The traditional role of a first lady at campaign events is to let us see her husband as she sees him. And a national convention is the ultimate Campaign Event. At its best, it is a kind of poetry reading, and requires the same willing suspension of disbelief from its audience. In this case, the audience is the nation.
How well a first lady does depends on who she is, and who the president is. Just imagine the monumental task Pat Nixon had. Then again, Jackie Kennedy seemed to the manor born and reared for the role. She was always the refined Bouvier, a restful island in a rocky Irish sea of Kennedys. She gave Joe Kennedy's boy class, to use a phrase without it. The way Ted Sorensen did his speeches and books.
The current, artless term of art for the assignment no first lady can escape is the neo-word, humanize. As in, Ann Romney humanized her husband at this year's Republican national convention. Well, almost.
At its worst, such a performance by a first lady is unconvincing. Like a living, breathing woman pretending to be a Stepford Wife adopting a fixed smile while her president-husband orates, politicks, and generally carries on to no great purpose, as men will. Much like Hillary Clinton at Bill's side on the campaign trail. Nobody bought it. Especially those who remembered her as the Radcliffe radical with the thick glasses and sharp opinions. Some of us still do miss that girl.
But a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, mainly grow up, no matter how tough the job is. Like being first lady whether she feels like getting out of bed in the morning or not. And greet visitors, give autographs, smile perfectly, and give that day's speech, even The Speech, as Michelle Obama did Tuesday night in Charlotte.
And she was magnificent. Soaring, strengthening, assuring, her own story the nation's, her own beliefs American ones. She's come an admirable ways since her husband was nominated for president and she said that for the first time she was proud of her country. Her candor back then was as welcome as it was revealing.
You can tell when a speaker is doing more than speaking, when she is creating a new, stronger, better reality. How? When the speaker herself is moved, when Michelle Obama's own voice trembles, her own eyes tear up a little at her own words.
A great actor, even a B actor, doesn't imitate a character but becomes one. Just think Ronald Reagan. There are times when we not only share a speaker's story, we recognize it as our own. It had just been obscured within us till the right speaker brought it out. And then . . . . What's that? A tear in your own eye?
Great speakers appeal not so much to the mind but to the heart, the spirit, the will. They mobilize words -- as Churchill did during his finest hour and that of what he called the British race. When he spoke, the whole English-speaking world became part of that race, rallying to his side and his people's, understanding that without a Britain, the world ... well, would be unthinkable. As unthinkable as a world without Shakespeare. Or a world in which a Churchill is defeated after The Crisis has passed by a Clement Attlee, a modest little man with much to be modest about.
A great speaker rises above the mere rational -- how could little England stand alone against the whole New World Order arrayed against her in 1940? She didn't have a chance, as old Joe Kennedy knew when he was ambassador to the Court of St. James's. She had only words, Winston Churchill's. And they were enough. Enough to evoke blood, toil, tears and sweat -- and victory.
The nation heard some great words Tuesday night, too.
Michelle Obama spoke better for her husband than he does for himself. Certainly better than his record does. But for one bright shining moment, it was the first lady's words that created their own reality, a reality that shone this night, or rather glistened with tears. The kind of words that betoken hope, and not the Hope and Change that now seem as forgotten as the other promises of four long, winding years ago.
While she spoke, and even for a while afterward, what might have been was. Her vision was a deeply American one. She rang the chords within us all: family, community, work, faith -- at least faith in the American Dream.
Oh, she might have had to be more implicit than explicit about certain topics -- abortion, new definitions of marriage, promises made that didn't become promises kept. ... But who noticed when confronted with all her eloquence, sincerity and Michelle Obama herself? Hers, it turns out, are traditional American values. And, her words sounded ... conservative. Even, dare one say it, Republican.
As long as Michelle Obama held the floor, any discordant notes in the background of her rhetorical symphony were muted, even erased. Like the Barack Obama who is more cool analyst than Happy Warrior, the one who can tell (not so) simple country people that they're just taking refuge in their guns and religion, or farmers and businessmen and entrepreneurs and all the others who are today's Forgotten Men in a world of big government and big unions: "You didn't build that!"
As for the American president who forgets old allies, turns his back on the Poles (which, come to think, is almost an American tradition), joins the French president in sneering at the kind of Israelis who insist on existing, and assures the Russian president he'll make a deal as soon as this election is past and the pressure's off, forgetting that his mike is open, the kind of president who sends the bust of Churchill that used to adorn the Oval Office back to the British. ... None of that happened, not as long as Michelle Obama was at the rostrum, carrying us with her at every word.
As for the whole, tumultuous, hard-working, hard-believing and hard-drinking Scots-Irish who poured across the Appalachians no matter what a British parliament might decree, and created a moving frontier that has yet to stop, either at the Pacific or the Moon or Mars, and passed on the Calvinist ethic and ethos at the core of the American one ... well, why go into detail? Let's just say Michelle Obama's view of American history can be selective. But the speaker is the warrant of the speech, and no one would doubt this first lady's character. Hers was a speech to remember, for whole minutes.
Only the next morning, the Morning After this first lady's great night, might certain dim memories of the last four years intrude. Like a hangover after a beautiful dream, which scarcely makes the dream any less beautiful, or even any less real. Just maybe a little short on perspective. We all get carried away, and it may be a good thing on occasion. As when listening to a first lady at a national convention.
If only, if only ... if only the past four years or so had been like Michelle Obama's 40 minutes or so before the cameras Tuesday night. Only they weren't.