I find myself deeply envying Barack Obama’s power over the political debate in this country. He apparently has the ability, with a mere sentence or two, to take topics off the table and remove them from discussion. And we all better comply with his pronouncements over what is fair game fro discussion, and what is not.
For example, his religion. Yes, there are those scurrilous, stupid rumors that he’s some sort of “crypto-Muslim” who’s going to take over the White House — and, I dunno, maybe tip over the Washington Monument so it points towards Mecca or something — and he needs to be “exposed.” The most common rebuttal is that he is a Christian, in good standing, and a member of a Christian church for decades. But we’re not supposed to look too carefully at that church, or its paranoid, race-baiting, hateful leader who’s been a close friend and advisor (in matters temporal as well as spiritual) to Obama’s for nearly all that time, and not supposed to doubt Obama’s word that Reverend Wright managed to keep his nuttiness out of Obama’s sight (but hardly anyone else’s) all that time.
Or his relationship with the press. A reporter had the gumption to ask Obama a question at a staged event, but he blew her off with a “later, sweetie” remark that would have gotten any Republican gelded as a sexist, condescending pig. Instead, all he had to do was apologize for both the pet name and the fact that he never did answer her question, and all is forgiven.
Now we have the latest commandment: Thou Shalt Not Criticize My Wife.
I spent a lot of time defending Chelsea Clinton. Well, to be more precise, I spent a lot of time arguing that to use her in any sort of political discussion of her parents was highly inappropriate. She had no say in who her parents happened to be, and had spent nearly all her life simply trying to live as normal a life as she could, not seeking the public spotlight, just trying to find her own way in the world apart from the limelight both her parents sought so eagerly. She stayed out of their careers, for the most part (token appearances aside), and I thought that was her right — and it imposed an obligation among those of us who consider ourselves detractors of her parents to respect that decision.
That all ended when she became an active participant in her mother’s campaign. I took it most personally when she started e-mailing me — some dipshit thought it would be either funny or educational to put me on Hillary’s mailing list, and then some other dipshit thought it would be effective to have Chelsea start writing e-mails for that same list. (Or, more likely, some campaign drone would write the e-mails and have them sent out in Chelsea’s name, probably but not guaranteed with Chelsea’s review and approval.) At that point, she had made the decision to be a political public figure, and her campaign appearances and efforts became fair game.
Likewise, Michelle Obama could have played a low-key role in her husband’s campaign. She could have pulled a “Laura Bush” and remained quietly supportive, but focusing her attention on her family and not seeking the public limelight.
Instead, she decided that she wanted to play a more prominent role, even sometimes striking out on her own for independent campaign appearances, giving speeches and attending events as a “proxy” for her husband.
And it was at one of those events that she misspoke, and said “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country” in relation to her husband’s political success.
“What we’ve learned over this year is that hope is making a comeback. It is making a comeback, and let me tell you something, for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.”
I’m not going to discuss the semantics of what she said — twice, from prepared statements, so the “misspoke” argument falls flat on its face. That’s been hashed and rehashed enough. Rather, I’m going to look at Senator Obama’s latest comment on the matter.
When the Kentucky Republican Party put out an ad featuring that quote, and having a bunch of citizens (OK, most likely Kentucky Republicans) rebutting it, he got a bit irked. He sent out the message: “If they think that they’re going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful, because that I find unacceptable — the notion that you start attacking my wife or my family. For them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her I think is just low class and I think they — most of the American people would think that as well. I would never think of going after somebody’s spouse in a campaign.”
Is this another sign of Obama’s sexism? So soon after he was caught calling a woman he didn’t know “Sweetie,” he’s now running around defending his wife from the vile, underhanded, unscrupulous tactic of taking her words from a public speech and repeating them? This Ivy League lawyer needs her husband to protect her from people who quote her honestly? She can’t stand up for herself? And simply defending her isn’t enough, he wants to immunize her from any future criticism?
There’s only one way that he can possibly justify that, and that is if Michelle Obama simply absents herself from any more active work in her husband’s campaign. That’s the rules, at least as I see them — if you’re going to play an active role in politics, then you’ve forfeited the right to declare yourself “private” and exempt from the routine give-and-take of politics.
Don’t like the rules? Then you don’t have to play.
Senator Obama needs a reminder that he is not the president yet — and even if he was, the kind of authority he’s asking for — to declare certain areas simply “beyond the pale” and off limits for discussion — is not one we’ve ever granted any president, or anyone else, for that matter.
So Michelle Obama made a rookie mistake. (What kind of mistake is debatable. Personally, I think it was the one a lot of politicians make — she was too honest, and let her true feelings show a bit too clearly.) That’s to be expected — she is a rookie, much like her husband, when it comes to national politics.
But they’re playing in the big leagues, and rookies aren’t cut any slack there. If they have what it takes to play — and win — in the big leagues, they better be ready to prove it. There are no special rules for novices, and there shouldn’t be.
Not even if Senator Obama says there are.