Magnificent, Magnetic, Magical Michelle

Over the top. Really, it’s over the top. Never in recent memory has an American been so relentlessly, so ridiculously, iconized as Michelle Obama.
Even if you think she’s nothing short of splendid, and even if you think she’s been nothing short of splendid as first lady, don’t you find it a tad odd that most of the mainstream media have her walking on water?

Here, for example, is Amy Davidson, a normally sober contributor to The New Yorker: “Her cool seems effortless, though her control of it is precise. Her iconoclasm gains strength from its fusion with irreproachability…. No one should doubt that Michelle Obama’s courage has left an indelible mark. Her time as First Lady changed this country and clarified its vision. And she has been one of the revelations.”

Excuse me? Her “courage has left an indelible mark”? She “changed this country and clarified its vision”?

Jodi Kantor, writing in The New York Times, took a somewhat different approach, maintaining that the real Michelle, the private Michelle, was even more fabulous than the masked Michelle, the public Michelle. The authentic Michelle has “true depth and originality.” The authentic Michelle is “an incisive social critic, a lawyer who can drive home an argument, a source of fresh observations and pointed commentary.” The authentic Michele is “observant” and “original” – in addition to being “wildly popular.”

Excuse me? Though her approach to her role “worked brilliantly, protecting and elevating her,” in fact Michelle’s public posturing “did not capture” her “true depth and originality”?

It was Vanessa Friedman, though, who drove me to distraction. In a very long article, with pride of place and a huge photo montage to boot, Friedman, also writing in The New York Times, made the curious, though arguably accurate argument that the eight-year obsession with Michelle Obama was because of her relationship to fashion. “No first lady understood the role of fashion, and the potential uses of it,” Friedman wrote, “better than Michelle Obama.” Friedman continued: “There is simply no ignoring the fact that during these two terms, clothing played a role unlike any it had ever played before in a presidential administration.”

Excuse me? Is this supposed to be an attribute? Are we supposed to admire the fact that Ms. Obama was so focused, so fixated on fashion that “she saw it as a way to frame her own independence and points of difference, add to her portfolio and amplify her husband’s agenda”?

When Nancy Reagan dressed to the nines she was derided for her frivolity. Along similar lines, though in contrast, when Barbara Bush embellished her simple attire over and over again with the same, familiar string of pearls, she was praised for being sensible. So what gives with Michelle Obama? Why is she so immensely popular with the American people? And why are so many sophisticates so effusive, so excessive, so extravagant in their praise for this first lady particularly?

The answer does not lie in a long list of accomplishments. Truth be told she hasn’t done very much “outside the home,” as they say, during her eight years in the White House. Even Kantor had to acknowledge that she took on issues that “were vital but hard to disagree with: She was pro-veteran, anti-childhood obesity.” So, we need to look elsewhere to explain her as singular sensation.
• Michelle Obama has filled the role of first lady exceedingly well – if you define the role totally traditionally. She has looked impeccable. She has behaved impeccably. And during most of her husband’s time in office she uttered not a word that could conceivably create controversy.
• Michelle Obama satisfies our craving for family values. She has been, so far as anyone can tell, a supremely devoted wife. And a supremely devoted mother. Even a supremely devoted daughter, who brought her widowed mother to live in the White House.
• Michelle Obama exemplifies nothing so much as an American success story. A black woman who came from a family of modest means, she propelled herself both academically and professionally first to considerable achievement and, later, to fame, to money, and, should she choose to exercise it, to power.
• Michelle Obama has been a cipher, a vessel, into which many Americans, especially but not exclusively women, can pour their aspirations. Women who look great but say little or nothing can do that – they can become the repository of our fantasies.
• Michelle Obama is the most readily visible and easily accessible of quasi political distractions. At a moment in time when the United States of America is so badly fractured, and when it is so precariously positioned, and when the president elect is of such uncertain character and uneven temperament, having a first lady who fits the bill as role model is nothing so much as a great relief.

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