Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Michelle Obama took the high road to lay Donald Trump in the dust

Michelle Obama pulled off a Houdini trick in her magnificently distilled framing of the choice in this election in her convention speech last night.

On the one hand, she articulated a humane, inclusive vision of what America is and of what's required to lead America. At the same time, she framed the choice in this election as absolutely Manichean.

She managed at once to take the high road -- "our motto is, when they go low, we go high"--  while
leveling the most devastating attack on Trump yet articulated.  It was devastating because she didn't deign to name him. She refrained not out of delicacy, but to demonstrate that she didn't have to. He was so instantly recognizable -- as were his dual alter egos, Obama and Clinton. as she had earlier portrayed them:

And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that’s what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere. Someone who knows this job and takes it seriously. Someone who understands that the issues a President faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters. (Applause.) Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady, and measured, and well-informed.

I want a President with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed -- (applause) -- and we give back, even when we’re struggling ourselves, because we know that there is always someone worse off, and there but for the grace of God go I.

I want a President who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters –- a President who truly believes in the vision that our founders put forth all those years ago: That we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. (Applause.) And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other -– no, we listen to each other. We lean on each other. Because we are always stronger together. 
Side note: I love her pivots on  the word"no," which bespeak an intensity of moral challenge. This is admittedly a stretch, but that last riff above -- "we don't turn against each other, no..." reminds me of this:
love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. 
Not to say this:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking..
And more simply, the theme printed on convention signs: Love trumps hate.

The speech's main argument was as simple as they get: you want a president who's committed to the welfare of others, not to self-aggrandizement. Her husband and Hillary Clinton were cast in the first category, and Trump in the second. That's really only appropriate in the unique context of facing a manifest psychopath like Trump -- in which case it's essential. She could make the argument that this election is not about policy -- though it was implicit that the right policy flows from the right personal commitment.

Despite that simplicity, the subtlety with which the case was infused with personal passion and integrity and telling detail could be studied forever, and perhaps will be. The transitions bespeak a mind at work: from personal anxiety over raising children in the White House fishbowl and the determination to teach them by example to the president's alleged duty to teach the nation by example. From the president as symbolic father or mother of the country to the president as personally committed to the welfare of real people to the president as able (or not) to execute policy that advances the welfare of the country. Finally, from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton (on the high road, bypassing Trump). Also, from the decency of Americans in action today (police and protesters in Dallas, blood donors in Orlando) to the long historic quest to fulfill the promise of the nation's founding documents (from a slave-built White House to a black first family).

That last is Barack Obama's favorite theme, his ur-narrative: the U.S.'s capacity to change, to move in fits and starts toward a more perfect (never perfected) union. For me, the speech also recalled other, more recent parts of our political conversation. First, Timothy Egan's tribute to the Obamas' personal conduct in office:
No matter what you think of Obama the executive branch, it’s hard to argue that Obama the human being has been anything less than a model of class and dignity. If, as was often said about black pioneers in sports, you had to be twice as good to succeed, Obama’s personal behavior has set a standard few presidents have ever reached.

As we saw again this week, when he took the deep breath for us, when he begged us not to let hearts turn to stone when the world is a quarry of hate, he is at his best when the rest of us are at our worst. We will long remember him singing “Amazing Grace” at that service for people slaughtered in a Charleston church, their deaths a hate crime. And we may well remember him trying to wring something teachable from the ambush of police officers; their deaths also a hate crime.
That was the premise, signaled without boasting, of one of the transitions mentioned above:
I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. (Laughter.) And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, “What have we done?” (Laughter.) See, because at that moment, I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them.

That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight -- how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. (Applause.) How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. (Applause.) How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level -– no, our motto is, when they go low, we go high. Applause.

With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are their most important role models. And let me tell you, Barack and I take that same approach to our jobs as President and First Lady, because we know that our words and actions matter not just to our girls, but to children across this country –- kids who tell us, “I saw you on TV, I wrote a report on you for school.” Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, “Is my hair like yours? 
That segue from parents as role models to president as role model -- one that a lot of political theorists find problematic, btw -- also recalls this Clinton ad:




A third recent text that formed a subtext (in my mind if not in Michelle Obama's or her speechwriters') was Elizabeth Warren's simple, by now oft-repeated assertion that Trump "serves no one but himself."

Perhaps most skillfully of all, the speech blended (and balanced)  portraits of Obama and Clinton as those with the character and ability to be president. Her tribute to Hillary had meat, averring her success as a parent, her lifelong commitment to children's welfare, her team commitment after she lost the 2008 nomination fight, and her perseverance and grit. And then, with a powerful refrain ("I want a president..."), one more transition to what was effectively a dual portrait --  Obama and Clinton -- before tacking back to lay the mantle on Hillary. Here it is once more, through that prism:
And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that’s what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere. Someone who knows this job and takes it seriously. Someone who understands that the issues a President faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.  Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady, and measured, and well-informed.

I want a President with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed -- (applause) -- and we give back, even when we’re struggling ourselves, because we know that there is always someone worse off, and there but for the grace of God go I.

I want a President who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters –- a President who truly believes in the vision that our founders put forth all those years ago: That we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story.  And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other -– no, we listen to each other. We lean on each other. Because we are always stronger together.

And I am here tonight because I know that that is the kind of president that Hillary Clinton will be. And that’s why, in this election, I’m with her. 
Of course, anyone could take issue with these profiles in perfection, as with the concept of the president of father/mother of the country. But articulated as a party ideal, the praise of commitment to the common welfare, to unity in diversity -- in short, to love -- is the right message, expressed here with genius.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this terrific analysis. It's not surprising that such a brilliant takedown of an opponent was delivered by a Black woman. Michelle Obama has a lifetime of experience living in her own skin, dealing with the societal limitations placed on women and on African-Americans. She has a lifetime of daily practice in developing the survival skills of how to communicate one's message powerfully despite those limitations and prejudices. Among other things, what we all saw the other night is all those finely honed skills powerfully brought to bear on a particular moment on the national stage.

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