Tuned In

The Morning After: Michelle Obama, Between the Lines

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Last Thursday at the Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood attacked an invisible opponent in a chair with rambling sarcasm. Last night, at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama attacked an invisible opponent without using a prop or a name, without even, in so many words attacking. Her opening-night speech, ostensibly about her husband’s character and their relationship, was really a sly demonstration of criticizing without criticizing, rebutting by implication, slicing and dicing with a smile.*

In front of a whipped-up partisan crowd in Charlotte, Michelle Obama did not critique Mitt Romney by name; she certainly did not directly rebut Ann Romney, who gave a solid speech last week testifying to her husband’s personality and character. But as it unfolded, her speech used biography as a velvet shiv, using the story of her and Barack’s courtship, their early struggles and his less-remunerative work as a contrast in values to the ones expounded at the RNC.

“For Barack,” she said, “success is not about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.” Where Ann Romney told stories, to play down her husband’s privileged upbringing, of eating pasta and tuna off an ironing board, Michelle brought out a story of a coffee table salvaged from a Dumpster. (The conventions this year are turning into something of an I-was-poorer-once contest.) And talking of the President as a husband and father of daughters led to a spotlight on the parties’ gender gap: “He believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our healthcare.”

The First Lady’s audience was primed for her with a series of speeches aimed right at the pleasure centers of the party faithful. Not every one nailed it—the primetime 10 p.m. hour opened with a sparkless address by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley—but the crowd had been keyed up with a barnburner by Massachusetts Gov. (and Romney successor) Deval Patrick and an engaging keynote from San Antonio mayor Julian Castro.

There were a lot of messages last night—for women’s choice, tax fairness, same-sex marriage equality, Obamacare’s protections—but the important message from a TV standpoint was energy, I’m not pundit enough to guess whether Republicans or Democrats will be more enthusiastic this year, in an election that purportedly will be largely determined by turnout. But the DNC’s first night at least conveyed the impression of enthusiasm strongly. Maybe it was the execution of the speeches. Maybe it was the text of the speakers—Patrick’s and Castro’s speeches were conspicuously different from Chris Christie’s in that they actually spent a lot of time talking about the guy they were there to endorse. It may have been as simple as the convention room layout, with the stage at the end of an elongated floor to maximize the images of teeming supporters.

Whatever it was, the night made a lot of noise, in the room and online, where by the end of her speech Michelle Obama had generated more traffic on Twitter than any RNC speaker including Romney. (Again, whether any of that translates proportionally into votes is the 270-electoral-vote question.)

There was plenty of red, or I guess blue, meat in last night’s program. We saw a tribute video to Ted Kennedy, who defeated Romney for Senate in 1994, which some Republicans complained was crassly partisan for a tribute to the late senator. (Imagine! Injecting partisan politics into a film about a Kennedy!) There was an Alpine mountain of Swiss-bank-account references. There were searing personal stories: congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth recalling her war injuries, a mother on stage with her daughter, whose heart ailment she said would bankrupt their family if not for the coverage guarantees of the Affordable Care Act. And, in what may not be the last such moment for the Dems post-Eastwood, they brought out one of their own Hollywood guys: Kal Penn, who at one point said, “Thank you, invisible man in the chair, for that.”

Michelle Obama’s speech, though, was a successful example of the trick First Ladies are expected to pull off: to be political without seeming overtly political. Her shoulders were bare, but, though you might scarcely notice it sitting at home, her knuckles were too.

*Because I believe you should know this, here is where I should disclose that I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and plan to this year. As I’ve written before, I think that most people who care enough about politics to write about it have political opinions, and you should be able to take those into consideration if it matters to you. As a columnist, it’s my job to be opinionated, but also to call things the way I see them without spinning them to help my side win; and it should be your right to decide whether I’ve done so. My political leanings, though, are not why I didn’t do a similar post on the first night of the Republican convention–I was on vacation all week.