Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Michelle Obama And Me

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Because it's Women's History Month, we've been making a special effort to showcase women who have achieved in a variety of fields.

So you may wonder why we haven't said a lot about Michelle Obama.

Part of it, I have to say, is that I have been so disgusted by so much that has been written about her that I did not want to add to it. How is it that not one, but two columnists for The New York Times had time, in the midst of a worldwide global recession, to debate the significance of her biceps and whether she should now stop favoring sleeveless dresses? This is in Maureen Dowd's March 8 column, where she describes at length a discussion she says she had with her colleague David Brooks.

But can I just tell you? I think the real issue is that the talk about Michelle Obama hits too close to home for me. It's not just the surface similarities — the name, the fact that we both were raised in blue-collar homes in big cities and then were fortunate enough to go to Ivy League schools and then to luck out in the husband department ... and find time to work up some pretty decent biceps. It's the whole picture — the struggle to figure it all out, what it means to have the advantages so many others do not, the struggle to figure out how much to do for self, how much to give, when to hold back; to figure out, not so much how to have it all, but to have it all mean something.

One of the things that have often bothered me about many of my colleagues in journalism is that sometimes I don't think they recognize when they are projecting their own feelings, values and priorities onto the people they cover. In other words, they are writing about themselves and don't seem to know it.

Well, now I do know, and I find it very odd.

In the past, the outsiderness of minority identity has been rather helpful, I have to say. The kind of ironic detachment so favored by us media types came rather easily in past circumstances. I never felt at any risk of over-identifying with George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush, or their wives — being either overly impressed with what they did or said or being particularly disappointed in what they didn't.

But it is different now.

So when I look at Michelle Obama planting a kitchen garden at the White House because she said she wanted kids to know where their food comes from, it means something to me because I grew up in a place where trees all lived in boxes and food all came wrapped in plastic.

When she visits federal agencies to thank the people who work there day in and day out for their hard work, after they have spent years being told they are the problem, it means something to me because those people — many of whom took those jobs because no one but the government would give them a fair shot at a decent wage and health insurance and promises of advancement — well, many of those people remind me of relatives of mine.

When she visits kids in D.C. public schools to read to them and hug them and tell them they need to keep at it, that they have not been forgotten, that is it is not just OK to do well, it is imperative that they do well, it means something to me because I remember what it was like to be a kid who had to decide if putting your hand up in class to answer all the questions you knew was worth having to figure out how to get home without getting a beat-down.

It isn't to say that other first ladies did not care about those things; in fact, having interviewed several of them, I know they did. And I am sure that many other women from many other walks of life find in Michelle's story and struggles the outlines of their own.

Why wouldn't they?

But Michelle's story reminds me that there's a reason we often can't see history as it is being made. It is too close, too easy to take for granted.

Just like the nose on your own face.

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Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues