Michelle Obama’s eyes flicker tentatively even as she offers a trained smile. As her campaign plane arcs over the Flathead Range in Montana, she is asked to consider her complicated public image. Conservative columnists accuse her of being unpatriotic and say she simmers with undigested racial anger. A blogger who supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton circulates unfounded claims that Mrs. Obama gave an accusatory speech in her church about the sins of “whitey.” Mrs. Obama shakes her head.
“You are amazed sometimes at how deep the lies can be,” she says in an interview. Referring to a character in a 1970s sitcom, she adds: “I mean, ‘whitey’? That’s something that George Jefferson would say. Anyone who says that doesn’t know me. They don’t know the life I’ve lived. They don’t know anything about me.”
Now her husband’s presidential campaign is giving her image a subtle makeover, with a new speech in the works to emphasize her humble roots and a tough new chief of staff. On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama will do a guest turn on “The View,” the daytime talk show on ABC, with an eye toward softening her reputation.
Her problems seemed hard to imagine last fall and winter. Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, appeared so at ease with the tactile business of campaigning and drew praise for humanizing, often with humor, a husband who could seem elusive.
Then came some rhetorical stumbles. In Madison, Wis., in February, she told voters that hope was sweeping America, adding, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” Cable news programs replayed those 15 words in an endless loop of outrage.
Barack Obama often blurs identity lines; much of his candidacy has seemed almost post-racial. Mrs. Obama’s identity is less mutable. She is a descendant of slaves and a product of Chicago’s historically black South Side. She burns hot where he banks cool, and that too can make her an inviting proxy for attack.
Fox News called her “Obama’s baby mama,” a derogatory term for an unwed mother. Christopher Hitchens, a Slate columnist, claimed — with scant evidence — that her college thesis proved she was once influenced by black separatism. National Review presented her as a scowling “Mrs. Grievance.”
The caricatures of Mrs. Obama as the Angry Black Woman confound her, friends say. Her own family crosses racial boundaries — her mother-in-law and a sister-in-law are white — and she has spent much of her adult life trying to address racial resentment.
In her freshman year at Princeton, a white roommate’s mother agitated for her daughter to swap rooms. Mrs. Obama was among a handful of blacks at a prestigious Chicago law firm. As a hospital executive, she navigated the often tense line between a predominantly white-run institution and a suspicious black community.
But the 44-year-old woman known even to friends as The Taskmaster sometimes speaks with a passion unusual for a potential first lady. She tells voters that “Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual — uninvolved, uninformed.”
She says she intends to evoke a John F. Kennedy-like idealism and highlight her own journey, but in her commanding cadences, some people — and not just conservatives — hear a lecture.
Before her husband announced his candidacy, Mrs. Obama confided in friends: Barack and I will cut an unfamiliar figure to most of America.
“It’s such uncharted waters,” said Verna Williams, a Harvard classmate and friend. “In a sound-bite era, where you have to come with a quick and dirty take, she doesn’t fit what it means to be an African-American woman.”
For the full article see: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/18/us/politics/18michelle.html