From the moment Barack Obama began contemplating a presidential run, conservatives saw one thing about him they didn't like a bit: his wife. She had a career of her own. The way she kidded her husband about his morning breath suggested that theirs might actually be a marriage of equals. And most of all, she was black. Way, way too black.
So it shouldn't have surprised anyone when a phony story started making the email and Internet rounds claiming that a videotape existed of Michelle Obama giving a speech in which she supposedly said something or other about "whitey." When asked about it, she told The New York Times, "I mean, 'whitey'? That's something that George Jefferson would say." And who else says "whitey"? Virtually no one under the age of 60 -- the term is a relic of the 1960s, that primordial ooze from which all cultural conflict continues to seep.
Let's remember why some conservatives were briefly so enamored of Barack Obama: in right-wing eminence grise William Bennett's words, "he never brings race into it." But in most of the conservative movement, race was never out of it. While the Jeremiah Wright controversy failed to convince sufficient numbers of Americans that Barack is an Angry Black Man, there was still an option open to stoke the fires of racial resentment. Michelle Obama could become the Angry Black Woman.
She's angry, angry, angry, they said. Christoper Hitchens pored over the thesis she wrote as a 21-year-old college student to ferret out a secret crush on Stokely Carmichael. The far-right "news" site World Net Daily ran a column titled, "Michelle Obama: Angry Black Harridan." Michelle Malkin wrote, "Barack Obama better hope his bitter half has a change of attitude if she expects to assume the title of first lady in November." A columnist at the conservative site Townhall.com called Michelle a "nasty, bitter, openly racist ingrate."
Does Michelle talk about how many people are having difficulty paying their bills? She must be angry at America. Does she mention on the stump that she and her husband finished paying off their student loans not long ago, plainly an attempt to convince voters that they are regular folks who know about economic challenges? Conservative writer Byron York says, "she appears to be still outraged -- at this late date -- by the fact that she had to take out loans to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School ... She appears to have begun the presidential race in an angry mood, and, despite her husband's extraordinary success, it looks like she'll finish it angry, too."
York's employer, the National Review, put Michelle on the cover of its magazine, using the most angry-looking photo they could find, under the headline, "Mrs. Grievance." (A month later, a National Review cover story on Trinity United, the Obamas' former church, proclaimed it "arguably the most radical black church in the country." Given that there are around 70,000 black churches in the United States just in predominantly black denominations (see page 61 here), one wonders just how author Stanley Kurtz came to that assessment.)
And just whom do they want people to believe Michelle is angry at? You. Her "grievance" is all about making you feel guilty. Her gender and her race together form an arrow pointed at the heart of the white American man, that perennially put-upon character, always on the run from his oppressors. After surviving the 1990s, in which an actual career woman served as first lady, then seeing that same terrifying woman nearly become the Democratic nominee for president, he is now confronted with yet another spouse who is obviously more than a demure helpmate to her husband.
So Michelle is poised to become Hillary-plus, with all of her predecessor's imagined ability to literally destroy the manhood of those she encounters, and the fury of a prior generation's black nationalist movement hidden behind her smile. Before long, we'll no doubt see a Michelle Obama version of the Hillary Nutcracker, and images of her as a Black Panther, ready to incite riots and rampage through the "good" neighborhoods with murder on her mind. As one McCain supporter told Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, "If Michelle Obama really doesn't like it here in America, I'd be very pleased to raise the money to send her back to Africa."
Some will protest that it's only one of these villains they fear but not the other. MSNBC's Tucker Carlson not long ago proclaimed his disapproval of Michelle Obama, because "she's got a chip on her shoulder." But lest you think Carlson is feeling threatened, he went on: "I don't think it's a question of a strong personality. I know that I like strong personalities, particularly in women. I'm married to one. I like that. I just don't like the sense that she has a sense of aggrievement." His protestation that he likes strong personalities in women might be more believable were it not delivered by someone who has on more than one occasion said about Hillary Clinton, "When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs."
Carlson is hardly the only one whose masculinity is so tenuous that the mere sight of a powerful woman on television demands that he double over in fear, lest she fire her laser beams of emasculation and reduce his testicles to dust. Indeed, there are millions who feel the same way. These are the men who form the foundation of the gender gap. For them, expanding gender equality is a source of continuous displeasure and unease, feelings the GOP has always sought to inflame, after which they offer themselves as the soothing balm. The Republicans work overtime to assure voters that their standard-bearers will uphold traditional gender roles, with the womenfolk knowing just what their place is. George W. Bush play-acted as a cowboy, drawing on that key American archetype in which men protect women with their bravery and quick-draw skills. Thankfully for her, Laura was never forced to do the laundry at the "ranch" with a bucket and washboard, but she might as well have.
For his part, John McCain never stops reminding us that he is a military man, and one from an era when the idea of women in uniform was laughable. His wife Cindy seems to have undergone the same Stepford reengineering that produced Laura Bush, complete with loving gazes and an immovable smile. You'd never know that she actually runs a company worth an estimated $250 million.
Which might suggest that if you're a woman married to a man who wants to be president, the best thing to do is pretend you neither have, nor ever harbored hopes of having, a career. But there's not much you can do about your skin color -- nobody is going to be calling Cindy her husband's "baby mama". What you want to be, above all, is gentle and timid. Not your own person, with your own ideas and ambitions. Not a threat to anyone.