Michelle Obama's speech last night at the DNC in Philadelphia was centered on her children and on ours. It was one of the most effective and emotionally compelling speeches I've ever seen—and make no mistake, it was effective because it was emotionally compelling.
Before she spoke, a video showed her with children all across America, children who love her: "She's probably one of my favorite first ladies. Probably first or second out of three," says one young man who seems to have weighed the ranking with great thoughtfulness. So we were primed to think of her and her relationships with America's children, with her own children (who didn't appear in the video) and most importantly, with our children.
But then Michelle Obama began speaking, to a crowd who obviously adored her as much as those children in the video did. This wasn't a typical political speech, with a grocery list of policies, or a typical endorsement speech, even, with a list of reasons why you should vote for a candidate. It was, however, one of my favorite speeches, probably first or second of two (to paraphrase that young boy in the video), both given by Obamas .
She began by speaking of her own daughters, "the heart of our hearts, the center of our world". She had worries, as any parent does about their own children, but when she described the particular worries of raising two children in the White House, she used a specific image:
"I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, “What have we done?”
In our mind's eye, we see little Sasha and Malia, imagine them in a huge SUV, the targets of someone who might want to harm them, and we share her fears for these children we have come to love, from afar, over the last eight years.
And then she reminds us of the special challenge of raising children in the middle of a white hot partisan political atmosphere: "We urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level -– no, our motto is, when they go low, we go high."
Most of us don't have to worry about our children hearing ugly things said about their father, and we recoil from the idea of a child's innocence being so sullied with the images we've all seen of Barack Obama, rhymes with Osama, possible Manchurian Muslim infiltrator. But the Obamas took the high road, and Michelle here earns our respect, no matter which side of the political spectrum we inhabit. Children—anyone's children—deserve that high road.
She reminds us of another image, of the young black boy who asked to see President Obama's hair, a moment that was captured in an iconic photo that reminds us of the consequences of electing a black man as president. We are role models for our children, and by electing a president, we provide role models for them. It's a serious task, choosing a president, and we must always remember that choice affects our children, not just the children who live in the White House.
Then she tells us about the Hillary Clinton she knows:
See, I trust Hillary to lead this country because I’ve seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children –- not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection -- but every child who needs a champion: Kids who take the long way to school to avoid the gangs. Kids who wonder how they’ll ever afford college. Kids whose parents don’t speak a word of English but dream of a better life. Kids who look to us to determine who and what they can be.
You see, Hillary has spent decades doing the relentless, thankless work to actually make a difference in their lives -- advocating for kids with disabilities as a young lawyer. Fighting for children’s health care as First Lady and for quality child care in the Senate.
Then Michelle goes back to her own children, in the most powerful moment in the speech:
"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves -- and I watch my daughters –- two beautiful, intelligent, black young women –- playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."
When she says this, we can see Sasha and Malia again, and Bo and Sunny, on that green lawn. The specificity of that image is perfect—the reminder of our country's awful past, the accomplishments of its present, and the amazing possibilities of its future:
"And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters –- and all our sons and daughters -– now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States."
We want the best for Michelle's daughters, who we've watched grow up these last eight years, praying they are safe and sheltered, freezing with fear when a bullet is reported to have hit the White House residence.
And we want the best for our daughters, our sons, our grandchildren, and those children to come. We want them all to remain safe and to reach their highest potential. That emotion, the hormonally driven emotion we feel for our children, is what transforms this political speech, given at the most partisan of political events, into a speech that will be remembered and emulated and most importantly, be effective.
Michelle used one of my favorite phrases: "There but for the grace of God go I" and one of my least favorite themes—"Our children are our future"—in her arguments. So many politicians and other leaders mouth the words "Children are our future!" that it's become a meaningless, feel-good cliché, one that hides the empty agenda of whoever utters it. But Michelle really made us care about those children, all of them, who really will inherit this country, this world, for better or worse.
In whose care do we want their futures to lie...a man who communicates in 140 word tweets, or a woman who's worked tirelessly for children her whole adult life? Of course there was never any doubt who Michelle Obama thinks the next president should be, but her words painted a picture for us of exactly who we need to think about as we prepare to make this choice ourselves.
I don't think it's any coincidence that, as soon as she stopped speaking, there was a loud clap of thunder outside, a streak of lightning, and then a deluge of cooling, much-needed rain. Metaphors are timely like that.