The personal is political: Michelle Obama

I am writing a few paragraphs on Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and I thought I needed to study, and link to, the many stories and reviews and analyses I had read on the three most important speeches at that convention, just to get going. First up, my notes on Michelle Obama’s “stunning speech.”

Michelle Obama’s primetime speech on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina, was cathartic: It purged the party’s remaining hesitations and reservations and misgivings about Barack Obama’s contentious but historic first term and allowed Democrats in the hall and across the United States to rediscover him as the same man who promised “change we can believe in,” four long years ago.

I thought it was an excellent performance—even though I could sense that she was rather overdoing the sincere-stammer-at-the-start-of-sentences part. The differences between her prepared remarks and the actual transcript (via the New York Times’ Anatomy of a Speech feature—a good concept, but under-executed) are small but telling. Michelle is a graduate of the Harvard Law School, where the students are almost as a rule fiercely articulate (as I saw for myself when I enrolled in one class in the Spring 2012 term), and she is a practiced speaker. I thought I saw only three references to this primetime speech tic, among the dozens of stories I’ve read.

John Heilemann’s review in New York Magazine was a total rave, but it manages to include a line or two about  the aspect of performance.

Purely at the level of stage presence and oratorical execution, Michelle was close to flawless: warm and natural, charming and convincing, passionate and pitch-perfect, giving off such a natural and comfortable affect that it was almost possible to forget that she was, you know, performing.

This is not to take away from the power of Michelle’s star turn. She made a compelling case for Obama as the person who knows him best (“Being President doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are”) and an even more unanswerable case against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney—without a single hostile reference or indeed without naming Romney at all.

We can get a feel for the audience’s growing sense of amazement as they listened to her speech through a couple of live-blogging efforts. First, that of Ed Kilgore, the Political Animal himself, whose blog I read every single day (and who happens to mention those “occasional stutters” in passing). And second, that of Andrew Sullivan, who thinks Barack Obama is his kind of conservative. “Yes, I’m gushing … So sue me.”

Andrew Beaujon of Poynter took a quick first look at journalists’ stunned reactions, and a roundup by Eric Kleefeld of TalkingPointsMemo gathers the first (admiring) analyses of the He-who-shall-not-be-named approach.

Steve Benen, Kilgore’s prodigious predecessor at the Washington Monthly who now writes for Rachel Maddow’s blog, celebrated Michelle’s speech as the triumph of the personal-as-political, as did Time’s James Poniewozik. (He has a good line about Michelle’s fighting stance, but because it is literally the last line in the review, and giving away great lines or unexpected conclusions through lazy quotes, blurbs, or heads is a pet peeve of mine, I won’t give it away!)

It may have been EJ Dionne Jr., however, who wrote best about the dual character of Michelle’s speech, which was both “apolitical and politically masterful.”   

In the New Yorker, John Cassidy thought the speech was so well done, its political purposes so subtly but persuasively met, that he began to argue that a political future for Michelle was a plausible option. (He also noted, in passing, the First Lady’s “early stammers”—but it seems he did not hear the stammering late in the speech.) Amy Davidson wrote a study in contrast, with “talk of debt and love” as the point of comparison between Ann Romney’s speech the week before, in Tampa, Florida, and Michelle’s.

And blogging in Esquire, Tom Junod wrote an instant classic: an unflinching look at the racial prejudice that continues to poison American politics, and then against that bleak background a deep gaze into the humanizing tendencies (an appeal to the “best instincts” of “the American electorate,” he said) of Michelle Obama’s defining speech.

He wrote about the stammering too, and not in passing.

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2 Comments

Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

2 responses to “The personal is political: Michelle Obama

  1. Pingback: Better than it sounds: Barack Obama | John Nery | Newsstand

  2. Pingback: Column: Journalistic judgment and Obama’s speech | John Nery | Newsstand

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