Republicans apparently have decided that Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, is fair game for their slurs.
They’ve turned a quote from a speech where she expresses her pride in America for the outpouring of youthful participation and idealism that has been unleashed by the Obama campaign and turned it into an insult to America. The Tennessee Republican Party cut a Web ad to greet Obama, suggesting that while Michelle Obama wasn’t proud of America, Tennessee Republicans were. On Fox, Bill O’Reilly offered his smarmy smear, saying that this was a “big deal.” The McCain campaign had Cindy McCain weigh in, saying that she’s always been proud of America, unlike some others.
For African-Americans, love for the country preceded pride in the country. It took martyrs, marches and a will to put dignity over disdain to create an America where we share more equality under the law—the right to vote, open housing, more access to quality education...pride.
Now that we can vote together and for each other—in big numbers—we have Whites voting for a Black and men voting for a woman. That’s new!
Michelle is watching her husband be the conduit for a new, mature, more caring America—the America Dr. King dreamed about but never experienced. He saw this America, perhaps beyond the mountaintop. Michelle and this generation are now experiencing it. It is new and beautiful, a substantial basis to feel proud and accepted for the first time.
Have they no shame?
Michelle Obama grew up as Michelle Robinson on Chicago’s South Side. At Whitney Young High School, a magnet public school, Michelle and my oldest daughter, Santita, became tight friends. Michelle came from a loving, two-parent family. Her mother stayed at home and ensured that her two children survived the mean streets. Her formidable father had contracted multiple sclerosis at the age of 21. Despite constant pain, he got up every morning and went to work at the city’s Water Department. He set high standards for his children.
Michelle’s older brother, a gifted athlete and student, made his way on scholarship to Princeton. What came easy to him was harder for Michelle, but she worked harder and kept going. She followed him to Princeton, graduated with departmental honors, and then went on to Harvard Law School. On the partnership track of the blue-chip Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin, Michelle decided, soon after her father passed away, that she wanted more from her life than copyright law—so she took a deep pay cut to move into public service.
Like her mother and father, Michelle’s first priority is her two daughters. She doesn’t like to stay away more than one night at a time. She insists Barack come back for parent-student conferences and ballet recitals.
On the campaign trail, she delights audiences because she isn’t packaged. She doesn’t like to be scripted. She has an edgy humor, often blunt speech. Barack calls her his “rock;” she says she’s just concerned about “keeping it real.”
She is an American success story. And it isn’t surprising that she feels new pride in America in this political season. She was born when Blacks were still struggling for their civil rights. She grew up amid the struggles of Chicago’s South Side. She made her way in elite White schools, suffering the slights, feeling the insecurities. It didn’t make her bitter; it made her better. And now she sees people in large numbers rallying to the historic candidacies of her husband and Hillary Clinton. Who doesn’t feel new pride in this country?
American politics ain’t beanbag. It’s always been an alley fight, from the earliest days of the republic. But there has usually been a zone of privacy for candidates’ families. This year, however, it is clear that Republicans are truly desperate. Their failures in office have been calamitous. They have nothing to offer but more of the same. Unable to run on their record or their ideas, they have little choice but to make the election into a mud brawl.
As the Democratic nominee, Obama should expect that. They’ll go to great lengths to turn him from an idealistic leader seeking to bring America together into a Black nationalist alien who hates America. He’ll have to figure out how to deal with the slurs.
But smearing Michelle Obama isn’t hardball, it is despicable. If Republicans want a character argument, fine. But they’d better stick with Barack. Because Michelle Obama is way out of their league.
Reverend Jackson n can be contacted by e-mail at