A critical plank of Sen.
Obama’s presidential campaign has been his appeal for national unity. In
speeches crafted to bridge partisan divides, he has assailed the “drama
and division and distraction” of Washington politics and urged Americans to
rise above their differences. Whatever one makes of this approach, and
substantively it leaves a great deal to be desired, there is little doubting
its success thus far. Whether in southern states like South
Carolina, with their large black electorates, or majority-white
states like Iowa and Wisconsin, Obama’s message has found popular
purchase. So it is not a little ironic that the cross-racial bonhomie
engendered by the Obama campaign is threatened by the woman closest to the
senator: his wife Michelle Obama.
That was most apparent in Wisconsin this week,
where the tension between Obama’s soothing, post-racial politics and his wife’s
more astringent views flared out in the open. As Sen. Obama traversed the state
to make his final pitch to the voters, Michelle Obama spent the week chiding
them for their past folly. Speaking in Milwaukee,
“For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels
like hope is finally making a comeback.”
It was a jarring statement.
Did the candidate’s wife really mean to suggest that the country had been
hopeless until her husband emerged as the Democratic frontrunner? Indeed she
did, and just a few hours later, she reiterated the point in nearly identical
terms. “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country
-- not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry
for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction
and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.” There was
no mistaking her message: Until it found the wisdom to rally around her
had been a source of constant disappointment for Mrs. Obama.
When her remarks justifiably
aroused outrage, the unenviable task of explaining
them away fell to the senator himself. On the one hand, Obama said, his wife’s
words had been taken “out of context.” But at the same time, Sen. Obama
continued, “she’s pretty cynical about the political process, and with good
reason, and she’s not alone.” And sure enough, it was this cynicism that landed
her in trouble in the first place.
Yet it’s hard to see what
Michelle Obama has to be cynical about. Though it is true that she was born on
the South Side of Chicago, there is no shortage of Americans who start from
humble beginnings. The difference is that, unlike many, Michelle Obama is also
a child of privilege. In a recent interview with Newsweek,
Obama reveals that she got into Princeton
University not on the
strength of her grades, which she admits were unexceptional, but thanks to her
brother Craig, a star athlete and gifted student who preceded her to the
school. As a “legacy” candidate and a beneficiary of affirmative action, Michelle
Obama was granted an opportunity that others more accomplished were denied.
Nor, according to friends quoted in the article, did Obama object when she was
later accepted to Harvard as part of the school’s outreach to minority
students. “She recognized that she had been privileged by affirmative action
and she was very comfortable with that,” her friend recalls.
Comfortable, perhaps, but
certainly not content. A more humble personality might have appreciated the
unearned advantages she had been afforded. Michelle Obama seems instead to have
developed an abiding sense of racial resentment. This resentment finds its most
bitter expression in her 1985 Princeton senior
thesis, conveniently blocked from public viewing by the school until after next
year’s presidential election, titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black
Community.” In it, the young Michelle LaVaughn Robinson paints a grim portrait
of her future prospects, warning against “further integration and/or
assimilation into a White cultural and social structure that will only allow me
to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant.”
Regardless of the opportunities that had been offered her, Obama continued to
see herself as a victim of a racist white society, trapped in the divide that
her husband’s campaign now seeks to breech.
It would be unfair to assume
that Michelle Obama’s writings as an angry and alienated undergrad are a
reliable guide to her current views about race and her country more generally.
After all, contrary to the grim prognosis in her Princeton
thesis, Obama went on to succeed in the white “social structure” she had deemed
so forbidding. She has held jobs at top corporate law-firms in Chicago, earned six-figure salaries, and seen
her husband, himself of African descent, all but clinch the nomination of the
Democratic Party. If that is not enough to make her a full participant in
American society, nothing is.
But all evidence indicates
that her views remain unchanged. In a February 2007 appearance with her husband
on 60 Minutes, for instance, she said that “as a black man, you know,
Barack can get shot going to the gas station.” Not the least of the problems
with the charge was its conspiratorial suggestion that blacks were being
targeted on account of their race. And in one tragic sense they were, though
not, as Obama’s statement seemed to imply, by whites: According
to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 1976 and 2005, 94 percent of black
victims were killed by blacks. Empirically baseless, Michelle Obama’s warning
nonetheless revealed how deeply she had absorbed the narrative of black
victimization in America.
It does not follow that the
mixed messages of the Obama campaign -- his hopeful and forward-looking, hers
sullen and intransigent -- will slow its current momentum. The rapturous crowds
who flock by the thousands to the senator’s campaign stops seem unlikely to
stand for any criticism of their candidate. (Sometimes literally: fainting
has reportedly become a common occurrence at Obama rallies.) Before them,
neither Obama nor any member of his campaign can do wrong. General election
voters, on the other hand, may look less sympathetically on the prospect of a
First Lady who would carry her unrequited grievances to the White House.
“We are the change we seek,”
Barack Obama is fond of saying on the campaign trail. To the extent that the
phrase has any meaning, it is that the United States is fundamentally a
noble country, with an active and engaged citizenry seeking do right. Sen.
Obama has certainly persuaded his supporters to believe that. Now if only he
could convince his own wife.