I was starting to get very concerned about Cindy McCain. Up until this past Tuesday afternoon, when she took a not-so-subtle shot at Michelle Obama, she has been what some have dubbed the political "Stepford Wife." Think about it. Mrs. McCain walks quietly and adoringly behind her husband as he campaigns. She is blonde, blue-eyed, youthful, and perfectly coiffed. She smiles constantly while rarely uttering a word. She is the perfect political spouse.
So on Tuesday, I was glad to see that she had finally entered the contest for "Campaign 2008: Political Spouse from Hell" which Bill Clinton is winning by a wide margin, so far. It was actually refreshing to hear Mrs. McCain speak, and I hope we hear more from her in the future.
But let us turn to Michelle Obama, accomplished, Harvard-trained lawyer, Princeton graduate, Chicago hospital executive, wife of a U.S. Senator, mother and from all accounts, a genuine, grounded, solid person. Like me, she hails from humble, working class roots.
Michelle Obama's comments about being proud of our country were crystal clear to me. I knew exactly what she meant. The campaign does her — and our nation— a disservice by trying to clean up her words. We make a grave a mistake when we hold up accomplished blacks like Barack and Michelle Obama as the measuring stick for racial progress. Don't believe the hype. It is naïve and flat-out wrong for anyone to assume that because you are a black attorney, doctor, senator, engineer, or MBA, that life has been easy. Black professionals also have to deal with the very real and very onerous vestiges of racism that still exist.
As a black, female attorney, age 41, who was the first in my family to achieve such success, I understand – like many other Americans who heard her – that Michelle's comments about being truly proud of her country for the first time reflected a two-fold truth:
1) That she was proud that her nation had shown itself willing to vote for a black man for president, with large numbers of whites supporting him.
2) That she was proud that people are energized about politics in a way that no-one has seen since the 1960s.
This is not complicated stuff. What we need to talk about in this country is notMichelle Obama's comments, but rather how people soften and "filter" important elements of our political discourse when race and gender are at issue.
Traditional first ladies such as Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, and potentially, Cindy McCain, have established a standard: demure in public, but influential behind the scenes.
Hillary Clinton changed that. We went from the matronly Barbara Bush to the Baby Boomer, well-educated, out-spoken Hillary Clinton. And Americans struggled with how they felt about Hillary during both terms of the Clinton presidency. Americans are still struggling now with how they feel about her. The Clinton presidency was the first generational shift Americans had seen in the White House since JFK in 1960.
Michelle Obama is ushering in yet another shift, one that involves both race and gender. And that is the challenge. She is a black woman. Black women in the popular culture are viewed as too strong, too independent, too opinionated, too over-bearing, not great team players, and on an on.
This why an Obama presidency with Michelle Obama as our first lady is such a powerful idea. She has the potential to reset the image of black women in America for generations. She will have an opportunity to redefine the role of first lady, and to redefine what a black woman, and black families, look like in the public mind.
I want a first lady who – regardless of her race - will not simply sit silently and look adoringly at her husband as he speaks, but one who has the ability to bring her own intellect and accomplishments to the table. Cindy McCain seems to have figured out that many Americans want this. She was right to come out fighting. She should speak her mind. And Michelle Obama should, too.
Sophia Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.