In early March, the head of the Tennessee and Greater Nashville hospitality associations sent an email to a dozen or so people that compared First Lady Michelle Obama to a chimpanzee. As word leaked of this offensive humor, pressure built and the man responsible was soon fired.
To those who oppose the current health care proposal, the massive spending, and the endless barrage of new ways for government to invade our wallets and private lives, here is a message: Don't attack a good first lady.
In late 2008, I wrote a column praising Laura Bush. It brought me a totally unexpected personal note of thanks from then-President Bush. I'm not holding my breath on getting the same kind of response from this president. But no matter. I think it's important to take the opportunity brought about by this incident surrounding Michelle Obama to make three important points.
First, this stuff is more widespread than just one guy doing it in one state. I'm well aware of other such comparisons and tasteless jokes. They are more than offensive and inappropriate. They also do practical harm by painting all those who oppose the most liberal administration since Franklin Roosevelt as racist Neanderthals. That's the last possible image Obama's political opponents and detractors should be sending, especially right now, with so many key issues hanging in the balance.
Second, I must admit that I've been pleasantly surprised at the first lady's disciplined willingness to avoid playing political games most of the time. Michelle Obama is a bright and accomplished woman. When the president was sworn in, I felt sure she was going to be a sort of surrogate vice president, much as Hillary Clinton was.
Mostly that hasn't happened. Yes, she recently asked food manufacturers to speed up production of healthy food for kids, but that's hardly a radical cause. And she delivered the message as a request and not an ultimatum. She has her causes, but we see little evidence of Michelle Obama with her sleeves rolled up, burning the midnight oil with her own staff to, for example, get a massive health care bill passed.
The first lady is also proving to be an exemplary model parent. It's plain that she's actively involved in the lives of her two daughters. The commitment that she and President Obama are demonstrating toward having a normal family life surely should be gaining the positive notice of the African-American community. By the admission of many of its top leaders and officials, this is a demographic that has suffered a decrease in the number of traditional families. Far too many young black women are left with children, but with no father in sight.
Third and finally, there is the risk we could face when Barack Obama is up for re-election in about two-and-a-half years. Recent articles have been published in which some blacks have criticized the president for not doing enough to ease their financial pain. Several surveys, particularly in hard-hit Southern states with heavy African-American populations, indicate that the blacks there are experiencing some heartburn with the president.
But make no mistake, when Obama runs for re-election, he most likely will enjoy much the same level of black support that he got in 2008. And what if he were to be defeated? What would be the reaction of the African-American community the day after the election?
There's no reason to presume it would be anything but tranquil, as it is in America following any Election Day. Unless, that is, Obama's possible defeat followed a perceived pattern of those who oppose his policies indulging in racist hijinks such as comparing the president or his wife to a chimp. My guess is that such ugliness might then lead to a post-election situation that could tear the nation apart.
Let me be clear: I believe that among conservatives and others who oppose the policies of President Obama and the Democrats, the percentage is very small of those who would even think of making these kinds of "jokes" and other disparaging remarks about the president or first lady.
Now let's be clear again: Unfairly disparaging Michelle Obama, or making any tasteless characterization of this sort, cannot be tolerated. And Democrats and those on the more liberal side of the political aisle should know that the vast majority of Republicans, conservatives and independents share this view.