The role of First Lady of the United States has once again come into the spotlight with the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. Over the years, most first ladies were expected to be good hostesses and to remain largely silent and out of sight when it came to the running of the country. As America approached the 21st Century, the role of the First Lady began to evolve into one of more involvement in public life and a more active role in public policy. As is often the case with change, this has lead to a certain amount of both criticism and controversy. Let’s take a look at the style and substance of two remarkable First Ladies; Barbara Pierce Bush and Michelle Obama.
Barbara Bush, wife of the 41st. President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, is a rather interesting woman. She married young at 19 years old and moved with her Navel Pilot husband from base to base during the dark days of World War Two. When the war ended, she accompanied her husband to Connecticut, where the future President attended Yale University. As a young wife and mother, she settled into the then traditional role of homemaker, until tragedy struck with the death of their three year old daughter, Robin Bush, to Leukemia. The additional difficulties of their son, Neils’ diagnosis as dyslexic, may have been the catalyst that lead to a life time of service by Barbara Bush, especially in the area of child literacy.
It was during the Presidency of her husband that the Barbara Bush, that so many have come to respect and admire, came into her own. According to her biography, “Early in the administration, Barbara founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a private organization that solicited grants from public and private institutions to support literacy programs. “I’m talking about the big, bouncy kind [of family], the single parent, extended families, divorced, homeless and migrant,” she clarified. At the time of her tenure, statistics showed that 35 million adults could not read above the eight-grade level and that 23 million were not beyond a fourth-grade level.”
From that moment forward, Mrs. Bush has dedicated her life to teaching children to read. Mrs. Bush is fully aware that an educated, literate youth is the key to the future strength and success of the great American Experiment. In 2009, Mrs. Bush contributed a guest editorial to Newsweek, in which she commented on the film Precious. “Mrs. Bush praised the film Precious for its depiction of triumph experienced by an illiterate and abused young African-American woman. As she wrote, “After 30 years promoting literacy, I’ve never felt more energized. Watching this movie, I was reminded why it’s important that we keep working so hard.”"
Michelle Obama, wife of the 44th. President of the United States, Barack Obama, is certainly a contrast in style to Barbara Bush. As a product of a more modern era, she is probably the most outspoken and politically involved First Lady that America has seen to date. Michelle Obama is a true child of the 1960′s, having been born to a working class Chicago family in 1964. Educated in South Side Chicago public schools, Michelle Obama was accepted at Princeton due to her academic excellence. After receiving a Bachelors Degree in Sociology, Ms.Obama went on the attain her Law degree from Harvard University.
Ms.Obama met her future husband at Sidley Austin Law firm in Chicago and after a 2 year courtship they were married in 1992. In addition to giving birth to two daughters, Michelle Obama held many important positions at Chicago law firms and in the Administration of the Mayor of Chicago. Prior to her husband’s election to the White House, she worked as Executive Director for community affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals (2002-2005) and Executive Vice President for community and external affairs (2005-2008).
From the very first moment of her husband’s Presidential campaign, Michelle Obama took an active role. Working tirelessly for her husband’s election, the American public was exposed to an unprecedented level of involvement by the spouse of a candidate in a Presidential Campaign. She stumped with her husband as well as giving many speeches on her own. She was vocal and outspoken in a way that the American people had not seen previously.
As a young woman who, unlike Barbara Bush, did not have a wealth of years of experience, Michelle Obama did perhaps make some missteps that have come back to haunt her. She made the now infamous comment,”"For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country … not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change,” she said. “I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.” This infuriated many voters who took it to mean that Michelle Obama was not a proud American. While in all probability, she was actually guilty of bad speech writing rather than dislike of her country, this single comment has been used repeatedly by her critics as an example of why they feel Michelle Obama isn’t as patriotic as they are.
Since her husband’s election, Michelle Obama has continued to raise the ire of those who are opposed to Barack Obama’s policies. Her campaign against childhood obesity has been held under a negative spotlight by many critics who are all too happy to scream to the mountain tops every time Michelle Obama is seen eating a Big Mac. When she wears expensive dresses or goes on a vacation, she has been called the new Marie Antoinette. It seems that unlike any previous First Lady, no matter what Michelle Obama does, there are critics waiting in the wings to pounce on her.
The real question we must ask ourselves, is why is there such a remarkable difference between the reaction to Michelle Obama and Barbara Pierce Bush. Certainly there is a small percentage of cretins in America who are outright racists who will never forgive Michelle Obama for being black and successful. But among the saner members of our society, there may be several other reasons for the level of comments about her. Some are still traditionalists who are used to a quiet first lady who remains in the background and promotes literacy like Barbara Bush. Others may be reacting negatively to Michelle Obama because she is outspoken and strongly advocates for her husband’s policies. Many are passionately against her husband’s vision for America and see Ms.Obama as another voice for an America they totally reject. While voters have every right to oppose her or her husband’s political positions, outright racism is totally UN-American and is to be strongly criticized.
What do you think about this discussion? Do you prefer a more traditional First Lady like Barbara Bush or one who is outspoken and political like Michelle Obama? Do you feel Michelle Obama is a victim of racism or is she a target because she strongly advocates for her husbands policies? Let us know what you think on this interesting and important issue.