First ladies face myriad challenges

Monday August 13, 2012


His eloquence is cool, usually. Her eloquence is passionate. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama apparently have a strong marriage and are among the fortunate couples who consider each other a best friend.

But when they speak -- at least when she spoke at the Colonial Theatre earlier this month -- they are miles apart. He can be forceful, but under most circumstances, he aims to reason with the crowd, persuade people to take his path. The first lady was having none of that. She came to tell it like it is, at least from where she stands.

Her presentation was stunning and intense. And the captive audience (one assumes those paying premium prices for seats were Obama backers, not Romney-ites) roared its approval, clapping and yelling, one voice even inserting an amen now and then.

At a State of the Union address, the media keeps track of the number of times the president is interrupted by applause. No count was reported after Michelle Obama's Pittsfield appearance, but she didn't utter very many words in a row before the packed theater erupted again.

It was exciting to be there and see the first lady in person. And she looked beautiful, although her dress was not the most spectacular outfit we've seen her in.

She said she wasn't good at lying, which presumably means she'll never run for Congress or become a career politician. She promised truth and delivered a list of her husband's achievements and some thoughts on what makes him tick and what makes him want a second term.

She practically ordered the group to take up the cause, by campaigning actively. If it's a close election, she said, whether you get that neighbor or nephew to the polls could decide the outcome. She cautioned against waking up the morning after and wondering what might have been.

People keep talking about whether candidates connect with the populace or not, but there's not much question about Michelle Obama. She connects.


First ladies don't have an easy time of it. If they had a career, their husband's election wiped it out for the nonce. If they liked popping around town of an afternoon, driving down a dirt road, going to the movies alone, the new title eliminated all that. Planning and Secret Service and special cars would all enter the picture.

But the old saying about there being a great woman behind every successful man seems to hold true for more first ladies than not. Abigail Adams couldn't even vote, but she was President Adams' partner in all things and an outspoken adviser to him.

Edith Wilson kept her husband's deteriorating health a secret and kept government going. Eleanor Roosevelt made her own way and dealt privately with FDR's handicap, his mother and his affairs. Nancy Reagan played the first lady role properly while exerting considerable influence and very possibly covering up the fact that his mind was starting to drift.

Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Jacqueline Kennedy carved their niches and had an impact. But they must still have had a sense of being confined to the White House.

It was a memorable afternoon, complete with James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" and "You've Got a Friend," the second dedicated especially to Michelle Obama.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of
The Eagle and, since retirement, a novelist.


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