So, while there are abundant signs that Republicans this year are itching to take the practice to new lows, let’s not forget that attacks on first ladies, actual or putative, go back a long way. And for all of the fear in Democratic circles about the damage these attacks could do to the Obama campaign, there are equally abundant signs that the Republicans have chosen the wrong spouse to trash and bash. Indeed, the proposed demonization of Michelle Obama as some sort of radical, honky-hating Shadow (racial implication intended) Behind the Throne could well backfire.
Despite the long pedigree of presidential spouse-bashing, it didn’t really become a regular feature of politics until quite recently. After Rachel Jackson, the first first lady to be thoroughly excoriated was Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith, who allegedly ran the country for a while after her husband’s 1919 stroke (just prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote).
Then came Eleanor Roosevelt, whose many detractors created the current pattern of going after the spouse as a collateral attack on the president. Roosevelt, an outspoken (for her time) supporter of racial justice, was a particular target of southern white Democrats who didn’t want to criticize the wildly popular FDR.
Fast forward to the mid-1970s, when Betty Ford's controversial remarks on "Sixty Minutes" supporting abortion rights and condoning premarital sex became a lightning rod for conservative unhappiness with her husband, who ultimately faced a tough 1976 primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s own wife, Nancy, got a lot of early flack for her White House consultations with astrologers, and later on, was criticized by conservatives who thought she was tempering her husband’s ideology out of concern for his historical reputation.
But all these skirmishes were merely a prelude to the savaging of Hillary Clinton, who throughout the 1992 campaign and the entire Clinton administration was variously denounced as some sort of hyper-ideological Red Queen, as an enabler of her husband’s weaknesses, as a hateful and humorless shrew, and in the far reaches of right-wing crazyland, as a crook and even a murderer. Those who wonder about the tenacious loyalty of many feminists to HRC should remember how frequently and for how long she was treated by conservatives as the symbol of everything threatening to The Old Ways about the women’s movement.
Compared to HRC, 2004 First-Lady-in-Waiting Teresa Heinz Kerry had a somewhat easier time of it, though there was definitely an under-the-radar Republican effort to use her accent, her foreign birth, her wealth, and her candor about things like cosmetic surgery and the memory of her first husband, to reinforce claims that John Kerry was from another world, if not another planet.
(For what it’s worth, Richard Nixon attacked his own wife: In 1960, in his last televised debate with John F. Kennedy, Nixon repeatedly deployed the phrase: "America can't stand pat.")
The history is relevant because the already-developed assault on Michelle Obama represents a sort of Greatest Hits of the nasty genre: like Eleanor Roosevelt, she’s an ideologue; like Nancy Reagan, she exerts dangerous influence over her husband; like Hillary Clinton, she’s Not Like Us.
Michelle Obama’s detractors have had thin gruel to fuel their outrage: a happy remark in Wisconsin in February that “for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country;” a relatively downbeat primary-season stump speech that stressed the struggles of working-class and middle-class Americans; her imputed blame for the past and recent antics of the Obama’s long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright; and a Princeton senior thesis written more than two decades ago that has been ignorantly described as an endorsement of racial separatism. But this limited material has generated endless hostile conservative blog posts, a series of tirades by pundits ranging from Bill O’Reilly to Christopher Hitchens, a cover article for National Review calling her “Mrs. Grievance,” and a racially tinged internet ad sponsored by the Tennessee Republican Party. And where there was no “evidence” to distort of Michelle Obama’s supposed anti-American bitterness, radicalism, and racialism, it’s been invented, as shown by the recent viral rumor, completely unfounded, that there’s some video floating around showing her ranting about “whitey”--in some versions, in the company of Louis Farrakhan.
Despite all this negative commentary, a recent Gallup poll showed her favorable/unfavorable ratings at a relatively strong 48% favorable, 29% unfavorable (as compared to 39% favorable, 25% unfavorable for Cindy McCain). And like previous spouses, she has an opportunity to improve them over the course of the general election campaign. In April of 1992, shortly after Bill Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton’s Gallup ratings stood at 38% favorable and 39% unfavorable, with the famous “Stand By Your Man” 60 Minutes interview in January of that year probably representing the most enduring image of HRC. By election day, they rebounded to 49% favorable and 30% unfavorable.
Why am I convinced the campaign against Michelle Obama is going to backfire if it’s not abandoned? There are three reasons.
First, the Obama campaign has learned from past slurs, particularly the legendary “Swift Boat Veterans” attacks on John Kerry in 2004. As Obama campaign manager David Axelrod told Newsweek in April: "He's not going to sit there and sing 'Kumbaya' as the missiles are raining in. I don't think people should mistake civility for a willingness to deal with the challenges to come."
And the Obama campaign seems particularly determined to deal with attacks on the candidate’s wife. In just the last two weeks, The New York Times reported a major effort to “reintroduce” Michelle Obama, and just as importantly, to bat down the slurs against her. The speedy explosion of the “whitey video” rumor (which Michelle Obama herself mocked as “something George Jefferson would say”) showed that both mainstream media and progressive bloggers were vigilant about this kind of sludge. Sean Hannity of Fox News, the self-designated launching pad for many of the personal attacks on both Obamas, hasn’t been able to draw a poisoned breath without immediate contradiction. A recent issue of the checkout-line staple Us Weekly has a heartland-reassuring cover story entitled “Why Barack Loves Her.” The campaign itself has launched a Web page aimed at knocking down smears against both Obamas. And there’s a new independent site, called Michelle Obama Watch, devoted to full coverage of the coverage of the putative first lady. It’s abundantly clear that Team Obama doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom of the past that counsels a resolute silence in the face of personal attacks.
Second, the effort to make Michelle Obama seem “alien” and “radical” runs up against the truth in ways that are going to be difficult to ignore. If anything, Michelle Obama’s persona, history, and “message” are more reassuringly American than her husband’s. In contrast to his exotic and complicated background, hers exhibits the contemporary version of the Horatio Alger myth: a family rooted in South Carolina and transplanted to the southside of Chicago; a hard-working father (struggling against a degenerative disease, MS) and stay-at-home mother; great success in a series of highly competitive and racially integrated school settings; and the abandonment of a bright career in corporate law to become a non-profit organizer, an executive for a non-profit hospital, and most of all, a devoted wife and mother of two children.
The truth obviously hasn’t gotten in the way of personal attacks on candidates and their families in the past, but the more they are presented and reinforced in the course of a campaign, the less sway rumors, whispers, and anonymous e-mails control the flow of information. Both the facts about Michelle Obama, and aggressive efforts to present them, will help to expose the racism at the heart of the overall conservative assault on the Obamas as “Not Like Us.”
Which leads to the third point: While many Americans harbor conscious and unconscious racist attitudes, they don’t much like to be reminded of them. Indeed, in a general election contest in which John McCain desperately needs to beat Barack Obama among white women, flirting with racism could be particularly hazardous to the GOP. As John Judis pointed out, public opinion research suggests that the modern-day “gender gap” between the two parties is at least partly attributable to the antipathy many white women have expressed towards Republican racial attitudes. Along those lines, Republican “racial inclusiveness” rhetoric has long been aimed not at attracting African-American voters but at convincing white swing voters that voting Republican doesn’t mean voting racist. All that could be at risk if McCain abets too much anti-Michelle Obama talk.
In the end, attacks on Michelle Obama as some sort of (literally) dark and dangerous presence face a high threshold of credibility, and ultimately depend on the belief that she reflects a hidden underside of Barack Obama’s sunny, optimistic and inclusive persona. It’s not entirely within the control of the Obama campaign to rebut that suggestion. But everything about the real Michelle Obama--and the campaign’s efforts to present her to us--should make that easier.
Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, an online forum and blogging site.
By Ed Kilgore