Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, may have done the seemingly impossible. She may just have rescued the US presidential elections from the grotesque and demeaning mire into which they have descended. She did something even more remarkable — and just as badly needed. With the touch of a poet, her speech on Thursday shamed the tat and the tawdry of populism and held out the possibility of something better. She lent her extraordinary ability to say what people are feeling to every English-speaking woman in the world.
Nominally, she spoke for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a run-of-the-mill political rally. In fact, she made a passionate and clear-eyed appeal for decency and respect in public life. Clinton’s Republican rival Donald Trump did not get a single mention, but he was in every word of every sentence. It was one of the most sustained put-downs in modern democratic politics.
Last week, there have been many protests in the US as Trump’s lewd bragging about sexually assaulting women finally registered in the Republican scale of shame. His campaign is floundering, at last. Obama’s contribution was not to add to the direct attacks on him. Instead, on behalf of American voters — women and girls, of course, but men and boys too — she gave a victim’s statement.
The Trump tape, she said, had shaken her to her core.
“I feel it so personally — and I’m sure you do too — particularly the women. (I love that “particularly”).
“The shameful comments about our bodies.
“The disrespect of our ambitions and our intellect.
“The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman.
“It’s cruel — it’s frightening — and the truth is it hurts.”
This hits home in a way that a direct attack on the insolent, impervious figure of Trump himself does not. It appeals to people of every political persuasion. She pitches this attack as defence. A defence of humanity. She brings to it her extraordinary mix of talents. She can find words that make pictures. She brings passion and intellectual clarity. She has an actor’s sense of timing. She seems the world’s most complete leader.
During the second presidential debate between the candidates, Clinton quoted Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” Great advice — a nightmare to follow. The first lady has found a way of doing it that avoids the elephant traps and the little snares.
She has a graceful humanity. She looks normal. Glamorous, but in a normal kind of way. She sounds like a normal person, she uses the language of normal people and she expresses normal hopes and fears. As a wife and a mother, an American, a black woman — all these parts that make her who she is — she has a fine capacity to say what millions of women and men have been thinking since the Trump tape first came to light week before last.
It was hardly a surprise to hear her speak so well. Her speech introducing Clinton as the Democrat nominee to the party’s convention in July revealed the exceptional talent that she has been nurturing over these past eight years. That was the speech where she reminded her listeners what could be done by collective effort. She talked of the “lash of bondage” and the “sting of servitude” and then described waking up every morning in the White House, “a house built by slaves” and watching her daughters, “two beautiful intelligent young black women” playing with their dogs: “And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters, and all our sons and daughters, take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
On Thursday night, Michelle spoke of women doing what women have always done “just trying to get through it ... trying to pretend this doesn’t really bother us”. She ended: “This is not normal, this is not politics as usual ... this has got to stop right now.”
When she speaks, Michelle Obama doesn’t stop being the wife of the president, but she transcends it. She becomes the personification of the best of her country. Perhaps there is something in the first lady status, in politics but not of it, that uniquely privileges the holder of the office. Who in Britain can make that nonpartisan appeal to ordinary human decency? On Thursday night, she spoke for everyone who thinks politics can be better than this.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Anne Perkins has been a leader writer, lobby correspondent and feature writer for the Guardian since 1997.