The first first lady to enter my consciousness was Rosalynn. I was 13 at the time. She was 50, the child of a farmer, the wife of a former governor, the mother of three. I could not relate to her, exactly—she was older than my mother and white and from a deeper kind of South than the one in Memphis where we lived. Still, I liked Rosalynn. She seemed quiet and gentle and down-to-earth, a nice enough lady to be doing whatever it was that first ladies did. Anyway, it had nothing to do with me.
After Rosalynn came Nancy: thin, chilly, glamorous; no relating there. On to Barbara, who seemed motherly and kind (this was before those Astrodome comments); she reminded me of my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Chenowith. Then Hillary: smart and capable and eager to do real work. By the time Hillary came along, I was old enough to understand that being a woman would play nearly as important a role in my professional life as being black, and so I watched Hillary with an interested eye. She was older than me and white, a first-generation feminist who grew up financially comfortable and secure. I still could not relate, precisely, but I was happy to see her kicking against the cookie-baking chains. After Hillary came Laura, the quiet Texas librarian. No doubt Laura Bush is more complex and accomplished than she has been portrayed, but to me she has remained a cipher.
Now comes Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States, a sister, a mother, a civil rights baby and accomplished professional, a speaker of truth. Feeling like you can relate to someone is not the best basis for picking a president, but it’s pretty good for welcoming a first lady into your embrace.
Being relatable is, in fact, a key component of the job. Some of the nation’s most successful first ladies—at least in terms of popularity and public perception—have all shared a certain quality of empathy that allows them to seem above partisanship, said presidential historian Carl Anthony. Michelle, he said, seems to have it.
“You can see that she makes herself accessible,” he said. “She doesn’t seek to establish or create some kind of mystique around herself.”
Without compromising her tremendous personal dignity, Obama tells very personal stories about her life—her father struggling to provide for his family on a workingman’s salary, her own efforts to balance the demands of work and family—that allow to her to connect with other, more-average Americans.
I picture her standing tall before the White House, welcoming the British prime minister. I imagine her girls skipping through the hallways of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with their new puppy, stopping to giggle beneath the portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I envision Michelle in a bright red coat and pillbox hat (yeah, I know) waving from the stairs of her plane (what does the first lady fly when she’s not with the president? Air Force Three? Pink Lady One?) after it’s landed in South Africa or China or Brazil.
I can’t quite catch my breath at the improbable beauty of it all.
Eleanor Roosevelt, a sharply contentious figure during certain periods of her husband’s 12-year presidency, may be one role model for Michelle. She served as a kind of nurturer-in-chief during the depths of the Great Depression. When the aggrieved and ragtag World War I vets known as the Bonus Army descended on Washington in 1933 to demand, again, the federal payment due to them, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who went down to the streets to have tea and to listen to their complaints.