Friday, February 22, 2008

The Divider

Jacob Laksin

A critical plank of Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign has been his appeal for national unity. In speeches crafted to bridge partisan divides, he has assailed the “drama and division and distraction” of Washington politics and urged Americans to rise above their differences. Whatever one makes of this approach, and substantively it leaves a great deal to be desired, there is little doubting its success thus far. Whether in southern states like South Carolina, with their large black electorates, or majority-white states like Iowa and Wisconsin, Obama’s message has found popular purchase. So it is not a little ironic that the cross-racial bonhomie engendered by the Obama campaign is threatened by the woman closest to the senator: his wife Michelle Obama. That was most apparent in Wisconsin this week, where the tension between Obama’s soothing, post-racial politics and his wife’s more astringent views flared out in the open. As Sen. Obama traversed the state to make his final pitch to the voters, Michelle Obama spent the week chiding them for their past folly. Speaking in Milwaukee, she said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”

It was a jarring statement. Did the candidate’s wife really mean to suggest that the country had been hopeless until her husband emerged as the Democratic frontrunner? Indeed she did, and just a few hours later, she reiterated the point in nearly identical terms. “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country -- not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.” There was no mistaking her message: Until it found the wisdom to rally around her husband, America had been a source of constant disappointment for Mrs. Obama.

When her remarks justifiably aroused outrage, the unenviable task of explaining them away fell to the senator himself. On the one hand, Obama said, his wife’s words had been taken “out of context.” But at the same time, Sen. Obama continued, “she’s pretty cynical about the political process, and with good reason, and she’s not alone.” And sure enough, it was this cynicism that landed her in trouble in the first place.

Yet it’s hard to see what Michelle Obama has to be cynical about. Though it is true that she was born on the South Side of Chicago, there is no shortage of Americans who start from humble beginnings. The difference is that, unlike many, Michelle Obama is also a child of privilege. In a recent interview with Newsweek, Obama reveals that she got into Princeton University not on the strength of her grades, which she admits were unexceptional, but thanks to her brother Craig, a star athlete and gifted student who preceded her to the school. As a “legacy” candidate and a beneficiary of affirmative action, Michelle Obama was granted an opportunity that others more accomplished were denied. Nor, according to friends quoted in the article, did Obama object when she was later accepted to Harvard as part of the school’s outreach to minority students. “She recognized that she had been privileged by affirmative action and she was very comfortable with that,” her friend recalls.

Comfortable, perhaps, but certainly not content. A more humble personality might have appreciated the unearned advantages she had been afforded. Michelle Obama seems instead to have developed an abiding sense of racial resentment. This resentment finds its most bitter expression in her 1985 Princeton senior thesis, conveniently blocked from public viewing by the school until after next year’s presidential election, titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” In it, the young Michelle LaVaughn Robinson paints a grim portrait of her future prospects, warning against “further integration and/or assimilation into a White cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant.” Regardless of the opportunities that had been offered her, Obama continued to see herself as a victim of a racist white society, trapped in the divide that her husband’s campaign now seeks to breech.

It would be unfair to assume that Michelle Obama’s writings as an angry and alienated undergrad are a reliable guide to her current views about race and her country more generally. After all, contrary to the grim prognosis in her Princeton thesis, Obama went on to succeed in the white “social structure” she had deemed so forbidding. She has held jobs at top corporate law-firms in Chicago, earned six-figure salaries, and seen her husband, himself of African descent, all but clinch the nomination of the Democratic Party. If that is not enough to make her a full participant in American society, nothing is.

But all evidence indicates that her views remain unchanged. In a February 2007 appearance with her husband on 60 Minutes, for instance, she said that “as a black man, you know, Barack can get shot going to the gas station.” Not the least of the problems with the charge was its conspiratorial suggestion that blacks were being targeted on account of their race. And in one tragic sense they were, though not, as Obama’s statement seemed to imply, by whites: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 1976 and 2005, 94 percent of black victims were killed by blacks. Empirically baseless, Michelle Obama’s warning nonetheless revealed how deeply she had absorbed the narrative of black victimization in America.

It does not follow that the mixed messages of the Obama campaign -- his hopeful and forward-looking, hers sullen and intransigent -- will slow its current momentum. The rapturous crowds who flock by the thousands to the senator’s campaign stops seem unlikely to stand for any criticism of their candidate. (Sometimes literally: fainting has reportedly become a common occurrence at Obama rallies.) Before them, neither Obama nor any member of his campaign can do wrong. General election voters, on the other hand, may look less sympathetically on the prospect of a First Lady who would carry her unrequited grievances to the White House.

“We are the change we seek,” Barack Obama is fond of saying on the campaign trail. To the extent that the phrase has any meaning, it is that the United States is fundamentally a noble country, with an active and engaged citizenry seeking do right. Sen. Obama has certainly persuaded his supporters to believe that. Now if only he could convince his own wife.
Jacob Laksin is a senior editor for FrontPage Magazine. He is a 2007 Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow. His e-mail is

No comments: