On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, it was not an elected official, but one of the most brilliant and inspiring first ladies in American history, Michelle Obama, who lit up the room, silenced the booing throngs, and opened up a can of elegant whoop-ass on everyone who has been behaving poorly, all without mentioning any offenders by name. It was not just one of the best and most ingenious speeches ever given by a political spouse at a party convention, it was one of the finest speeches I have heard at a convention, period.
It had been — and would continue to be — a rocky, intense evening at the Wells Fargo Center. The house was packed to the rafters, a marked contrast from last week’s perpetually half-full arena in Cleveland, but both enthusiasm and tension were high. Despite the program’s best and cheesiest efforts at “Kumbaya” healing (Paul Simon actually sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which was a poor choice for many reasons, most having to do with Art Garfunkel), loud rancor between Bernie loyalists and Hillary supporters remained steady. Anti-Hillary hecklers were so disruptive during Al Franken and Sarah Silverman’s performed rapprochement that Silverman, a vocal Bernie supporter, lost her temper, snapping with obvious irritation, “Bernie-or-Bust people: You’re being ridiculous!” When New Jersey senator Cory Booker was delivering the portion of his speech about the ways in which America’s founding documents did not account for Native Americans, blacks, or women, Bernie supporters shouted “War Hawk!” over him. Even as progressive hero Elizabeth Warren told the story of her early life as the daughter of a janitor, progressives tried to drown her out by yelling, “We Trusted You!”
On Monday, only Michelle Obama had the power to shut them up.
It was clear from her introduction that she was going to come out strong and tough; a video showed kids talking about their admiration for her, with one saying, “The First Lady has inspired me to become a stronger, more happy, independent young female,” another unknowingly riffing on an old Tammy Wynette–Hillary Clinton joke it would take too long to explain said, “She’s not just a woman standing next to a man,” and another noting of Michelle, “She’s making her own place in history.”
When she came out, Michelle Obama reminisced briefly about her improbable path to the White House and the ambivalence she felt once she got there. Without taking any direct digs at Melania Trump for having plagiarized a portion of her 2008 convention speech just a week ago (Yes, it was only a week ago), Michelle gently recalled her own, original oratory. “Remember how I told you about [Barack Obama’s] character and his conviction, his decency, and his grace?” Yeah, we remember, Michelle. We’ve been listening to it a lot in the past seven days!
Of her daughters, whom she called “the heart of our hearts,” Obama discussed “the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls to poised young women,” and then — with her gift for detailed, moving narrative — recounted the first day they went to their new school after moving into the White House. “I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old,” Michelle said, “pile into those black SUVs with those big men with guns; I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was ‘What have we done?’”
It was a bit of real talk from Michelle, whose mixed feelings about her family’s historic tenure in the White House have never been far from the surface. She has chafed so clearly at the constraints of their life in the fishbowl that her husband joked in May, at the White House Correspondents’ dinner, about her attempting to escape over the White House fence. “It’s only nine more months, baby,” he added in an aside to her then. “Settle down.”
But on Monday, that story about her anxiety over her daughters served another rhetorical purpose, one that neatly dovetailed with a message recently emerging from the Clinton campaign, about the impact an imagined Donald Trump presidency might have on America’s children.
Again, Michelle didn’t have to mention Trump by name to hit him hard, noting how she and her husband have taken pains to tell their daughters “to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith” and to “insist that the hateful language they hear from others on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country.” This is Michelle sticking a shiv in Donald Trump’s birtherism and his brutishness. But she managed to do it and stay true to the cheery theme of her convention, not the dystopian vibe of his convention, pointedly advising, “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, our motto is, ‘When they go low, we go high!’”
Noting that when we go to the polls in November, we will be deciding not between parties but about “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four to eight years of their lives,” Michelle was full-throated and unequivocal in her proclamation: “I’m here tonight because in this election there is only one person I trust with that responsibility, only one person who is truly qualified to be president of the United States and that is our friend, Hillary Clinton.”
And here, she turned her critical gaze straight at the Berners; she didn’t say his name, but instead recalled with a steady smile how, “When [Hillary] didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned; Hillary did not pack up and go home. Because as a true public servant, Hillary knows that this is so much bigger than her own desires and disappointments.” After a day — and night — of Bernie booers, these brief, sharp lines felt hot and stinging, with their implicit comparison of their tantrums to the good sportsmanship of their nemesis.
Describing the amount of shit Hillary gets, how she is “picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs,” Michelle described what she admired most about the other woman in a very small club of controversial first ladies: “How she never buckles under pressure, never takes the easy road”; here she said with emphasis, “Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”
Michelle then returned her oblique ass-kicking to the unspecified subject of Donald Trump, simply by praising Hillary Clinton as “someone who knows this job and takes it seriously. Someone who understands that the issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters. Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out.”
In the final portion of her speech, Michelle Obama pulled off one final, hard thing: She laid out a vision of America that was optimistic, loving, proud, and patriotic, even as it began with an acknowledgment of its original and continuing sins. Describing Hillary as a woman “who has the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling,” Michelle explained, “This is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
This was surely one of the most beautifully articulated and personal evocations of America’s imperfect progress I’ve ever heard. And though I was watching from the distance, it seemed that the words she was speaking and role she was playing on this huge national stage at this crucial moment in this country’s history were not lost on Michelle Obama herself. She appeared to grow teary as she spoke of another imperfect step forward, noting that “because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters — and all our sons and daughters — now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
It was a pretty magnificent speech; Michelle managed to be cutting without being nasty, patriotic while remaining clear-eyed about America’s faults, hopeful without getting schmaltzy.
There are plenty of Americans who would do well to copy a little bit of what she offered up tonight.