WASHINGTON -- As I look at the news this week -- violence in Ukraine, Venezuela falling apart, Flight 370 somewhere at the bottom of the southern Indian Ocean, China and Japan fighting over worthless islands, and old diseases reasserting themselves in Africa -- I see at least one bright, shining star on the horizon.
Before I collapse in sighs of helplessness, I feel that I just have to write a few lyrical lines about a lady we're taking too much for granted.
Americans have not, by any means, starved this lovely lady for compliments. She is beautiful, stylishly dressed, exercised to a wondrous shapeliness, charming to foreigners, willing to do virtually anything for her husband and a woman whose pride brushes off on us. But while that happens to be very much the way that Michelle Obama really is, she also exemplifies another quality that is seldom mentioned.
The first lady is a woman who is "appropriate" -- in her family life from which she garners so much love and support, in her former professional life at the University of Chicago, but most of all in her role as first lady.
So far as I can tell, no one has mentioned the word "appropriate," but that seems to be the best thing one could say about her. I mean it as the highest possible compliment. It means she has a sense of the rightness of pronouncements and of actions. It means that she does not try to overtake her husband or the president's programs, but she can excel at her own as well as she can.
As it happens, Michelle Obama and I come from neighborhoods about a mile apart on the South Side of Chicago. Our houses were nearly identical, but there is no meaning there -- across Chicago, 99 percent of the houses were bungalows like ours.
Michelle has said her family was so crowded that she and her brother jerry-built two bedrooms for themselves out of the living room. We solved that same problem by building a tiny bedroom for my 6-foot, 4-inch brother in the attic. It wasn't Lake Forest, but, you know, these were happy homes. She came from a wonderful family, where her sick father nevertheless never missed a day of work. I came from an equally wonderful family, where my hard-working father got up at 3 a.m. every day to run his small dairy business.
Our neighbors in these Chicago working-class/middle-class neighborhoods at the time were friendly and generous when we kids were good, but relentless tattletales to our parents when we weren't.
Michelle went on to do things extremely rare for any of us, particularly an African-American, and a woman, too. She was accepted at Princeton and then at Harvard Law School. These were extraordinary accomplishments.
Also temporarily leaving the South Side, I went to Northwestern University on the lake north of Chicago and then polished it off with a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Vienna in Austria.
When Barack Obama was elected president, I had momentary fears that Michelle, despite having two young daughters, might search out some high-powered job and become a "working mom" with her home in the White House. Surely she deserved it, but that was not the point, especially since many people would think she was just trying to prove something.
But she didn't do that, and my admiration for my South Side "sister" only grew.
Moreover, in the most unique way, she adopted a cause for herself that was dignified and utterly necessary -- and that people responded to. She saw the epidemic of obesity among adults and children and fashioned a fitness program that anyone could take part in. She saw their poor eating habits, and with local schoolchildren planted and cared for a garden on the White House lawn that anyone could be proud of -- and she inspired similar gardens all across America.
Before this, most of the children in city schools had little idea where food came from! Or how disastrous obesity was for you. Or how to "move" to make yourself healthier.
Above all, everything she did was appropriate. It was appropriate for a cultured woman to care about children and the health of the country, just as it was appropriate for her to visit China with her two daughters and her mother, where she represented her country with great style and verve.
President George H.W. Bush used to say that his favorite word, "prudent," came from his mother. That's almost as good a word as "appropriate," and could equally apply to Michelle Obama. I believe in the future we will thank her for giving us this new context for our "mom in chief." And won't it be interesting to see what she does next?
- Michelle Obama