smacked of racism from some Goy of the heartland when she had lost most of her European relations in the death camps...
There is that edginess to Mrs. Obama that would have been a serious impediment to the election of Mr. Obama if he had been able to demonstrate anything remotely similar to the American people... His people were never slaves... He has no issue to settle outstanding... If he suffers prejudice it is not in addition to a previous wounding...We have no idea when we deal with black people what we are in fact dealing with... We will never know how they feel, and while we would very much like to act through a form of race, that is as a white person relating to a black person, that the very act of doing so is a negation to some ones individual identity...
I have made this particular mistake a hundred times, of reminding blacks of their former status, but also of the ways my particular family bridged those gaps... Does it mean anything to them that my father worked often with a black man in ironwork before law mandated black people in Ironwork, and that ironworkers proud to associate with him as a good mechanic and a man denied his blackness by calling him a Blackfoot Indian???
Does it matter to them that my father took me to his barber who was a black barber for my first haircut; that crossing the color barrior for him was as easy as seeing the humanity in a man, though he remained a patty all his life, patting black men on their heads for good luck if the chance should arise??? Did it matter that when our Union was integrated, they asked him to take on the black apprentice because they knew he would, and make him an ironworker if it was possible... Black people were almost as foreign as moon men where I grew up, and strange to tell, some people hated them without knowing the first one of them...
That thing, that chip on the shoulder of so many black people is what many see on Mrs, Obama... It is terrible to have a debt owed to you by one who cannot pay it back, does not feel it is owed, or outright denies it because friendship under those circumstances are impossible...Huge areas of this country were opened up, and made productive almost over night only because black people could be freely worked to death in the process...This fact is denied in our history books through the neglect of it; but black people know... When some one asks them to work for slave wages, and act all humble and nice with a superior that may in every sense be their mental inferior- it begrudges them... People like myself with some sense of humanity who think they may have some slight idea of what it is like to grow up black in a white society begrudge them...I have tried to help... What is that??? How hard did I actually try to see that my people ever gave their people an equal and more than equal opportunity... Just to make things right...
It is one thing to ask your government to try to insure some justice for our people... I find it extremely difficult as a white person to relate to black people... I confess I do not like their culture, and think it is destructive of them, and is neither genuinely African or American...There is nothing else for me to do, but try to relate to each of them as individuals even though we like the guidelines of formality, that since our cultures have so long been at odds, that those lines of demarkation are a deadline sowed with landmines and pitfalls...The fact is that any relationship without rules, in-formal, is the most stressful relationship anyone can endure... If you gave two strangers the choice of a slow dance without rules or a tango ruled, but with barely controlled sexual tensions they would take the tango if they did not know the first step...Even when the formality is difficult, distant, and painful as it is between blacks and white, we seem to prefer it to a free for all blind to form-er relationships...
I can see at times the human being in those individuals unobscured by the color of their skins... One of mine once fought on Little Round Top, and in nearly every major engagement in the Army of the Potomic in a war made necessary to preserve the freedom of this nation... All free people everywhere have been slaves... The few Gailic words we have in English come from their period as servants in Anglo Saxon households, words like Rug, for example...The freedom we seldom know, but take for granted has been so long ours that we forgot it was never given, and always taken... No one has given the blacks their freedom, and as wage slaves they have no freedom complete...At the rate they are going, at the rate we are all progressing they will never have equality and never break free of that culture of slavery... That is no victory for those who would cast them once again into bondage...Niether is it a victory for them, for humanity, or for this nation...
I do not wish for blindness... We gain so much from sight, that as Aristotle said: It is the last sense anyone would be without... I wish when I look at a black person whether remarkable as Mrs. Obama, or some John, like my neighbor, that I could see simply a person, and that color would not be so loaded with implications...
Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Fri Mar 22, 2013 7:06 AM
Re: Chris McCoy... All us white folks, especially the many descending from those who actually fought for emancipation would really like to forget about slavery... I would like to foget about my mortgage too; but I can't expect the bank to forget...
Did you ever lose a tooth??? Your tongue will some times touch that blank and your mind will register surprise... Imagine knowing you had lost something as important as your freedom and your culture, that many of your relatives were worked to death under conditions of the worst sort of brutality, that your mothers were raped or bred like animals to bear babies as beasts of burden, that you were not only denied liberty, but even the most basic education, that it was a crime to teach a black to read or write...
Whether a black person considers their culture lost or considers their bondage they are owed a great debt by this society that is barely covered by the sops we toss them... You cannot just tell these people to get over it... It will not happen especially when the jobs they are offered are nothing more than slavery with wages... All the crap they actually teach, that the condition of slavery was not so bad, that as property the slave was cared for is garbage that no one preaching it would endure as reality for a moment... The conditions under which chattel slavery was ended was wrong because for the most part, the physical act of choosing freedom and actually freeing oneself in a great act of self expression and realization did not occur; and we did not continue with the process of bring them to equality so, that a long period of actual servitude was forced upon them...
The notion that anyone besides the slave or the slave master could end the relationship is wrong... Roman masters often freed their slaves, but too many freed old slaves they no longer wished to support, and since this act made them citizens entitled to the corn dole; the process had to be limited with taxes... If we have freed our slaves, then we have also freed ourselves, and this has not occured... If we had freed them, then they would have been equal if we were free, and citizens; but we allowed their further exploitation, and this meant our own exploitation...
They have every reason for complaint... I have no doubt that if black people like Mrs. Obama were free to speak freely, that they could burn your ears off... Political considerations will keep them silent...
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Fri Mar 22, 2013 7:34 AM
Sweeny slavary is in the past. Your mortgage is in the present. If your mortgage is paid than you should forget about it. Do you need to go over your tenses?
Comment: #4
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Sat Mar 23, 2013 6:17 PM
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