Mother Knows Best

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Aug 29, 2008 12:01 AM
Mother Knows Best

Boy, it’s a good thing the Obamas decided early on in this presidential campaign not to exploit those adorable little girls of theirs for political purposes. If they hadn’t, Michelle Obama’s speech Monday night at the Democrats’ national convention would have been unbearable — instead of just slightly sickening.

What ever became of the real Michelle, the tough broad from the South Side who said what she thought no matter what? Remember her?

You know, the one back at the start of this campaign. The one who said that only now, for the first time in her adult life, was she proud of her country. We knew just what she meant, at least before she explained/weaseled out of it. Ooo-wee. That got our attention. That lady was real.

But it’s hard to conjure her up now, the Michelle Obama who wasn’t going to let her husband’s latest political flyer — not off to Springfield this time but the White House — interfere with her children’s raisin’.

What ever happened to that Michelle? In Denver’s mile-high atmosphere, she seems to have been replaced by some kind of Stepford Wife and Loyal Helpmeet. What a transformation: from cracklin’ to white bread, State Street to Madison Avenue. It brought to mind Betty Crocker’s latest makeover on the flour boxes. Or maybe a re-run of the old “Father Knows Best” sitcom from the proper 1950s.

The old Michelle Obama had to go. She’d been entirely too much her own person, acting as if you could campaign for First Lady and still be yourself. Her performance Monday night sent me off on a little nostalgia trip for the old Michelle. The way I sometimes sigh over the old Hillary Rodham, the Ivy League radical with the Coke-bottle glasses who once upon an ancient time would tell you what’s what, and give you what-for, before she became the well-coiffed

Hillary! of the bumper stickers and floor demonstrations.

And now, only in a much a shorter time, like a speeded-up time exposure, Michelle Obama has undergone the same extreme makeover. Monday night should have been the equivalent of a White Sox game under the blurry lights on a sweaty summer night at old Comiskey Park. Instead, the country gets Wrigley Field with its perfectly manicured ivy on the antique brick wall. Why, how Near North Side, how . . . Hyde Park! Somebody had got to the old Michelle Obama. The world as it is had struck while she was still orating about the world as it should be.

Who is it who makes our political figures brands instead of people? Who are the all-present, all-knowing and in the end all-corrupting They in every political campaign who soften John McCain’s edges and turn Barack Obama’s cool, reasoning approach into that of another pol shouting at us? The way he did Saturday when he brought on Joe Biden, the savvy Washington insider, as his running buddy and sideman.

What a show that was. And in old Springfield, where Abe Lincoln still walks at midnight. But not before. In the blinding heat of the day, Barack Obama had at last achieved his Transfiguration. He’d turned into an ordinary presidential candidate, complete with his vice presidential candidate and ax man at his side. All the shoddy traditions were being observed.

The new kind of politician — this year’s Wendell Wilkie and Adlai Stevenson, someone free of boss rule if you believed the advance notices — had become the old kind of politician he was supposed to be running against. Delicious.

But hey, listen, pal, Wilkie and Stevenson lost, didn’t they? And what people want, or at least what the party wants, is a winner. Which is why the show must go on.

It’s what They decree, and everybody knows who they are — the campaign consultants, the marketeers, the pollsters and focus-group organizers, the political cosmetologists. You can hear them filling up dead-air time on cable TV 24/7, making the old test pattern of television’s youth a thing of beauty and serenity by comparison.

Why, Michelle Obama is just like us now. She told us so. Barack Obama, too, is just average. Our leaders are no better, no worse, than the rest of us. Whew, that’s a relief. The old Republic with its old demands? It’s gone without a trace, replaced by this shiny new mega-democracy in which any distinctions between us and our betters have disappeared. Indeed, there are no more betters. We can all relax now.

We’re not only created equal, now we’re created the same. Local color? A sense of place? Distinctive architecture, accents, history, cuisine? How incorrect politically. Multicultural is the word now, meaning no distinct culture. We all blur. No one must stand out. Michelle is one of us!

This is what the image-makers call a re-introduction, and it worked. Listen to what one Arkansas delegate had to say on Mrs. Obama’s performance Monday night. Thurman Metcalf of Rogers, Ark., a cosmetologist himself, looked on The New Michelle and approved:

“She proved she’s real. She’s one of us.”

And isn’t that the highest compliment?