I first heard Michelle Obama speak in January 2008 at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, where my partner’s father was living at the time. My partner and I had already heard and voted for her husband; we were excited. His father was more skeptical. The IVH was a regular stop at caucus time, a place for candidates to practice their stump speeches on a captive audience. He thought they were all dumb, but he agreed to humor us.
She spoke in a low-ceilinged multipurpose room with cinder-block walls. She was probably the tallest person in the room and certainly the only one wearing a suit. The vets who weren’t in wheelchairs sat on metal folding chairs. It was after lunch, and many of them looked drowsy. My partner’s father stood by the door with his arms crossed, prepared to slip back to his room. It was, in short, not an encouraging venue.
At first she was nervous. She stumbled over words. But then she got to the meat of her speech: the reasons why she thought her husband should be our next president. I can’t remember exactly what she said now, but I can’t imagine it was much different from her speech at the Democratic National Convention later that year. She talked about how she and her husband had both grown up among honest, hard-working people who had sometimes struggled to pay the bills. They had taken those values to heart, and when it came time for her husband to choose a career, he decided not to go to Wall Street but to the south side of Chicago. He was a good man and a good leader, she loved and believed in him, and she thought we should too.
It wasn’t so much what she said, though, but the sincerity with which she said it. And it never really went away even after she became First Lady: see how she choked up during her 2016 speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, about Donald Trump’s campaign behavior. Ostensibly it was a speech in support of Hillary Clinton, but it was also a very, very personal testament to all the bullshit she’s gone through in her life. “It is cruel,” she said of Trump’s rhetoric. “It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts.”
This willingness to be real is why I’m looking forward to her new book, a memoir called Becoming that comes out in November. She’s going to kick off her book tour with what her publisher calls “an intimate evening” at United Center. Who knows, maybe her powerful sincerity will make it seem smaller.
As for my partner’s father: he stayed through the whole speech. He even applauded. Afterward, as we walked back to his room, he told us, “I really like that gal.” I’d never felt closer to him. v