Michelle Obama’s literary turn: Finally, a convention speech with a real plot

Convention speeches are mostly vignettes, applause lines, coded jabs and cautious jokes. One damn thing after another. But on Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Michelle Obama brought an element so far lacking at both the DNC and the Republican convention last week: suspense.

She told a story, almost a cliffhanger. The plot was built into the speech—tightly written and evidently a thrill to deliver, in the pleasing, earnest, faux-halting style that Obama shares with her president husband. In subtly patterned cherry-colored silk cut to expose her exquisite shoulders, Obama first touched on the kindness Americans had shown her and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha, in their travels.

In this kindness Obama spotted epic altruism, which sometimes bordered on the absurd, as in the case of the modern-day Nathan Hale, a blinded Afghanistan veteran, who she said told her, “I’d give my eyes 100 times again to have the chance to do what I have done and what I can still do.”

The Americans she’d met on the road were good to her daughters because they were good—heroic—Americans.
Obama tightened this conceit as her well-engineered narrative steamed on. Sure, people might be nice to the first family now, Obama ventured, but four years ago, “I still had some concerns about this journey we’d begun.”

Would Barack change? Would the girls suffer?

These are seemingly naive questions for a powerful first lady but are right on the money for a woman who’s now styling herself, somewhat discordantly, as a “mom-in-chief.” What woman doesn’t wonder whether a new job for her mate might unsettle him, or disrupt the kids’ lives?

The plot twist worked. With this frank expression of concern, even bygone concern, Obama also gave a reason to keep listening to the speech. She’d been reluctant to be first lady! She was concerned about her family! So what happened? What did you learn, Dorothy?

The audience in Charlotte appeared rapt. And it was hard to look away. There is something in Obama’s deployment of “worry” and “concern”—a move she’s made before, to be fair—that makes you wonder whether she really might say, at any moment, “Barack, this thing of being the president is nowhere. We’re going back to Chicago. She’s only here provisionally. Only until it starts to bum her out.

But back to the speech. Obama said she didn’t want to lose her husband into heraldry and pageantry; she wanted him to always be the guy with “a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door.” This image seemed designed to counter Ann Romney’s evocation of dining on an ironing board in early marriage. Sure enough, it conjured a set of fantastic imaginings, as this listener, and surely a few others, tried to figure out how the hole worked and what a shotgun rider actually saw.

Any image that’s in motion, that’s not a cliché, and that gets you trying to call it to mind—that’s gold. This one stuck with me til. . .well, it’s still with me. Was it rewritten (“a hole in the passenger side door”) so as not to sound too unsafe?

Anyway, that man with the junky car—and, Michelle went on, the humble beginnings like her own—stayed the same after he became president. Barack Obama was still the thrifty goofball Michelle married. Because now he fights for people like the poorer and younger and older versions of himself and his wife, Obama explained. So he keeps it fresh. His true self has been revealed.

But what of the girls? Breathe easy. Malia and Sasha Obama, too, have thrived in the White House.

“Today,” Michelle Obama said, “I have none of those worries from four years ago about whether Barack and I were doing what’s best for our girls. Because today, I know from experience that if I truly want to leave a better world for my daughters, and all our sons and daughters, we want to give all our children a foundation for their dreams and opportunities worthy of their promise.”

Along the way to what this lovely peroration, Obama did her share of hit work and issue pushes; some commenters called it the most political speech of her career. But what stood out as I watched was not the politics but the spectacle of transformation: A woman skeptical of the office of the presidency was now ready to call herself a convert. Obama did a lovely job staging her original reluctance, only to bring herself around—and tear up while she did.

In spite of some of the corny phrases, it was an airtight performance. A muscular speech about the speaker’s change of heart—and, of course, love for her husband. She is “in love” with her husband, she said several times, taking no time out to dilate on how their marriage has its ups and downs or highs and lows and nonetheless endures. Nope. She stuck to “in love.”

Hard to resist any of it. Even the big swells of patriotism. The only negative thought it provoked was jealousy. But jealousy can be damaging, and interfere with identification, so watch this space. "I wish my wife had this stuff to say about me," wrote one Yahoo News commenter.