Time brought the hammer, nails, and lumber to build on Barack Obama’s demand that conservatives "lay off my wife." The June 2 edition of the "news" magazine included a two-page spread on "The War Over Michelle." Reporters Nancy Gibbs and Jay Newton-Small (both females) suggested she’s now "a favorite target of conservatives, who attack her with an exuberance that suggests there are no taboos anymore." They cited Hugh Hewitt, National Review, and an anonymous blog commenter as the villains of the piece.
The Time duo attempted the spin that this is puzzling since Mrs. Obama is so conservative:
In the early going, Michelle Obama was not an obvious conservative target, since in some obvious ways she's so conservative herself.
When asked what her priorities as First Lady would be, she said her only cause would be giving her children a decent upbringing in the White House. She seems indifferent to the prospect of her power. She doesn't expound on her husband's five-point plans; she just tells her story, whose bass notes are the deep hum of family, work, sacrifice, aspiration. You can watch her in her triple pearls, hear about her love of mac and cheese and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and imagine her as the most traditional First Lady since the ones named Bush.
She's indifferent to her power? Apparently the Time people haven’t seen the memo at the campaign office that "Whatever Michelle Says Is The Message." Notice that these women say nothing about her opinions about government when they suggest she is conservative, but only about her personal domesticity. But the entire article is a tribute to Michelle and an attack on conservatives.
The subhead of the article on page 28 is "She sings in a different key on the campaign trail, which has made her a powerful surrogate – and a prime target." Next to her posed and smiling photograph is the caption "Supersurrogate: Michelle Obama is her husband's ‘rock,’ ‘the love of my life’ – and the center of a conservative storm." In a text box of bold words, Mrs. Obama says "Barack will never let you go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed." (That could be read as a little insulting: without our involvement, you’re uninvolved and ignorant.) And "We can no longer make choices in this nation based on fear."
They did not put in bold quotes her controversial claim that "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." That was used, but only to underline how she’s being exploited by ill-mannered conservatives. The Time story began with Michelle’s skill, conservative ill will, and her husband’s chivalrous response:
Through the primaries, Michelle Obama was such an effective proxy for her husband that Obama aides nicknamed her "the Closer" because she'd get more commitment cards signed at her rallies than the candidate did at his. At 44, she is vivid, engaging, part therapist, part professor, part girlfriend who comes over for coffee and tells you hard truths about the stupid mistakes you're making.
But in recent weeks, Michelle has also become a favorite target of conservatives, who attack her with an exuberance that suggests there are no taboos anymore. The latest strike came from the Tennessee Republican Party, which posted a YouTube ad ridiculing Michelle's now famous "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country" remark. That prompted Barack Obama to throw down a gauntlet of his own. "I would never think of going after somebody's spouse in a campaign," he told Robin Roberts of Good Morning America. "She loves this country ... And especially for people who purport to be promoters of family values ... to start attacking my wife in a political campaign, I think, is detestable."
Such pushback may have been an act of chivalry in the face of talk-radio furies and bloggers attacking, as one commenter did, "the bitter, anti-American, ungrateful, rude, crude, ghetto, angry Michelle Obama." [Googling finds it apparently came from the Big Dogs blog.] But it also may signal that as attention turns to the general campaign, Michelle could be a liability as well as an asset. Her speeches can sound stark and stern compared with her husband's roof raisers. He's all about the promise; she's more about the problem. It's not just that she says times are hard and "we're not where we need to be"; with that, the vast majority of the country agrees. She goes further, worrying out loud about the country's lack of fairness, the corrosive cynicism of its citizens and how Americans "spend more time talking about what we can't do, what won't work, what can't change" than about what is possible. "The challenges that we are really facing have very little to do with health care and all the practical things that people like to think about," she told TIME. "At our core, it is how we see one another. That's how it all starts for me." So the test may be, in the weeks ahead, How will voters see her? And is her understanding of the state of our union one that they share?
Time wants voters to see Michelle Obama as a truth-teller, one who sees America as it is, unlike those oafish conservatives who see some imaginary shining city on a hill. Here's where they attack Hewitt and Mark Steyn in NR:
She paints a picture of crumbling neighborhoods and failing schools, unavailable health care, shrinking pensions, single parents working double shifts. "This has been the case for my entire lifetime," she says, and warns that "we're raising a generation of 'young doubters,'" children who are insular and timid. "They don't try, because they already heard us tell them why they can't succeed."
This is, apparently, too much for some conservatives. They hear "whining" from a woman preaching a "Gospel of Misery," about everything from her student loans to the high cost of piano lessons. When she describes the steadily deteriorating conditions during her lifetime, they counter with the stats: rising home ownership, falling poverty, a quadrupling of the population with a college degree, an explosion of science and technology and opportunity. When she says that "before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls," conservative blogger and radio star Hugh Hewitt levels his warning: "Whenever someone from the government comes to you and says, 'We have to fix your soul,' be very afraid ... No one believes outside of the hard-core left that government can fix your soul." The National Review put a glowering picture of Michelle on its April cover, called her "Mrs. Grievance" and declared that "Michelle Obama embodies a peculiar mix of privilege and victimology which is not where most Americans live."
They are probably right to think that most Americans have a happier impression of the past 40 years. But the skies have clouded in the past year, and this time around, the attacks make one wonder how those who find Michelle Obama's gritty realism out of bounds would mount a campaign in this climate. By suggesting everything is swell? By gliding silently over the battered economic landscape at home in order to talk instead only about terrorism abroad? That is certainly not where most Americans live either.
Those who hear Michelle in person often talk about feeling that they are seeing for the first time a political figure who understands what their lives are really about. "It was like she was telling our story," says Amindi Imoh, 18, a sophomore at the University of South Carolina whose parents emigrated from Nigeria in 1981, who was especially moved by Michelle's description of her childhood. Michelle admits that she's had to learn to be more careful about everything she says. "She doesn't want to become the news," says a campaign aide. "She wants to be a character witness for her husband."
It’s hard not to reproduce the entire article to see all the cheerleading for Michelle. Here’s the last paragraph, about her hard truths, and conservatives apparently living the straw-man life of just wanting to wish our problems away:
It's a cliché of American politics that even in hard times--or maybe especially then -- people always vote for the optimist. This does not mean we wish our problems away; only that in good times or bad, we want to think we face obstacles with ingenuity and grit. Maybe Michelle Obama is telling hard truths. Or maybe her truths are not as widely shared as she suggests. Barack Obama's "Yes, We Can" stump speech is wrapped around American decency and imagination. Her story has heroes too, but she doesn't bother to keep the stragglers in the closet. Her voice in this race is one more reminder of the new road we are traveling. The 2008 campaign is its own frontier: a race in which candidates on both sides talk about the need to come together as a country, even as their life experiences speak to the depth of the differences between us.
Gibbs and Newton-Small don't mention the millions upon millions the Obamas are raking in every year from Barack's two best-sellers, which does make it a little odd for Michelle to complain about the cost of college loans and piano lessons. They have plenty of "schmundo" (as Jonah Goldberg would say) for mac and cheese.