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Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Obama’

Primary job for spouses of G20 leaders: Do no harm

First ladies, Michelle Obama, left, Carla Bruni of France, right,  chat as they pose during the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009.

Though prominent wives have advocated for political initiatives at home, they’ve stayed away from the microphones at international summits

Globe & Mail, 6-24-10

“Their basic job is not to do damage,” Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, says.

Mr. Troy cites a memo written by U.S. president Richard Nixon in 1972, where he considered bringing his wife on a state visit.

“If Pat comes to China, she’s coming as a prop,” Mr. Nixon wrote.

Not a lot has changed since then, Prof. Troy says…

Summits can be a haven for the lonely other halves of presidents and prime ministers, Prof. Troy says.

“If you’re feeling frustrated or if you’re feeling bored, this is an opportunity to share concerns, to find people who are likeminded in the zone of confidence and comfort. If you do have a cause, this is an opportunity to find people who have shared interest and the same power,” he says…

Prof. Troy says Ms. Obama may not get to speak up about her position on the McChrystal affair, but she can recruit support among other spouses for her less-controversial childhood obesity initiative. The stipulation, though, is “it has to be done within all the protocols and pageantry of the summit.”

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Gil Troy “G20: America’s golden couple Sarah Wildman: If Michelle Obama is the new Jackie Kennedy, will she upstage her husband on their European trip?”:

To be fair to the Obamas, there’s another reason the couple should shun the Kennedy comparison – one that historian Gil Troy shared in an email. When Kennedy famously declared himself simply the “man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” the line was barbed, not humble.

“True, Michelle Obama is generating the kind of excitement Jackie Kennedy generated, but Mrs Kennedy upstaged President Kennedy,” says Troy.

“JFK was making the best of a bad situation, but he envied his wife’s popularity, bristling a bit at Charles de Gaulle’s flirtation with Jackie. Even more ominous if the comparison holds, while that first European trip was triumphant for Jackie, it was a disaster for Kennedy.

“At the meeting which counted – a superpower summit with Nikita Khruschev of Russia in Vienna – Kennedy failed. ‘He savaged me,’ Kennedy later confessed to James Reston of the New York Times, bruised by Khruschev’s blustering performance when they met. For the first time in his life, it seemed, (or certainly in a long time), Kennedy met someone impervious to his charm. Obama may too.”

Source: UTV, 4-2-09

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Trish Crawford, Toronto Star, November 21, 2008, LIFE; Pg. L01

Every time Michelle Obama wears one of her unusual dress selections on television, the item flies off the shelves.

The famous $148 sundress she wore on The View and the J.Crew yellow suit she wore on Letterman were huge hits with shoppers, while the red dress she wore on her first visit to the White House proclaimed, says Bonnie Fuller in the Huffington Post, “I’m ready to be Page 1.”

Experts say it is she, not her president-elect husband, who will be setting fashion and cultural trends when the couple reaches the White House.

She nixed getting a designer pooch, saying her kids would adopt a rescue dog, and will continue this thrifty, socially conscious pattern throughout the term, predicts marketing guru Alan Middleton, of York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“She’s saying, ‘You don’t get much more down-to-earth that I am,'” says Middleton. He predicts there will be “a number of symbols that say, I am one of you.”

The American-made family car, a Ford Escape hybrid, is a perfect example of this, he points out, as it is both patriotic and environmentally responsible.

“It’s smart and good value,” Middleton says, “and I can see that in everything she does.

“This is the Hollywood side of politics. It’s that old star quality.”

Widespread interest, even adoration, doesn’t necessarily result in copycat behaviour, says political scientist Renan Levine, of the University of Toronto.

Jimmy Carter tried to get Americans to wear sweaters during the energy crisis of the ’70s and, even though he happily sported a cardigan, the style never really took off, Levine says.

On the other hand, he says, Ronald Reagan’s love affair with the colour brown was widely adopted in men’s clothing.

When fashions were adopted, such as Jackie Kennedy’s clothes and J.F.K’s refusal to wear a hat, they were widespread throughout the U.S., regardless of politics, Levine says.

“It has a bipartisan effect. The cultural impact is broad-based.”

He agrees it is Michelle Obama who is setting the style.

“No one has looked like her before. She is establishing a new palette.”

Alice Chu, an expert in fashion and colour at Ryerson University, notes the array of brightly coloured dresses provides a feminine silhouette.

“Her clothes say she is an individual, she’s intelligent and not fooling around.”

Her wardrobe differs greatly from the “very European and Anglo Saxon” outfits worn by Cindy McCain and Laura Bush, Chu says.

Michelle Obama is “showing a different side of the global, ethnic community.”

Chu, a member of the international team that yearly picks the fashion colours that will be popular, says the clear red dress Michelle Obama
wore to the White House after the election was an excellent colour for her.

Other good colours, Chu says, include black, white and purple, which she obviously has a fondness for, having worn it many times in public.

That “regal iris” evokes the royal purple of monarchy and is associated with strength and power, Chu says. Wearing black also evokes a “black is beautiful” undercurrent, she says.

Barack Obama’s preference for white shirts and dark suits sends a message that he’s “honest and straightforward.”

She expects white dress shirts to get a popular surge. Historian Gil Troy, of McGill University, agrees, saying everything about the new First Family will be scrutinized and copied by an adoring public.

“We’ve seen this thing before, with the Kennedys,” says the author of Mr. and Mrs. President, from the Trumans to the Clintons. “But the frenzy this time is going to be that much more intense.”

The press, which shares a “vibe” with the intellectual, urban Obama, is giving him a bit of a free ride right now, says Troy, feeding the public’s appetite for information about his favourite snacks (Planter’s Trail Mix), preferred drink (Black Forest Berry Honest Tea) and favourite book (Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls).

“This product placement is a boon for consumer manufacturers of all kinds.”

The Obamas, Troy says, are clever at making decisions, such as what car to buy, and “turning it into political points.” Saying this couple “is very coached,” he points out Michelle Obama has replaced early complaints about her “stinky, snoring husband” with the traditional supporting role. “Michelle didn’t play well. She was being passive aggressive,” Troy says of the early days of the campaign.

The couple has to give off an air of authenticity, Troy says. Any signs “that it is too faux, too calculating and on the make will cause a backlash.”

Their White House style will fit in with the new era of austerity, predicts Troy, but will still have sparkle and energy.

As he puts it, “They give great celebrity.”

Copyright 2008 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.

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Devoted, smart and forcefully clear about her role, Michelle Obama could be the most successful first lady in decades

As Washington preps for a transition team, there is one person of whom there is no doubt. Throughout the raucous American election season, Michelle Obama – Barack’s professed “best friend” and “partner” in his journey – has been both completely present, a tireless fighter and campaigner, and yet, at the same time extremely, forcefully clear about the role she wants to play in this administration.

If her campaigning strategy is any indication, we may be in store for one of the most successful first ladies in decades, one who uses this terrible and amazing office to the fullest extent of its abilities, without losing herself in its twisted mores.

She learned her lesson early – after the blow up over her purported anti-Americanism – a twisting of the words that she had never been more “proud” to be an American – Michelle Obama toed the party line. She kept her public face perfect, from her fashion choices (smartly, and quietly, wearing low-dollar off-the-rack frocks for big ticket events, like her appearance on the View and on late night television), to her carefully worded cheerleading for her husband – announcing she would not comment on his choice of vice-president, for example, in a pointed nod to more activist first ladies before her, saying she was actually pleased it wasn’t her place, nor her desire, to be a part of such thing.

As she wrote for the Times today (a piece that originally ran in some form before the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was decided, in US News &World Report), “mom” is the title she holds most dear. In that message to Americans and the rest of the world, this ultra-educated (Princeton, Harvard) careerist, super mom laid the ground work for what her tenure as first lady will look like. She will be the guardian, first and foremost, of her own family. (These are the youngest kids in that stately mansion in decades – Chelsea was a bit older, Amy Carter was eight, but the comparison people will surely make most will be the Kennedy kids).

But woe to those who interpret that to mean she will go quietly into that good night, tucking the kids into bed as Barack handles the matters of state. No. If these early statements are a good indication, she will extrapolate her family guardian role into one that positions her to be a champion for mothers and families across America – and perhaps, at some point, around the world. She’s already made an outreach to military families, noting their struggles, and in so doing she helps smooth over any anxieties military families might have about this anti-war president understanding their needs.

But such a multi-faceted message that seems, at face value, so simple, exposes just how difficult this job really is. Having not yet picked out the drapes for the private quarters, or – much more importantly – decided which school her children will attend upon arrival in Washington (a dicey, potentially politically explosive decision in and of itself given the Clinton’s bashing for sending Chelsea to the tony Sidwell Friends school rather than a DC public school), Michelle Obama is already being criticised – for the dress she wore on election night – and wooed: Vogue, reportedly wants her for the cover. The role of the first lady is an uncomfortable one.

In the post-feminist era, a first lady has come to be expected to be all things to all people – smart and well educated, but also satisfied with her ceremonial position and encouraged not to speak up. Laura Bush pulled the role back to one that was far quieter than her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, even as she gave gravitas to her once-wild husband. But while feminists might have cheered Hillary’s role as adviser, there was always something terribly uncomfortable about her unelected position, a sense of dissatisfaction and condescension that swirled around her from the marriage itself, to her snappish retort that she wouldn’t be a “Tammy Wynette” that was simply standing by her man, or a woman who baked cookies all day.

Back in July Gil Troy, author of, most recently Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents told me: “The problem of the first lady is that there are all these unspoken assumptions and unmarked landmines, and if you start feeling too empowered as a modern voice and deviate from the script, you risk landing on political-cultural landmines.”

You have to go all the way back to Lady Bird Johnson to find a first lady that was happy in her position, who used the office to advance environmentalism for the first time in America, who braved a whistle-stop tour of the roiling, racist southern states alone when her husband feared to. And yet even Lady Bird had to tolerate the infidelities of her husband.

Michelle Obama is the perfect modern hybrid. Smart, beautiful, fiercely devoted to her children and her husband, her very presence adds to the sense of class and dignity this campaign – and this administration – has projected from the outset. And the one quality we hear about her again and again? She’s real. It’s a quality that’s perhaps the most difficult to maintain in this job, and the one that will keep her most sane.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-24-08

Where is Michelle Obama? Since the Democratic nominee’s wife delivered her warm, charming, effective address at the Democratic National Convention, she has remained remarkably low profile. The Obama campaign has used her sparingly and – to the Democrats’ good fortune – she has triggered no controversy. This quiet is a remarkable contrast to the tumult that surrounded her during Barack Obama’s primary campaign. It reflects some of the particular dynamics surrounding the Obama partnership in private and in public. But Michelle Obama’s demeanor also reflects the broader strategy in the Democratic campaign this fall. If Barack Obama wins on November 4, it will feel more like a victory by default than a sweeping mandate for change.

When Barack Obama first emerged as a serious presidential contender, his wife Michelle had an important, if reluctant, role in the narrative. For a politician who was triggering near messianic fervor, she was the reality check, proof that he put his socks on one foot at a time, like the rest of us mortals. It was a role she seemed to relish – and took a little too far. Her comments about her “stinky, snorey” husband in the marital bed triggered collective shouts of “TMI” – too much information. They were far too reminiscent of both Clintons at their worst, combining Hillary Clinton’s occasional flashes of anger about her husband’s tomcatting with Bill Clinton’s willingness to answer the undignified question posed to him as president, “Do you wear boxers or briefs?” Still, Mrs. Obama did what candidate spouses have done for decades. She helped humanize her husband. Michelle Obama filled out the profile of Barack Obama as a regular guy with two adorable children and a smart, capable, if occasionally neglected wife.

As the primary campaign heated up and became a two-person struggle pitting Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama’s role expanded. Bill Clinton’s controversial involvement in his wife’s race helped shine the spotlight on Barack Obama’s spouse. Michelle Obama’s now infamous comment that her husband’s rise made her proud to be an American for the first time in her life hurt the Obama effort. Although Mrs. Obama’s gaffe was less destructive than Mr. Clinton’s egocentric, race-baiting antics, the comment played into the Clinton narrative that the Obamas were unpatriotic, supercilious, elitists, privileged Ivy League types bashing America while enjoying her bounty. Well aware of how much Hillary Clinton’s frankness detracted from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, the Obama campaign sought to reposition and then silence Mrs. Obama.

The effort has largely succeeded. In her convention tour de force, Michelle Obama used her life story to normalize her husband’s biography. Her stories of local Chicago girl made good helped tailor Barack Obama’s less conventional biography to fit the more classic contours of the American dream. Her delivery was as good as her content, and she came across as warm, supportive, accomplished but not threatening – not an easy task given the many racist and sexist stereotypes she must overcome.

Since then, it has been relatively quiet on the Obama home front. Barack Obama did one round of interviews with his daughters, which he immediately regretted. Michelle Obama has dutifully accompanied her husband when necessary, but even Cindy McCain has generated more national attention. More broadly, the Sarah Palin phenomenon has been the distaff story of this campaign. It seems that Americans – or journalists – have a limited quota of attention they will pay to women during a campaign, and both potential First Ladies seem to have had less scrutiny than usual, partially because of all the Palin controversies.

Michelle Obama’s passivity is also a reflection of the relatively subdued campaign Barack Obama has run — to his great benefit. In many ways, since the convention, he has shifted gears. The flamboyant, exciting, “yes we can” candidate of last spring has become the calm, unruffled, cool customer of today. Since the financial meltdown, Obama has – publicly – taken the lead by default. He has let John McCain stumble more than anything else. At the same, Obama has run a brilliant ground game, raising money prodigiously, and organizing his ground troops. The upside is that it just may win him the presidency, as people’s perceptions of his maturity and readiness to be chief executive have grown. The downside is that he is smoothly gliding his way toward the White House rather than taking it by storm. If he wins, he will need to work harder during the transition to shape – or even retroactively create – a mandate.

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HNN, 8-26-08

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.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 8-8-08

Barack Obama celebrated his 47th birthday this week with minimal fanfare. The anniversary of his birth on August 4, 1961 highlights his campaign’s often-underappreciated generational dimensions. Obama was not just born later than most national leaders, he imbibed a different sensibility. Demographers may clump Obama – and his wife Michelle who was born in 1964 – together with “Baby Boomers,” but those of us born at the tail end of that population explosion know we are “Baby Busters,” often seeking to revive some of the faith, hope, morality and national unity, many Boomers scorned.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, represent the two sides of the political fault line that the Baby Boomers 1960s’ earthquake triggered (John McCain, born in 1936, pre-dated the Baby Boom). Clinton and his buddies were traumatized by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, tormented by the Vietnam War’s draft, yet inspired by their political and cultural revolution’s transformational potential. Others, like George W. Bush, enjoyed the “sex, drugs, and rock n’roll” moment, but, politically, triggered the conservative backlash.

As a Baby Buster, born as America’s birth rate stabilized, Barack Obama was too young even to lie as so many Baby Boomers did about being at Woodstock in 1969 – he was only eight. Rather than being children of the 1960s, we were children of the 1970s. We stewed in the defeatism of Viet Nam, the cynicism of Watergate, the pessimism of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis rather than the triumphalism of the post-World War II world. Most of us did not experience “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moments teaching us life was so simple; with the divorce revolution fragmenting families all around us, most of us watched Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “The Brady Bunch,” with knowing, pre-post-modernist smirks.

Moreover, thanks to Stagflation, that unique seventies combo of inflation and unemployment, we – and our Depression-era parents – were anomalies in modern America: we grew up doubting the fundamental American idea of progress, doubting we could fulfill the American dream of outdoing our parents and bettering our own lives. In college, many of us felt inadequate for being less radical and influential than our older peers, even as we considered them tiresome and self-righteous.

Surprisingly, after all the Baby Boomers’ experimentation, in our generation, the rebellious ones were the straight ones. For anyone in the left or the center who did not want to be tagged as – heaven forbid – a goody-goody – it was easier to “do it” than to abstain. Even today, when Barack Obama talks about traditional morality and political moderation he risks being mocked by his peers and his usual ideological allies among the “let it all hang out” Boomers.

Of course, demography is not destiny; the generational game – which the Baby Boomers typically overdid – should not be overplayed. Still, it is not surprising that it was Jon Stewart, born in 1962, who has been among the few public figures to champion moderation, blasting the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire for dividing America. And it is not surprising that Obama came to prominence with an un-Boomer-like call for unity and healing.

In his book “Audacity of Hope” and during the 2006 Congressional campaign, Obama emphasized this generational divide. But the Baby Boomer cohort remains too large to risk alienating during a tight presidential contest, so he has done less Boomer-bashing lately. Still, as he demonstrated in defeating Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, Obama is more nimble than many Baby Boomers. He is less starry-eyed and less battle-scarred, thus less doctrinaire, freer of the great Baby Boomer fault line and more anxious for national healing.

Those of us born in the early 1960s have long been upstaged by our louder, more self-righteous, older peers and siblings. Wherever we stand politically, many of us understand that Obama’s syntheses of tradition and innovation, his calls to transcend the usual divides, reflect a collective generational frustration. Many of us are fed up with the older generation’s media-hogging, polarizing, tendencies. Demographers called Boomers the pig–in-the-python because they stuck out demographically. Their attitudes often simply stuck in our craws as we yearned for a less bitter, less zero-sum politics – which is what Obama the birthday boy, at his best, is promising.

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