How Michelle's speech will humanize Obama.

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Aug. 25 2008 7:13 AM

If You Knew Barack Like She Knows Barack

How Michelle Obama will humanize her husband in tonight's speech.

Barack and Michelle Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack and Michelle Obama

More than most presidential candidates, Barack Obama has a complicated and rather exotic personal back story. On Monday, the task of telling Barack Obama's story will fall to his wife—and Michelle Obama can be expected to rise to the occasion, though the moment will not be without dramatic tension.

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to an 18-year-old white woman from Kansas and a twentysomething exchange student from Africa who abandoned the family two years later. He was raised partly in Indonesia by his peripatetic mother, who briefly remarried, and partly by his maternal Midwestern grandparents, who lived in Honolulu. The far-flung nature of his origins—his seeming distance from Middle America—is why some opponents have tried to float the canard that Obama lacks "American roots" or is even secretly Muslim.

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Michelle, the keynote speaker on Monday, must introduce her husband to America. In events like these, it is the political wife's job to give voice to her pure adoration for her stellar husband—to take the podium and enumerate the reasons she loves her man and why we should love him, too, or at least vote for him. She is our moral guide to the candidate, our vouchsafe for his character. This might seem to be a tall order for Michelle Obama, who does not exactly come off as the adoring type. Instead, she has famously tended to express her affection for her husband through a boundless capacity to deflate him, with jokes about his morning breath and his habit of forgetting to put away the butter after he makes breakfast. "He's a gifted man, but in the end, he's just a man," is one of her well-known utterances.

One imagines convention organizers waiting with bated breath, hoping against hope that Michelle, with her comic and theatrical sensibilities at the microphone, won't suddenly decide to go off on one of her riffs about how when the toilet overflows, it's never the man who stays home to wait for the plumber.

Organizers needn't worry. During the course of the campaign, Michelle has become quite good at exactly what needs to be done on this occasion. "Who is Barack Obama, the man, the father?" she asked a crowd in New Hampshire during the primaries. "What is his character? What are his values?" Rather than deflating her husband—or, rather, in the course of deflating him—Michelle emphasizes the regular-guy aspect of Obama. He is hardly an exotic specimen, she will say; he's just a typical overworked family man who likes to go out to dinner and come home to spend time with his daughters, Sasha and Malia, both of whom make the bed better than he does.

"He was raised in his grandmother's home, and his grandmother is from Kansas, eating tuna with pickles in it," she once told an interviewer, stressing the prosaic nature of his origins. Michelle will probably also use a few other strategies to describe who Barack Obama is.

First, she will probably talk about how she initially heard about Obama in the summer of 1989, when she was working as an associate at the Chicago law firm now known as Sidley Austin. Michelle, who, like her husband, went to Harvard Law School, graduated in 1988 and had been working at the firm for about a year when she was assigned to mentor Obama, who had just completed his first year at Harvard. First-year law students weren't usually hired by Sidley, and Michelle, hearing a lot of buzz about this summer associate, felt annoyed and resolved to dislike him. As she would put it later, she figured people were just impressed by a black man who could talk straight, and Obama himself sounded like an unlikely character. A black guy, raised in Hawaii? She figured he would be "nerdy, strange, off-putting."

But then Obama began to court her. After some resistance, his mentor succumbed to his charms and consented to go on a date with him. Their early excursions included a meeting he was leading in a church basement. There, she says, he took off his coat and tie and began to talk to a roomful of poor Chicagoans he had met during his stint as a community organizer. He wowed her with his speech, just as he would later wow America with his keynote at the 2004 convention.

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