The Magazine

A Kinder, Gentler Mrs. Obama

She's more 'Oprah' than 'The View.'

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By CHARLOTTE HAYS
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Richmond

"So here we are--on The View. You guys don't be nervous. Just ignore the cameras," says Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic nominee for president. She is almost breathtaking in a pale blue twin set (the height of staid taste, but luminously set off with a large pin that sparkles even unto the press section), gray slacks, and beige flats, that universal gesture of the tall woman to lesser mortals. She is prettier in person, with a coltish way of moving, and a smile as bright as the pin.

We are at an "economic roundtable for Virginia working women," moderated by Obama, in a smallish ballroom at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Obama is seated around a coffee table with Lilly Ledbetter, the "Alabama grandmother" who unsuccessfully sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company for wage discrimination; Anne Holton, Virginia's first lady, a lawyer and advocate for children and families; and three women, who'll "share" their stories. The scene is, indeed, reminiscent of The View, site of triumphant appearances by both Obamas. As the discussion develops, however, it becomes clear this is more The Oprah Winfrey Show than The View. About 200 invited guests, mostly women but including Richmond mayor Douglas Wilder, sporting a new goatee, are in the audience. The racial mix is about 40-60, with slightly more African-American women.

Obama has been doing these economic roundtables all over the country in an effort to reach women whose votes will be crucial in November. The format is simple: A few speakers churn up the assembled, calling on them to work for the Democratic ticket at the grassroots level, and then Obama makes a few remarks and listens to the panelists.

At one such event, in February, Obama famously complained to women in an economically hard-hit hamlet in Ohio of the back-breaking costs of dance, piano, and sports lessons for the Obama girls, a faux pas recorded for posterity by National Review's Byron York. But the women loved her anyway, York noted. Today in Richmond Obama limits her catalogue of woes primarily to those oft-mentioned college loans the Obamas had to repay, admitting that "Barack and I had world-class educations" and that "otherwise we wouldn't be here." I wonder: Could the fragile Obama promise not have survived, say, a large state university?

Speaking in a staccato style that contrasts with Michelle's tentative "ums"--no doubt born of the fallout from former forays into spontaneity--Anne Holton, wisely, says her life is pretty good but that other women are suffering. And then Obama gives the mike to Mary Henley, a 78-year-old widow.

"Mary, you think you are ready to get us going? So, Mary, just take your time and tell your story," Obama says. Henley reports that her husband died suddenly, while the couple were in their car, and now Henley, who still works part time, lives on a reduced income and has "a lot of debts."

"Well, again, unfortunately, there are thousands of senior citizens like Mary, people who have worked hard, not sitting in an office, but worked, worked until the bitter end. This is the fate of many seniors," Obama says. If you have any doubt that there are Oprah elements in today's program, Michelle reaches over and hands Henley a Kleenex.

Mrs. Henley's story is sad and disturbing. I almost want a Kleenex because it is not only touching but the sort of story that inspires a shudder in the hearts of all of us who have ever had retiree bag lady fears. Even for one well-disposed towards widows and orphans, however, there is some missing information. How were the Henleys' debts incurred? It may be that they were unavoidable, but we don't know, and adding to the mystery, Henley vaguely notes, "I made some mistakes" in handling her money. Most of us have, but the question is whether Mrs. Henley's plight stems from her mistakes or factors in the economy that require government intervention. Throughout the two-hour roundtable, the same question might be asked of each participant--but isn't.

The next panelist, Leigh Hite, a "full-time college student," who is also a "full-time" mother, who works "full-time"--whew--has been in the same job for 19 years and now wants to make a change. College tuition is eating her family alive, and they can no longer live "paycheck to paycheck" as they did before the Bush administration came to office.

Instead of raising the question as to why college costs astronomically more than it once did (some have suggested government aid might, ironically, be a root cause), Obama invokes the specter of former senator and McCain adviser Phil Gramm, without quite naming him. She says some people believe that the "challenges people face are not real" and "then we start to blame ourselves." The Obama campaign doesn't want you to ever blame yourself.

"It's important for people to know this isn't in your head--it's real," Obama says, before asking Rosaline Perry, the final speaker, who has education loans from her son and a mother with Alzheimer's, to "take it away, Roz." Like the other panelists, Perry has had a tough time. But how is Barack Obama going to make "all these aides and nurses just walking around" her mother's nursing home more attentive to Roz Perry's mother?

We are definitely in the realm of Michelle-as-Oprah. It is a kinder, gentler version of the Michelle who was once known for conducting an entirely different kind of workshop--tough "diversity training" sessions in Chicago back in the early 1990s. Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy describes these sessions in her new book, Michelle: A Biography (Simon & Schuster)--an enormously valuable source for the context of Michelle's life. "Michelle was tough, tough in a good sense," Julian Posada, her deputy when she was director of Public Allies, a nonprofit that trained young people to work with other nonprofits, is quoted as saying. "She was very good about being meticulous about the details: Are you on message? Are we meeting people's expectations?"

On most days, allies were put in unlikely groupings and sent on scavenger hunts, according to Mundy. Diversity training was on Fridays, when everybody came into the office to participate. "You'd take people through, what are your biases, people would learn how other people were feeling about stuff," said Posada. There was "lots of squishy stuff" (Oprah foreshadowed?), but there were also "incredibly powerful growth opportunities for individuals."

Mundy calls Obama a "forceful coach." "The most powerful thing she ever taught me was to be constantly aware of my privilege," said Beth Hester, who is white. "Michelle reminded me that it's too easy to go and sit with your own. She can invite you, in kind of an aggressive way, to be all that you can be."

Frankly, I think the women in Richmond got off light. But I have a suspicion that even if Obama had wanted to beat them with a wet noodle they would have been thrilled. Her beauty, combined with the undeniably historic nature of her husband's campaign, enchanted everyone, including this hardened correspondent.

I caught the train back to Washington with a middle-aged African-American woman, obviously affluent, from Baltimore. She had come down in the morning just to see Obama. "My husband was a history buff," she confided. "I wish he'd lived to see this."

Charlotte Hays is a Washington writer and editor.