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Michelle Obama In Phoenix: "Fear Is A Useless Emotion"

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Tuesday, George Bush and Michelle Obama each traversed McCain's home state of Arizona to raise money for the presidential election. Bush headlined fundraisers for John McCain in Phoenix, and Michelle Obama headlined fundraisers for her husband in Phoenix and Tuscon.

Even in McCain country, President Bush and Senator McCain were unable to draw enough supporters to fill the room they rented at the downtown convention center. The original two-part Bush-McCain event was combined and relocated to a more intimate setting in a private home. According to the local news, the McCain campaign worried that protesters picketing the fundraiser would outnumber guests. Earlier in the week, on Wednesday, they likewise reportedly moved a fundraiser in Utah to a smaller venue.

While the staffs of the president and of Arizona's sitting senator scrambled to find smaller gathering spaces, Michelle Obama, stumping in Phoenix, McCain's hometown, filled a large banquet room just around the corner from where the Republicans originally planned their event-- many of the Obama donors driving through the Bush-McCain protests on their way to hear the Democratic candidate's wife speak.

Beyond Phoenix, the Republican event planners fared no better. In Mesa, in suburban Phoenix, local news again reported hundreds of protesters gathered at a business where Bush and McCain made a press stop. One of the rumored features of the protests included a bed where McCain and Bush dolls were made to sleep together. I never saw the bed. My husband said he saw it on the TV news.

In Phoenix, Michelle Obama drew a crowd unusually diverse for a high-dollar downtown political fundraiser; there were people of every race, class, age, gender, and ethnicity. The fact that there were more women than men was no surprise. Michelle Obama is well liked and admired by women. Voters unsure of Barack, often have a fondness for her. When I told a long-time Republican friend that I would be attending a fundraiser headlined by Michelle Obama, she said, "Tell her my vote for Barack in November is really for her."

Michelle opened by talking about the start of Obama's political career. She has told this story many times. In the beginning, she was an unwilling participant. She draws a picture of herself as a typical cynical American. She was unsure that she wanted to make the personal sacrifices demanded of candidate spouses. She says she was, at first, unable to believe in the possibility of political change. Most of all, she didn't want her children to bear the burden of political parentage. She held up an index finger: "I am a mother first and foremost," her point punctuated by loud, enthusiastic applause.

This story has been a constant in a stump speech she has honed for months. She explains that whenever she thought of her vision for a better America, she thought of her husband's dedication, intelligence, and ability. She seems introspective, remembering the moment of her own realization. With a wide smile, she says, "I realized, he is the man I'd been waiting for."

The audience laughs. Then she pivots, gently shaking a finger, reminding the audience, "Never let anyone tell you that your vision for America can't happen."

She didn't believe people would stand outside in the bitter cold to hear a man named Barack Obama announce his candidacy for president. But 16,000 people showed up that bitterly cold day in Springfield, Illinois. Sixteen thousand people stood outside in the freezing cold because they believed in Barack Obama's vision for America.

She reminded the audience, as she often does, that she is not supposed to be here. She was raised on the South Side of Chicago in a working class family. She was not supposed to go to Princeton. She was certainly not supposed to go to Prince and Harvard. It is beyond a statistical oddity, she says, that she could be the First Lady.

She talked about her family -- her parents, her children, the vision for America shared by the Obama campaign, the crowd interrupting throughout, punctuating each point with enthusiastic applause. After a rousing ovation, she took questions from the audience.

The first person Michelle Obama called on said that she had a comment not a question. She wanted Michelle to know that many of the campaign volunteers will also become active participants in the American democracy after Obama is in office. They will continue to campaign for change long after the presidential campaign has ended. Michelle Obama took this opportunity to thank supporters who have volunteered. She talked for a moment about what it means to give back to the country, how important it is that America has a participatory democracy.

Another questioner started off by saying that she had been disappointed in Barack. Michelle smiled at the audience and said, "Uh oh," as nervous laughter rolled through the audience. The woman explained that she is the wife of a prominent member of the community. She asked if we could count on Michelle "to rein Barack back in" whenever necessary.

Michelle said, "You have just explained the complexities of being the wife of a political figure. My husband is not perfect. I say this all the time."

She reminded the audience that when we expect perfection in our leaders, we will always be disappointed. She talked about Obama's role as a father and husband -- taking out the garbage, doing household chores, how important it is that he set a good example for their children. "This campaign has shown America that Barack Obama may not be perfect, but this campaign has also shown America that Barack Obama will always take the high road. Consistently. Over and over and over. He will always take the high road."

She went on to talk about how she also does not like being the news. She does not like seeing herself in a headline. She said that on the candidates' spouses panel last October, it was Elizabeth Edwards who, speaking on the role of the spouse, said, "If I say something that ends up on the front page of Drudge, I haven't done it right." Michelle adds: "I hate clips. I do not like clips." Grim laughter filled the room.

She called on another supporter, whose voice quivered and broke with barely contained emotion as she explained how important it is to her, personally, that our country change course. She explained that she had just returned from Oregon where she campaigned for Obama and attended the 75,000-person rally by the river. She had noticed, she said, that the Secret Service had increased security dramatically for Barack Obama's rallies since the Phoenix rally in January.

The room collectively gasped and murmured, some aghast that these fears were being spoken aloud directly to Barack Obama's wife. Some nodded, concern and fear on their faces. Others shifted on their feet, displaying a range of emotions -- concern, discomfort with the topic, indignation.

The woman continued: "What can you tell us..." and then her voice caught and broke as a sob rose up from her chest. She paused for a moment. "I'm afraid of what might happen. What can you tell us, after last week's comments--" another sob-- "after last week's comments, to make us feel more at ease?" She cried unabashedly after finally getting out her words.

The room that had been electrified with positive energy throughout the evening suddenly became still and quiet, all eyes focused on Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama's eyes, though, were focused on that concerned supporter. She paused, allowing the clearly distraught supporter to pull herself together. Maybe it was 30 seconds before Obama spoke, stretched out into imaginary minutes. Finally, she said firmly, "I'm ok. Really. I am ok. And if I'm ok, you should be ok.

"You know, we talked about this as a family."

She held the microphone with one hand, the other curved inward over her heart as she talked. Her tenor and body language was clear. Michelle Obama was talking as a mother. She was introspective and intimate, looking the questioner in the eyes as if they are the only two in the room.

"We talked about this as a family."

The room remained still and quiet. Imagine having that talk with your children. Then, she paused, gathering herself, pulling herself up, seeming to grow even taller, Michelle, the campaigning wife returns. She says,

"I've talked about this before. Barack is probably safer now than he was before. Kids are dying in the street in our community. They get shot walking to class, sitting in school, taking the bus home. They are dying in the street.... Send us good vibes. Pray for us. Think positive thoughts. But most of all, be vigilant. Be vigilant about stopping this kind of talk.
It's not funny. You don't have to like Barack to dislike that kind of talk. Be vigilant about stopping that kind of talk."

Then she reminded the crowd what we are fighting for, and why it is important to forge ahead without fear. "Fear is the reason this country is where it is today. Fear is a useless emotion. Don't ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn't. Don't ever make decisions based on fear."

Read more By Dawn Teo at her Dailky Kos diary.