If my husband were president, I think I’d have to be exiled to the Kingdom of Bhutan for the duration of his tenure, because there is no way I would have the self-discipline of Michelle Obama.
It took the first lady five years to verbally take down a heckler. I’d be in a wrestling match by Month 2 of the primaries. I can just feel it.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Obama was 12 minutes into her speech at a Democratic fundraiser when Ellen Sturtz yelled for the president to “issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Great cause. Lousy timing.
For one thing, the president wasn’t giving the speech. He wasn’t even in the room. As the wife of a U.S. senator, I am familiar with this brand of lobbying. Some constituents will always see me as a convenient shortcut to the target of their ire. Multiply that number by the population of 50 states and the U.S. territories, and you have an idea of what it’s like to be Michelle Obama with the unpaid job of first lady.
When Sturtz yelled, Mrs. Obama stepped away from the lectern, walked toward her and shut her down.
“Wait, wait, wait. One of things I don’t do, that I don’t do well, is this,” she said, to uproarious approval from those in attendance. “Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
Mrs. Obama knew her audience. The donors had paid as much as $10,000 to be there, and they had no patience for Sturtz’s plea for “federal equality before I die,” which is what she yelled as some of the attendees escorted her out.
There’s a sadness to this. Most of the 200 or so donors there likely support Sturtz’s cause, as they should. Congress continues to stall the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and LGBT groups are disappointed that the president hasn’t issued an executive order to fix it. This matters.
But there’s a time and a place, as mothers everywhere say to their children. I wish Mrs. Obama had acknowledged the importance of employment equality for the LGBT community, but I also understand how a person’s screaming at you in front of 200 people can kill the mood.
So, she finished her speech and launched yet another national debate over who she should and shouldn’t be as America’s first lady. My, how we love to dissect the intentions of this strong, talented woman.
Some reactions surprised me. Conservative John Podhoretz of Commentary tweeted: “Good for Michelle Obama. ... Self-righteous, morally preening protestors need to have it stuffed back in their faces.” New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, a long-time champion for women around the globe, tweeted: “I like the First Lady, but her confrontation with this heckler was not her finest moment.”
The Root’s Keli Goff echoed many of Mrs. Obama’s defenders in pointing out that she “does not sign executive orders or sign laws. That’s her husband’s job, which makes Sturtz’s behavior seem all the more silly and misdirected.”
While it’s true that Michelle Obama is not the president, her marriage and her address – as well as her considerable talents – make her one of the most powerful women in this country. She is a public figure, not a private citizen, and she is not immune from an impolite public. Nor should she be. As she proved this week, she is more than capable of asserting herself.
Great for Michelle Obama. Great for the rest of us, too. May her candor be contagious. We are not used to seeing a first lady stand up for herself, and I hope we get more chances to get used to it. Her husband’s presidency thrust her into the limelight, but she is more than her marriage. We’ve celebrated her sense of fun and fashion. She has championed veterans’ families, and she started a national conversation about childhood obesity. Now, we see this no-nonsense side to her that is just right in this time of political stalemate and rampant incivility.
For years, millions of American women have been trying to emulate Michelle Obama’s spectacularly toned biceps.
This week, she showed off a new set of muscles. More, please.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “... and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.