Meta News of the Day: Sharpton on Michelle

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 22 2011 11:12 AM

Meta News of the Day: Sharpton on Michelle

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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (R) delivers remarks before President Barack Obama signs legislation into law that will provide business tax credits to help put veterans back to work during a ceremony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building November 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. The first element of the president's jobs package, the bill passed the House 422-0, six days after the Senate passed it 95-0. The jobless rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is 12.1 percent, White House officials said, compared with 9 percent for the population at large. The law would give businesses a tax credit of as much as $9,000 if they hired a disabled veteran who had been out of work for more than six months, a $5,600 credit for hiring any veteran unemployed for at least six months and $2,400 for hiring a veteran out of work for at least a month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I admire Jodi Kantor's gumption in trying to squeeze some essence out of the "Michelle Obama booed at NASCAR race" story. The story percolated on Monday, because Rush Limbaugh accused her of "a little bit of uppity-ism." This was a surprise, because Rush Limbaugh never says things that can be interpreted as racially inflammatory.* So we had a predictable outrage, followed by a predictable outrage, with race injected into it by an interpretation of a Limbaugh quip. Who to call in as an expert?

In a brief interview, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the activist and television and radio host, shrugged off Mr. Limbaugh’s comments as a distraction.
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Which it is. Good for him. The whole idea that "First Ladies NEVER got booed" is a construct based on nothing. Do we know that Eleanor Roosevelt was never booed? That Dolley Madison wasn't? No, we don't. I file this in the "Things People Say About History in Order Without Actually Knowing About It" category, along with the "former presidents never criticize incumbent presidents, out of respect" trope. (How anyone can read Edmund Morris's hit Teddy Roosevelt books and think that is beyond me.)

All that said, the pockets of right-wing disdain for Michelle Obama are pretty amusing. It's a fringe belief -- her unfavorable ratings are slumming along in the 20s. She's run the Hillary Clinton play of cancelling out some campaign-era negatives by focusing her attention on popular issues; she was booed when promoting a jobs program for veterans. Articles about Obama behaving in some non-ideal way are sure-thing traffic bait -- see here the works of Andrew Malcolm, who I'm pretty sure is a cylon engineered to get Drudge Report links -- but that's mostly it. They represent no groundswell of Michelle Obama backlash. There's no upside for people like Sharpton to engage it, because her post-campaign, post-racial image was hard won.

The "battle of the potential first ladies" is one of the most unsettling campaign issues -- and yeah, it's an issue -- but I think the winner is deteminated by the Republican nominee. If Newt Gingrich pulls an upset, Americans will face a choice between Michelle Obama and a woman who was the Other Woman in an affair. If Romney wins, the swing voters who care about this stuff will meet a woman who met her husband when they were kids, raised five successful sons, and now lives with M.S. For the sake of punditry, surely we've got to root for Gingrich.

*That's a joke.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.