Michelle Introduces Who the Obamas Really Are: Just Like All of Us
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On the first night of the Democratic Convention in Denver, Michelle Obama reintroduced to the Obama family and its values as an all-American success story to the country. Her speech drew a rousing reception, and also on Sunday DNC attendants watched Sen. Ted Kennedy make an emotional passing of the party's torch to Barack Obama.
Michelle Obama took the stage after a video was shown that described her parents as working class Americans who did not go to college but sacrificed for their children while instilling values of family loyalty, hard work and community service. Those values -- of a family that watches over each other, and urges and supports its members to achieve their best -- was not only her story, but the story of her marriage, and Barack Obama's upbringing as well, she said.
"Barack (also) was raised by grandparents who were working class, and who saved so the kids could have opportunities that they didn't have," Michelle Obama said, "You work hard ... Your word is your bond ... You treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, or you don't agree with them."
Michelle Obama described how she met Barack Obama while they worked at a law firm they both ended up leaving for community service work. She described how they started dating. Michelle Obama said she went with Barack Obama to meetings on the south side of Chicago where he was trying to help steel workers whose plants recently had closed.
She recalled Barack Obama talking to the steel workers -- as he would to many people throughout his political career -- about the difference between "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be." She said Barack Obama has worked for years to bridge that gap. "All of this is driven by the simple belief that the world as it is just won't do," she said, adding, "That is why I love this country."
Introducing the party's nominee on the first night of a national political convention is standard fare. However, Michelle Obama's personal speech was a striking departure from the often-staid speeches at these forums. People who have seen Michelle Obama speak say she often talks personally; reporters and others who have followed her over the years say her performance on Monday showcased the more earnest and empathetic sides of her personality, in contrast to prior political campaigns.
The speech's emphasis on familiar family values was underscored by its finale, when Barack Obama spoke by video to Michelle Obama and his two daughters, who joined their mother at the podium, while the convention hall and television audience watched. During her speech, Michelle Obama repeatedly said her children were the center of her life, and seeing their interactions at the evening's close emphasized the more ordinary side of an undoubtedly extraordinary family.
The Obama children ignored the audience and television cameras and excitedly asked their father about the other kids in the room with him -- who were watching Michelle Obama's speech from Kansas City. The exchange was typical of any family with two young children; it was as endearing as it was devoid of any rough edges.
"Now you know why I asked her (out) so many times," Barack Obama said, speaking of his wife, after praising her speech. "You want a persistent president."
The evening began with a parade of speeches by people who have known Obama over the years: former teachers at law school; steel workers from communities near Chicago where Obama worked as an organizer on anti-poverty issues and voting rights; his half sister who described Obama as an inspiring older brother who worked for his beliefs; and ordinary Americans who had met Obama on the presidential campaign trail.
Passing the Torch
The drumbeat of Obama anecdotes was broken by the surprise appearance of Sen. Ted Kennedy, (D-MA) who earlier this summer was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His niece, Caroline Kennedy, introduced her uncle as a tireless fighter for "justice, fairness, service, sacrifice, faith and family." His appearance, after a poignant video showcasing the ailing senator as the man who kept his deceased brothers' mission alive for decades, was very emotional for delegates. Kennedy's family joined him on the podium after he spoke.
Caroline Kennedy praised her uncle, but said she also was inspired by Obama.
"I never had anybody inspire me the way people say my father inspired them -- until now," she said. "It is time now for a new generation of change. It is time for Barack Obama."
Sen. Kennedy was greeted by stranding ovations, surrounded in a sea of blue and white posters with his name printed on it.
"I have come here to stand with you, to change America, to restore its future, to rise to its best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States," Kennedy said, in a still-strong voice. "We have never lost our belief we are all called to a better country."
Kennedy said "new hope" has been the cause of his life and pledged to return to the Senate in January 2009 to pass legislation providing health care for all Americans.
"Yes, we can, and finally, yes, we will," he said, to an ovation.
"Barack Obama will close the book on the old politics of race, and gender, and group against group, and straight against gay," Kennedy said. "Barack Obama will be a commander in chief who understands that that young Americans in uniforms must not be committed to a mistake."
"We are told that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of bold principle and high endeavor. But when John Kennedy thought of going to the moon, he didn't think that was too far.
Kennedy concluded, "There is a new wave of change all around us. If we set our compass there, we will reach destination. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. The dream lives on."
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org. He is author Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008) and co-author of " What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election ," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).