Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Michelle Obama can seem prickly and resentful. Now a media makeover is under way to turn her into First Lady material
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Like nature, news abhors a vacuum. Right now, in the four-yearly epic that is a US presidential election campaign, we're in the closest news equivalent there can be: the interlude between a thrilling primary season and the next big event when the two candidates announce their respective running mates. Alas, this is about the one political decision in America that is genuinely leak-proof. Those who talk don't know, and those (very few) in the know don't talk.

This year, however, there has been no problem filling the void. The hungry circling spotlight has lit upon Michelle Obama, and with very good reason. She might just make the difference between her husband winning and losing.

For US voters, presidential elections are personal. On 4 November they will choose not just a head of government, but the person who for the next four years will be the embodiment of their country. Inevitably, the candidate's family is part of the package. And Michelle Obama wouldn't be the first wife to make a difference.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, during FDR's three-plus terms in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt's activism made her one of the most admired women in America. During the 1960 campaign, the style and glamour of Jackie Kennedy reinforced her husband's message of newness and generational change.

True, first ladies traditionally have been regarded as individuals who should be seen and not heard (or if heard, then mouthing the most benign of platitudes). Barbara Bush, whose white hair, twin-sets and pearls turned her into a national grandmother, and thus perfect model for a President's wife, performed this role especially well. If anything, though, she has been outdone by her daughter-in-law.

Self-effacing and unassailably normal, Laura Bush has floated miraculously above the wreckage of this administration, putting hardly a foot wrong despite the opprobrium heaped upon her husband. I would also contend that she made a tiny but possibly crucial political difference when he defeated John Kerry to win a second term.

In 2004 the country went – just – for the devil it knew, and also, albeit perhaps subconsciously, for the First Lady it knew. Teresa Heinz Kerry could be haughty and outspoken, in an accent that betrayed her Portuguese ancestry. Hugely wealthy, she was also unmistakeably foreign, to Americans, evoking the slopes of Gstaad rather than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. Subliminally, she reinforced the Republican message that the decorated Vietnam hero John Kerry was elitist and somehow different. In an extremely close election, Laura Bush may have tipped the scales.

And thus it could be in 2008. Like Teresa Heinz, Michelle Obama has a whiff of loose cannonshot about her. There is her sarcasm, her fondness for bringing her husband down to earth with tales of how he doesn't put his dirty socks in the clothes basket or the butter back in the fridge. Such revelations may humanise him, but it also punctures that JFK aura which is one of her husband's most potent electoral weapons. And then, of course, she's black.

Race is the wild card, the great unknown, of this election. Like the golfer Tiger Woods (and to a lesser extent Colin Powell), Obama transcends race. He is the post-racial candidate, not black but African-American in its literal, not politically correct, sense. The son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, he is not descended from slaves, nor was he shaped by the struggle for civil rights.

Indeed, if he, like Woods, had married a white woman, the question of his race might never have arisen. But he didn't. He married Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, product of the historically black south side of Chicago, whose father worked in the city's water department, whose ancestors were slaves, whose family roots are in the deep south, in South Carolina.

Her ability took her to Princeton, a venerable white Ivy League university. "No matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus, as if I really don't belong," she wrote in her final- year thesis. "It often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second." No matter that these words were written almost a quarter of a century ago, when she was just 21, the essay has resurfaced in this election year.

Rightly or wrongly, it has cemented an image of a woman who, for all her success in life as a lawyer and hospital administrator, remains prickly and resentful, in a way that her husband is not. In this internet age, one thing has inevitably led to another, including the unsubstantiated allegation that she once railed in a speech at the evils perpetrated by "whitey".

Then came her statement – absolutely indisputable, at a political rally in February – about how, after her husband's success in the early primaries, "for the first time in my adult lifetime I'm really proud of my country". The result was instant vituperation on the news channels. And when the Senator and his wife affectionately bumped fists at his victory rally, a Fox News presenter suggested the gesture might be seen as a "terrorist fist jab".

In a country as obsessed with patriotism as the US, this was dangerous stuff, especially coming as it did amid the controversy over the Obamas' pastor Jeremiah Wright and his diatribes from the pulpit against the sins of white America.

For now, thanks largely to his deft speech on race at the height of the Wright controversy, Obama has quietened the storm. But, as noted above, this is an interlude. How will it be in the fury of the autumn campaign proper? Do not expect Republicans to tread tenderly around the issue, come October.

Cindy McCain does not appear to be a Laura Bush in waiting. She was once addicted to painkillers. She is an heiress to a beer distribution fortune, a gilded, glamorous child of the air-conditioned south-west. Even so, she may be a more familiar figure to many Americans than the forthright Michelle Obama.

Inevitably, the rebranding has begun. Last week, Michelle was a guest co-host on a popular TV talk show, recounting how she cooked bacon for breakfast and didn't like wearing tights. Soon she will be visiting servicemen's families, appealing for better care for veterans, dutifully wrapping herself in the Stars and Stripes. Above all, perhaps, she must throttle back – just as Hillary Clinton was obliged to do in 1992, after she had outraged male supremacists by defending her career choices with the remark: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas." Right now, a little more cookie baking would also suit Michelle Obama fine, although her exact culinary plans are unknown.

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