Michelle Obama: The revolution will be televised



Financial Times Deutschland, Germany

Michelle Obama: A 'Revolutionary' That'll Be Good for America


"In some respects, she would represent an even greater revolution than the parallel entry into office of her husband … The world would be grateful and the credibility of the United States enhanced if Michelle Obama became First Lady, and the White majority would forthrightly reminded of the debt it still owes America's Black minority."


By Thomas Klau*



Translated by Julian Jacob


July 10, 2008


Germany - Financial Times Deutschland - Original Article (German)

A President Barack Obama would be regarded as evidence of a turning point in the United States. However, an even greater breakthrough would be a First Lady Michelle Obama.


As the United States was born, for heads of state the global norm was kings or queens, not presidents; so it was that in the early months of the republic there was a serious debate about whether the president, for the purposes of symbolic equality, should be addressed as “Majesty.” And it wasn't only eccentrics or those who were nostalgic for monarchy who pleaded for this. The second U.S. President, the great founding father John Adams, was one of the proponents of this title, which sounds so peculiar to us today.


If one wants to understand the USA and its political system, it’s worth directing one’s attention to these early years. The United States is a young country. Just one hundred and twenty years ago, European settlers or their descendants were still fighting battles of conquest against the so-called natives. But at the same time, it's the oldest great republic on this planet - one of the very few countries where government institutions can look back over a 200-year history.


Much of what continues to dominate the political system of the United States arose out of the political context of the late 18th century. This includes the quasi-monarchical respect - despite the fact that the title "Majesty" was renounced - that surrounds the office and person of the president and his family. There is hardly any other republic in which the spouse of the head of state receives so much attention, space and reverence as is the case in the United States.




This tradition has very practical consequences. It's one of the reasons that even staunch political opponents and journalists critical of the president display a distinct respect and engage in social activities with him, even when he bends the law and distorts language in order to legitimize the torture of prisoners. It's also one of the reasons that so much attention is focused on potential First Ladies during an election year. As in a monarchy, the wife of America's head of state is undisputedly and for all, the First Lady of Society. Her tastes, her choice of curtains, or the style of her clothing are all legitimate topics of reporting for the nation's most prestigious newspapers.


[The Telegraph, U.K.]


All of this reflects what an enormous breakthrough that the entry into the White House of Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, would be. In some respects, she would represent an even greater revolution than the parallel entry into office of her husband. The people of the U.S. have by now gotten used to Black generals commanding their forces, and thanks to the current president, of having a Black woman as Secretary of State. But it's one thing to occupy high office. It's quite another when a member of a long-oppressed, still underclass minority assumes a position that like no other, embodies social prominence and celebrity to the point that in the strictest sense, it isn't even an "office."


The Presidency is a job in which one takes action, and only then does he take on the vestments of the role. But First Lady is not such a position - and she who ignores that fact courts failure, as Hillary Clinton did in her first year at the White House, when she tried to obscure this difference with her work on healthcare reform.


Michelle Obama is unlike Condoleezza Rice in that as a Black woman, she conceals the wounds inflicted on her due to her skin color and the differing perspective of the U.S. that emerge from those wounds behind her great charm and a carefully-crafted mask with which she so tactfully handles the self-indulgence of the White majority. One suspects that she won't be one to forget that the celebrity and success of rare social achievers like TV genius Oprah Winfrey, Secretary of State Rice and her predecessor in office Colin Powell - conceal, more than reveal, the reality that a majority of Black Americans experience - and the history that they have inherited.


The self-congratulation of the United States as a country of freedom ignores the fact that Russia freed her peasants from serfdom before America freed her slaves; that the freedom of Blacks had to be fought for and won in a bloody civil war; and that Michelle Obama, Rice and Powell were all born in an America in which the state tolerated or organized the worst kind of violence and discrimination. And today? Yes - there are many great successes. But nearly four out of 100 Black residents of the U.S. capital are infected with HIV. And one out of eight Black Americans aged 20 to 30 are sitting in prison.



For a considerable portion of the White majority, when Michelle Obama declared several months ago that for the first time she was proud of her country, it was an offence against the first commandment of unconditional American patriotism. Since then, the First Lady to be has had to spend a considerable amount of time dismissing her statement as misleading, and her husband Barack has had to take part in the cult of the flag as if moving into the White House depended on it - which it likely does.




But the Black minority knows what Michelle Obama meant. Blacks are embittered and scoff at conservatives - a mortal sin against the second commandment of unconditional American patriotism. From a European point of view, this bitterness seems like a much clearer perception of the realities in the country.


In Michelle Obama, there would be a woman entering the White House who like no other, would be capable of directing the gaze of the majority into the darker aspects of American society and history. It's the best thing that could happen to the United States - and even to us Europeans. The world would be grateful and the credibility of the United States enhanced if Michelle Obama became first lady, whatever her husband's re-election chances - and the White majority would forthrightly reminded of the debt it still owes America's Black minority.


*Thomas Klau is an FTD columnist and heads the Paris Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.






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