She’s Not Buttering Him Up
By MAUREEN DOWD
Usually, I love the dynamics of a cheeky woman puncturing the ego of a cocky guy.
I liked it in ’40s movies, and I liked it with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel, and Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in “Moonlighting.”
So why don’t I like it with Michelle and Barack?
I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal — a comic routine that rests on the presumption that we see him as a god.
The tweaking takes place at fundraisers, where Michelle wants to lift the veil on their home life a bit and give the folks their money’s worth.
At the big Hollywood fund-raiser for Senator Obama in February, Michelle came on strong.
“I am always a little amazed at the response that people get when they hear from Barack,” she told the crowd at the Beverly Hilton, as her husband stood by looking like a puppy being scolded, reported Hud Morgan of Men’s Vogue. “A great man, a wonderful man. But still a man. ...
“I have some difficulty reconciling the two images I have of Barack Obama. There’s Barack Obama the phenomenon. He’s an amazing orator, Harvard Law Review, or whatever it was, law professor, best-selling author, Grammy winner. Pretty amazing, right?
“And then there’s the Barack Obama that lives with me in my house, and that guy’s a little less impressive. For some reason this guy still can’t manage to put the butter up when he makes toast, secure the bread so that it doesn’t get stale, and his 5-year-old is still better at making the bed than he is.”
She said that the TV version of Barack Obama sounded really interesting and that she’d like to meet him sometime.
Many people I talked to afterward found Michelle wondrous. But others worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband — under fire for lacking experience — as an undisciplined child.
At a March fund-raiser in New York, she tweaked her husband for not “putting his socks actually in the dirty clothes.”
And at a lunch last week with Chicago women, she gave the candidate a fed-up look about that melting butter and said, “I’m like: ‘You’re just asking for it. You know I’m giving a speech about you today.’ ”
She throws in nice stuff, too, about how he’s “the real deal” and a trustworthy “brother.” But this princess of South Chicago, a formidable Princeton and Harvard Law School grad, wants us to know that she’s not polishing the pedestal.
The Chicago Tribune profile of “Barack’s Rock” on Sunday noted that her career had caused her husband discomfort: “Critics have pointed out that her income has risen along with her husband’s political ascent. She sits on the board of a food company that supplies Wal-Mart, which Sen. Obama has denounced for its labor practices.”
The Obamas are both skeptical of hype. Michelle dryly told a reporter at her husband’s Senate swearing-in that perhaps someday, he would do something to earn all the attention he was getting.
But it may not be smart politics to mock him in a way that turns him from the glam J.F.K. into the mundane Gerald Ford, toasting his own English muffins. If all Senator Obama is peddling is the Camelot mystique, why debunk the mystique?
Besides, the coolly detached candidate, striving to seem substantive, is good at turning down the heat himself. He manages to tamp down crowds dying to be electrified. He resists surfing his own wave of excitement.
Michelle conveys the appealing idea that she will tell her husband when he’s puffed up or out of line. She aims high — she ordered her husband to stop puffing on cigarettes as he started campaigning. But then, why didn’t she see the red flags on the Rezko deal?
In order to get a bigger yard for their new house on Chicago’s South Side in 2005, the Obamas got into what the senator now confesses was a “boneheaded” real estate arrangement with a sleazy political dealmaker named Tony Rezko, who has been indicted on influence-peddling charges.
On Monday, The Chicago Sun-Times reported more shady Rezko news: “Obama, who has worked as a lawyer and a legislator to improve living conditions for the poor, took campaign donations from Rezko even as Rezko’s low-income housing empire was collapsing, leaving many African-American families in buildings riddled with problems,” from a lack of heat to no lack of drug dealers and squatters.
Mr. Obama riposted that “it wasn’t brought to my attention.” But isn’t that where a dazzling, tough, smart and connected wife could help a guy out?