First lady

I’m not a fan of celebrity culture. Since becoming an adult, I have never idolized or idealized someone simply because they are famous. People are just people when the cameras are off. I never forget that.

When I tell you I like Michelle Obama, it’s not because she was a tremendous first lady, though she was. It’s because of the person she revealed herself to be in those pressure-cooker years.

Obama understood the responsibility she assumed as the wife of the president. She knew that she would be scrutinized, that her every word, every action would be reported, criticized, and amplified. The pressure is unimaginable. What other job, besides marrying into the British royal family, propels a person’s partner into global celebrity?

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She became an ambassador for all of us when her husband was sworn in. She became a model first lady. She used her influence to encourage better nutrition for the nation’s children, planting a kitchen garden at the White House and making television appearances in support of healthy food. She advocated for action on the issues of poverty and education. Simply by being who she is, a strong, brilliant woman of color, she made America confront its biases against both women and minorities.|But what I like best about Michelle Obama is her warmth, her kindness. It extended beyond her family to anyone who would receive it. The pictures of her with former president George W. Bush were astonishing, if you expected partisan politics to make them enemies.

Jackie Kennedy was glamorous. Hillary Clinton was a working first lady. Barbara Bush was made of iron. Michelle Obama was all those things, but she was more.

To find anyone to compare to her, you have to go back to Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. R. was an unlikely woman to be thrust into her role. She was shy. She would have been happy to leave the spotlight to her ambitious husband.

But duty demanded she do more. She was her husband’s legs and his eyes because his physical limitations required it. She became the most beloved first lady in history, however, because of who she was. Her warmth, her kindness, her caring, were unmistakable. And despite editorials that attempted to mock her or disparage her because she wasn’t elegant enough, wasn’t pretty enough, didn’t stay home like a good wife should, the people of America, desperate and hurting during the Depression, loved her.

Her service to this country didn’t end after her husband died. Eleanor Roosevelt was this country’s first delegate to the United Nations. She was the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and helped draft its declaration of human rights.

My parents had their own story about the former first lady.

My father was returning from a trip and my mother met him at the Chicago airport. They were just married, and their reunion was a happy one. As my father held my mother tight, they heard a lady behind them murmur, “How sweet.”

They turned to see Eleanor Roosevelt smiling at them. “Be happy,” she told them, and continued on her way.

Seeing Michelle Obama speak at the virtual Democratic National Convention reminded me of what we’ve missed these past four years. I do not expect to see her like again in my lifetime, but I feel lucky to have been an American during the eight years she and her husband were in office.

And I’m looking forward, past November, past this election, to seeing how a first gentleman handles his job.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.