09/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Michelle Obama's Speech: A High-Tech Groveling

Michelle Obama was persuasive, powerful and elegant last night. It was a better speech, delivered with more oratorical finesse, than most professional politicians could muster. But the one thing I haven't read in all the praise and accolades is the simple fact that this was a speech she should never have had to make.

I say that because when you distill all the rhetoric -- parse all the signals and semaphores -- it was a speech designed to say, well, that back people aren't scary. That they're just like you and me, that they love their cute children, that they grow up in normal families with a mother and a father, that they share our values. Wow. This just in.

Can you imagine Elizabeth Dole or Nancy Reagan or Rosalynn Carter having to get up there and essentially justify their Americanness?

Chris Matthews weighed in after the speech with some barking histrionics about how far America has come, and that we should be proud of our country, and I guess from the "everything's relative" department that's true. But the campaign's strategic need to mainstream and normalize the Obamas shows us how much it recognizes the lingering lurk of the "other" as a real threat in November.

Much has been made of the fact that Michelle has (or, depending on the convention-bump, had) an image problem, that many Americans perceive her as an angry, secret whitey loather. She's not. But I wouldn't blame her. I would be angry, too, if I had to a) go on national TV to tell people I wasn't the reincarnation of Angela Davis; b) avoid mentioning that I went to Princeton as an undergraduate, and then Harvard Law School, because it would make me an elitist, c) make goofy jokes about my husband's strange first name in a transparent effort to de-weird him.

My title is an obvious reference to Clarence Thomas's famous description of what happened to him during his Senate hearing. It may seem like an absolutely nutty comparison, but bear me out. He described his experience as: "... a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured..."

There it is, the "u" word: the same term that we find used, again and again in cultural analyses of the Obama "elitist" accusation. And in his own way, Thomas was dealing with the same incipient racism that would have turned a less self-assured person than Michelle Obama into a post-partisan Brady Bunch figurine. (In fact, her brother duly noted her affection for the show last night.) Indeed, the Anita Hall controversy called upon the same racial stereotype of the sexually dangerous black male that many, including Josh Marshall, believe was embodied in the McCain Paris Hilton TV spot.

In attacking Clarence Thomas, liberals responded in a racially-tinged, knee-jerk way to a conservative black man: that he was an unqualified sell-out (and a porno-viewing pervert) being cleverly used by the right to outfox the left.

In attacking Michelle Obama, conservatives are responding in a racially-tinged, knee-jerk way to a successful black woman: that she is an angry outgrowth of a culture of victimization, that she isn't a patriot, that she's an emasculating feminist.

Unlike Michelle Obama, however, Thomas didn't have to win over millions of voters, and was in a position to benefit from a tradition of Senatorial deference to the Executive Branch. So he aggressively and noisily pushed back. On the other hand, Michelle couldn't afford to be close to confrontational. She was trotted out to play the age-old game of putting on a nice show for the white man.

Sadly, I'm sure that if a Jew or an Hispanic got the nomination, they'd be forced to grovel in the same way. We claim we are a diverse nation, but our tolerance for different cultures extends only about as far as Olive Garden and P.F.Chang.

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