Michelle Obama had two tasks last night when addressing the Democratic National Convention, one positive and one negative. She had to offering a compelling narrative about her life and her husband’s while dispelling the rumors that the two were too elitist and not patriotic enough. To execute this unassisted double-play she uncorked that traditional, magical, American elixir: The American Dream.
In a lovely address that was more about setting a tone than solving problems, Mrs. Obama offered her more conventional biography of South-Side-Chicago-girl-made-good as a way of Americanizing her husband’s famously unconventional biography. Michelle Obama began by repeatedly emphasizing her humble origins, her parents’ values, her up-from-the-bootstraps life story. Standing by the podium radiant and – thank you Joe Biden – not just articulate but eloquent — Michelle Obama was implicitly saying to Mr. and Mrs. America, “I’m just like you. I began in a small room in an undistinguished neighborhood, and look how far I have come.” And then, rhetorically embracing her husband, blurring her story with his, she proclaimed: “And you know, what struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he’d grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.”
Taking the American dream as their common lodestone, she said: “And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Prior to Michelle Obama’s warm, uplifting speech, Ted Kennedy, the perpetual crown prince of the Democratic Party, made his emotional plea for a Barack Obama presidency. Slower and bloated, but still passionate, Kennedy deputized the young Illinois senator as the heir to Camelot. Speaking of dreams, and channeling his own extraordinary, fiery, and heartbreaking “the dream will never die” consolation speech at the 1980 convention after losing the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy proclaimed: “The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.”
In the one false note in an otherwise powerful opening, the video tribute to Senator Kennedy spent a lot of time filming him as he steered various younger Kennedys on a majestic sailing ship. It seemed pretty clear that this schooner was part of the Kennedy fleet and not a one-time rental. In a week when Democrats were busy mocking Senator John McCain’s many houses, a quiet scene at home – or at the office — might have been politically wiser.
Of course, the beauty of the American Dream is that it allows our politicians to be far wealthier than ordinary Americans –as so many are. The Obamas have to emphasize their humble origins because, having converted Barack Obama’s newfound celebrity into newfound riches, they do not want to lose their once-common touch. American Dream rhetoric soothes have-nots with hopes of joining the haves, taking the sting out of class differences. The Kennedys have long been a family humanized by both heartbreaking tragedies and soaring liberal idealism despite their vast wealth. McCain erred by appearing doddering and out of touch, relying on his staff to count his and his wife’s houses.
While Americans are not always tolerant of the ways of the wealthy — as John Kerry discovered when he was mocked for windsurfing in 2004 – Americans frequently put up with loaded pols. Perhaps less acceptable are overloaded intellectual credentials. In his botched, sexist introduction of his wife during his debut as Vice Presidential nominee on Saturday, Senator Joe Biden seemed to mock his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for being a braniac – or at least awkwardly try insulating her from those charges. He said: “Ladies and gentlemen, my wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, is drop-dead gorgeous. My wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, she also has her doctorate degree, which is a problem. But all kidding aside, my Jill, my Jill, my wife, Jill, and I are honored to join Barack and Michelle on this journey, because that’s what it is.”
The true American journey, which catapulted the Obamas, the Bidens, the McCains and the Kennedys to the stratosphere, acknowledges difference while seeking equality of opportunity. Great wealth is acceptable – but so should be great intellectual achievements, which certainly helped Michelle and Barack Obama get where they are today.