Reminiscent of glorious Homer: Michelle Obama's convention address was widely praised last night.
For ourselves, we'd prefer to see first spouses, male or female, speak in non-partisan settings. That's especially true in the case of someone like Obama, who has such remarkable depth of vision to share.
That said, one part of Michelle Obama's speech is being widely quoted—and we're not sure that her presentation is being fully captured. We refer to the passage at the end of her speech when she described her thoughts as she watched her happy, beautiful daughters play on the White House lawn.
Obama started and ended her speech with the needs of her daughters, and of the rest of the nation's children. Our view? Politics should always be about the interests and needs of the babies born today. What kinds of lives do we want them to live?
Michelle Obama built her speech around the needs of the country's children. This is the way she started:
OBAMA (7/25/16): You know, it’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be president.As she continued, Obama described the feelings of a parent raising two kids in the White House. Along the way, she gave us a glimpse of two parents' reaction to the conduct of a deranged public man:
Remember how I told you about his character and convictions, his decency and his grace, the traits that we’ve seen every day that he’s served our country in the White House?
I also told you about our daughters, how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. And during our time in the White House, we’ve had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women, a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington.
OBAMA: I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them. That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith.When Donald Trump created himself as King of the Birthers, he was, among other things, taking aim at the children in the White House. The press corps has almost wholly disappeared his appalling conduct. Meanwhile, did you hear that Hillary lied about the Cubs and the Yankees?
The press corps should be ashamed of itself for the way it has avoided challenging Trump's past conduct as a birther. That said:
At the end of her speech, Obama returned to the lives of her daughters. She offered a beautiful two-part construction in which she describes her thoughts as she watches her daughters playing with their dog.
This construction is so lovely that it seems to come out of Homer. It seems to us that one part of this two-part construction is being widely lost:
OBAMA: That 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.Obama seemed to choke up as she recalled this moment. We can't say we blame her.
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
In that glorious statement, Obama compares the happy lives of her daughters to the lives of the glorious ancestors who built the house in which they now live. As she watches her daughters at play, she thinks of the lives those honored ancestors lived.
It's going to be a long, long time before you hear a deeper passage from a speech. We thought of glorious Homer as Obama watched her girls at play and found her thoughts turning to those who had come before. That's some of the greatest story-telling you'll ever meet in a speech.
From there, Obama went on to ask what we can do for all the other kids, for the babies being born today. What kinds of lives do we want them to lead? She was asking a very good question.
That was a very unusual moment. As a general matter, we'd prefer to see this invaluable person sharing her insights in a setting where everyone, from all the tribes, might be inclined to listen.
Also, glorious Sandburg: You'll rarely encounter better story-telling than Obama gave you last night. We thought of Sandburg's account of Lincoln's last act before leaving Springfield to become the nation's sixteenth president.
Late in Volume II of The Prairie Years, Sandburg describes Lincoln’s trip to visit the woman who had raised him—his stepmother, Sally Bush Lincoln. The trip occurred in January 1861—after Lincoln’s election, before his inauguration.
The president-elect journeyed in ways which are hard to imagine today. “Lincoln rode to Mattoon, missed connections with a passenger train, and took the caboose of a freight train to Charleston,” Sandburg wrote. “Friends met him and took him to the house, where he was to stay overnight; the next morning he would go out to say good-bye and have his last hours with his stepmother, Sally Bush Lincoln.”
After an evening of story-telling, Sandburg imagines this:
SANDBURG: The next day Lincoln drove eight miles out to the old farm along the road over which he had hauled wood with an ox team. He came to the old log house had cut logs for and helped smooth the chinks; from its little square windows he had seen late winter and early birds.There too, another great portrait. Lincoln, looking on cheering thousands, would be thinking of the woman who had come before.
Sally Bush and he put their arms around each other and listened to each other’s heartbeats. They held hands and talked; they talked without holding hands. Each looked into eyes thrust back in deep sockets. She was all of a mother to him.
He was her boy more than any born to her. He gave her a photograph of her boy, a hungry picture of him standing and wanting, wanting. He stroked her face a last time, kissed good-by, and went away.
She knew his heart would go roaming back often, that even when he rode in an open carriage in New York or Washington with soldiers, flags or cheering thousands along the streets, he might just as like be thinking of her in the old log farmhouse out in Coles County, Illinois.
The sunshine of the prairie summer and fall months would come sifting down with healing and strength; between harvest and corn-plowing there would be rains beating and blizzards howling; and then there would be silence after snowstorms with white drifts piled against the fences, barns, and trees.
The girls played on the lawn with their dog. Lincoln lived in that same house.