Me and Barack: Michelle Obama Talks To Pennsylvanians

Michelle Obama is just as gifted an orator as her husband, and her talents were on display Tuesday in York, PA, where she gave one of the best speeches I've seen so far in Election 2008. Typically, she talks about growing up South Side Chicago, and this is what she did in York, but in a more fervent and eloquent way than ever before. In the days since "bittergate" broke-- the scandal spawned by the story I wrote last week quoting Barack Obama on "bitter" working class voters at a San Francisco fundraiser-- Michelle Obama has not only refashioned her stump speech to address the charge of her husband's perceived elitism but also she's drilled deep into her herself to find ways to reach people--so that the very act of connection subverts the criticism.

Like a lot of the beautiful old towns in Pennsylvania, York is struggling but it's not down. The Peppermint Pattie rolled on down the road to Hershey twenty years ago (and is now headed for Mexico). Caterpillar has gone, too. But there's still Harley-Davidson and a couple of long-time family businesses. And, of course, there's health care, which has become the number one employer in so many small cities in America. Michelle's audience in the restored Beaux Arts theater downtown was classic Obama: African-Americans and well-educated white folks. The way the race's last lap is playing--with Clinton and Obama hopping about from state to state, in and out, most Quaker Staters will never get a chance to hear and see Senator Obama. Indeed no one in the theater I approached had seen him. His wife was the closest they would get.

As Huff Post readers likely know, Michelle Obama is a funny, feisty woman with a few sharp edges and a shining intelligence. She brought these qualities to York, using them to craft a rhetorical masterpiece, in which she wove the saga of the never-ending campaign with the struggle of average Americans just to get by. Her theme was "moving the bar" so that success is always just out of reach. "They said Iowa was important because Iowa was a caucus," but then "Iowa didn't count, because Iowa was only a caucus." Work hard all your life in order "to be able to put your feet up in later years," only to find the pension has disappeared. Do well in school only to discover that the cost of college has gone up, putting that degree out of reach. "Tell me if I'm wrong! Tell me if I'm saying something that's not true," Mrs. Obama said, punctuating each indictment with a call-out to the audience. And the African-Americans among them responded vocally and in such a way that brought everybody else along.

Michelle Obama's stump speech has always grown out of the story of her father and his dreams for his children and the "solid neighborhood schools" that allowed Michelle and her brother to achieve those dreams. This is one of the foundation narratives of the American experience, and Michelle Obama has lived it, her audience knows she has lived it. Now, however, she provides more detail: her father, who had multiple sclerosis, "went from being a boxer, a swimmer, served in the military--to one day he couldn't walk, without the assistance of a cane, and died, without being able to walk without the aid of a motorized cart." Post-bittergate, she's drilled deep. She's given more thought to the moving bar. "How do you parent and work all the time?" Her audience knows just what she's talking about. How do you handle all that debt? "You're sweating to get that mail--the loan collector." She talks about her husband's and her struggles with their college and law school debt until, "like hitting the Lotto," her husband's two books, an enterprise her mother considered a dubious proposition, became bestsellers. The Obamas' progress through the portals of higher education and subsequent success become not the hallmark of their elitism but the telling contrast to what ordinary people can expect from education today, at a time when every town "has one good school," and kids are "living with Grandma so they have the right address."

She talks about specifics, she always brings it back to her own experience, she never mentions the word "elitism" and she uses the pronoun "they" carefully. "They keep moving he bar." They is the other--the opponent both she and her audience are agreed upon.

Later Tuesday in Haverford, Michelle Obama gave the same speech but not nearly so well. Of course, this would be the event that most of the press covered. Haverford provided the small news clip we've been seeing of Michelle on the PA stump, it's provoked some commentary (from Chris Cillizza on MSNBC, for example) that Michelle Obama is too angry in defense of her husband. If the national media is going to choose between two daily campaign events, a safe bet always is on the event in the more accessible and therefore often wealthier town. By the time Michelle Obama reached tony Haverford in the suburbs of Philadelphia, however, she was tired. She struggled to hit the notes that had come so easily earlier in the day. She could not completely mask her psychic pain from the recent firestorms over her husband. In Haverford, moreover, she was both less sure of herself and less connected to her audience in ways that provide an insight into that educational journey she has taken and that, Ivy League degrees in hand, now make her, as well as her husband, elitists in some people's eyes.

The journey from York to Haverford is a stark display of the disparity in American education. Before and after Mrs. Obama spoke in York, I talked at length with Tim and his daughter Mary Beth about the town and county of York and about the schools there. Mary Beth, a high school sophomore, would like to go to either Yale or Swarthmore, but her suburban high school offers no A.P. courses. She was the one who taught ninth grade geometry, because the teacher didn't know the subject and just sat at her desk working at her computer during class. Mary Beth taught herself and taught her peers as she went along. Nevertheless, her school is better than those in York itself. Michelle Obama often talks about that one good school in town; but York has no one good school.

Suburban Philadelphia, however, is rich in schools. Villanova, Bryn Mawr and Haverford College are an easy bike ride from one another. Only an hour-and-a-half from York, these are the good small schools that might as well be on the moon for small-town high school kids like those I met in York. The audience for Michelle Obama's afternoon appearance in the field house at Haverford College is the whitest and wealthiest for any Obama Campaign event I've covered in the near-year I've been following the campaign. This audience, mostly women, absolutely adore Michelle Obama. Ivy League, well-to-do, civic-minded, lawyer, mother, member of charitable boards, she's one of them. The audience is comfortable with her and for her, even when, through exhaustion, she wanders in her speech, veering off into generalities and repetitions. In Michelle Obama, there's an underlying wariness. She loses her way in her speech also because she's not so sure of her audience as she was in York. She doesn't see her audience in quite the same way that they see her. "I'm still that girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago," she says. And she is.

She went to Princeton, she got her degree. Even now Princeton is a very white and a very preppy school. It must have been even more so in the 1980s when Michelle Obama was there. Some of the town history--that graduation day is also a celebration day in the local African-American community because in centuries past Princeton students, many of whom came from wealthy Southern plantation families, had a tradition of freeing their manservants upon graduation--would have been more than just history to Michelle Obama. The discipline and determination to get that Princeton education, never losing sight of its worth, are very much a part of Michelle Obama. But just like her husband, she straddles two worlds, one of which, even as she gracefully moves between the two, she is more sure of than the other.

This duality is evident in her speech. At Haverford, for example, one minute she chose the subjunctive. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for those schools." The next minute she's South Side Chicago. "But let me tell you who me and Barack are." Linguistically, she's become adept at moving back and forth. But in Haverford, tired out, unsure exactly whom she was speaking to, she used the word "elitism" instead of more deftly suggesting its presence without calling its name. She began to wander into fields of negativity, talking about fear and isolation in rural America, trying to define for herself and her audience something neither likely know much about.

Past the sound bite moment, Haverford and York together revealed much about Michelle Obama. Even her clothes--and here's a woman with a great sense of style who loves style--suggest the tenor of her life. Lately, she's been channeling Jackie Kennedy, choosing sleeveless classic sheath dresses, little sweaters and pearls. She's even adopted the Jackie Kennedy flip hairdo. On the other hand, Michelle Obama has her edgier style. She has a black jumpsuit she often wears with tall, shiny black boots and a tight black belt. If she had either a whip or a tail, she'd be Catwoman. On Tuesday, she combined her two styles, as she often does now, wearing a tight bronze bustier that looks a bit faux snakeskin over a taupe sheath dress, and with this interesting ensemble a tiny pearl-buttoned cashmere or cashmere-like cardigan.

In this way, a fashionista could probably deconstruct Michelle Obama's entire life and persona from her clothes--and undoubtedly they will if she becomes First Lady. But as the imperatives, especially the education imperatives, of her speeches, show, she is part of so much more than mere dress.