ON THE website of the Tennessee Republican Party is a short video in which residents of Nashville talk about the pride they feel for their country. One man, for example, mentions his esteem for the First and Second Amendments. A Vanderbilt graduate student says he was proud when Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall - "and I was prouder when it came down." A young professional woman extols the "academic and job opportunities that women have in this country." A police officer named Juan says he is proud of having immigrated to the United States, learned English, and become a citizen of this "land of opportunity and the best country in the world."
The video makes its point by alternating these upbeat comments with clips of Michelle Obama telling two different audiences in February: "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country." In an understated press release announcing the video, the state GOP welcomed Mrs. Obama to Nashville and remarked: "The Tennessee Republican Party has always been proud of America."
One would have to have skin of microscopic thinness to take offense at so gentle and indirect a critique. No surprise, then, that Barack Obama took offense, reacting as if his bride had been slimed by slurs akin to those that enraged Andrew Jackson when he ran for president. (During the campaign of 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams maligned Jackson's mother as a "common prostitute" and mocked his adored wife, Rachel, as a "convicted adulteress" and a "strumpet.") In an interview on ABC, Obama growled that Republicans "should lay off my wife," and described the inoffensive Tennessee video as "detestable," "low class," and reflecting "a lack of decency."
If Republicans "think that they're going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign," he added ominously, "they should be careful."
Ooh, very fierce. But unless Obama is prepared to emulate Jackson - Old Hickory defended his wife's honor by fighting duels, in one of which he killed a man - he stands no chance of putting his wife's remarks off-limits to criticism. As long as he keeps sending her around the country to campaign on his behalf, everything she says is - and should be - fair game.
And unfortunately for Obama and his allegedly sunny politics of hope, what Mrs. Obama seems to say with grim regularity is that America is a scary, bleak, and hopeless place.
"Life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime, through Republican and Democratic administrations. It hasn't gotten much better."
America is "just downright mean" and "guided by fear . . . We have become a nation of struggling folks who are barely making it every day."
"Folks are struggling like never before . . . When you're that busy struggling all the time, which most people that you know and I know are, you don't have time to get to know your neighbor . . . In fact, you feel very alone in your struggle, because you feel that somehow it must be your fault that you're struggling so hard . . . People are afraid, because when your world's not right, no matter how hard you work, then you become afraid of everyone and everything, because you don't know whose fault it is, why you can't get a handle on life, why you can't secure a better future for your kids . . . Fear is the worst enemy. It . . . creates this veil of impossibility, and it is hanging over all of our heads."
"Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zone . . . Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual - uninvolved, uninformed."
Michelle Obama is undeniably smart, driven, outspoken, and charismatic. She is also relentlessly negative about life in these United States. True, she is not the one running for president. But she is Barack Obama's closest confidante and adviser; if he is elected, her influence will be considerable. That is why her words matter. And why, whether her husband likes it or not, Michelle Obama is a legitimate issue in this campaign.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at [email protected].