Add a new name to the list, Michelle Obama. The President's wife chewed up the scenery at the Philly Democratic National Convention on Monday night in a dress by a designer who cuts cloth for plus sized women. In the process she did what few Democrats, or Republicans, have done in this low-energy, loser-filled political season and, that is, make a case for decency and hope. In one speech Mrs. Obama countered a quotient of the doom and gloom on display last week in Cleveland, and she did it with grace, aplomb, and conviction.
On a high-powered night with Bernie Sanders, Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Paul Simon on the playbill, Mrs. O. stole the show. Remember her? She’s the First Lady who grew a garden in her yard and exercised with children on the back lawn. She, also, famously, glared hard, in an if looks could kill way, at the President for flirting, a little too openly, with Denmark’s comely Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt, proving she's no push-over, either. Mrs. Obama has appeared at numerous formal state dinners, dressed in her nines, to support Mr. Obama and adroitly chatted up the A list crowds, but rarely keynoted. She put her arm around the Queen in Buckingham Palace, breaking many centuries of protocol, and gesture that charmed Elizabeth II due to its spontaneity and affection. She sat in a little car and sang karaoke with late night TV's James Corden and, almost, seemed like us. Though a super bright and a well educated lawyer, she has kept her political advocacy, until now, mostly, to the dinner table, her own, not America’s.
It’s not hard not to remember some of the key points in her speech. There's the house she lives in that was built by slaves, presumably after the British torched it in 1814. She recounted how hard it is to raise two girls in the intense glare of media scrutiny, not all of it good. About Hillary, she said, “I’m With Her,” and talked about why experience and stability are important in a chief executive. Most importantly, she reminded us America is already great. The most remarkable thing about her speech, however, was that was she wasn’t acting. She spoke from the heart.
Michelle Obama’s "convention-side chat" was reminiscent of something you’d hear in a Frank Capra film, the kind of movie you come away from feeling good. She reminded the audience that in America decency counts and that the struggle for goodness is worth it. She extolled the high road as the only road. Though Republican’s may cringe at this, she sounded a bit like Ronald Reagan when he likened America to a “shining city on a hill.” They both advocated optimism, not fear or desperation.
Sen. Bernie Sanders came off like a teacher who has lost control of his classroom and is trying his best to restore order. Mrs. Obama, in contrast, was in control of herself and, more importantly, her audience. Sen. Corey Booker approached inspiration as he made his case for the Democrats but relied, perhaps, more on passion than heart. Sen. Elizabeth Warren sounded like my Grandmother lecturing me whenever I'd leave her house. None of these other Democrats, however, evoked goodness the way Mrs. Obama did. She made it good to feel good again.
The real test will come Thursday when another First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, gets a turn at the mike. Hillary admits campaigning is hard for her, that it doesn't come naturally. There are times when she seems like the person who is asked to say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, when the words, no matter how inspiring, can’t ever quite supersede anticipation of what's coming next. Maybe this is why the now disgraced and resigned DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Shultz, felt she had to break the rules and help her preferred candidate from the wings. That partisan miscue, however, was momentarily forgotten by the time Michelle Obama finished her speech, one in which, in so many words, she advance the proposition that greatness springs from hope, not fear; that we are a nation of believers, not doubters.
If Hillary Clinton desires to bind the country together again, to craft a win over Donald Trump in the Fall she, too, must appeal to the light and not the dark. To accomplish this, Hillary would do well to say “I’m With Her,” that is Michelle Obama. We’ll soon know if the current First Lady has stolen the show or has, as intended, played well her supporting role.
Mike Manak is an attorney, writer and photographer. He lives in California