Democratic National Convention: Michelle Obama Gets Personal

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Much of Tuesday’s opening night of the Democratic National Convention seemed programmed as a direct rebuttal to speeches the Republicans made a week ago at their convention. If you watched both, you got a weird mirror effect — weirder than watching congressional candidate Joaquin Castro introduce his identical twin brother, San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julian Castro.

The latter Castro was the convention’s keynote speaker, just as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was last Tuesday, and like Christie, Castro is a rising political star who was his party’s designated attack dog. He gave a fiery speech whose refrain tweaked the GOP nominee for allegedly being too wealthy and out-of-touch to appreciate the problems of ordinary Americans. Mitt Romney “just doesn’t get it,” Castro kept saying.

But unlike last week’s first night, which began with a heartfelt speech by the candidate’s wife before winding down with Christie’s attack on President Barack Obama, the Democrats chose to attack first and then end on an upbeat note, with First Lady Michelle Obama countering Ann Romeny with an emotional, largely non-partisan speech aimed at humanizing her husband.

What did Michelle Obama say?

Like Ann Romney, the First Lady was trying to appeal to women voters and prove to them that her husband is a decent man who can be trusted to confront the nation’s problems. She echoed the Republican’s tales of the Romneys’ cash-strapped early marriage and maybe even one-upped them. The Romneys ate dinner on an ironing board? Well, Barack Obama’s most prized possession was a coffee table scrounged from a dumpster. And he used to drive Michelle around in a car so rusted out she could see the pavement beneath it. (Both speeches may have reminded viewers of the scene in Driving Miss Daisy, where Jessica Tandy describes to her new chauffeur how poor she used to be, and Morgan Freeman replies, “But you’re doin’ all right now.”)

The point of Michelle Obama’s stories of the old days was that her husband is still the same man, a product of his upbringing by a struggling single mother, who therefore has empathy with the economic problems of students and working people and a drive to solve those problems. Living in the White House hasn’t changed him, she said, only further revealed his character. And it hasn’t changed her either, she said; her most important title is still “Mom-in -Chief.”

If the First Lady’s speech, delivered in an often quavering, almost tearful voice, brought the evening to a warm, emotional close, it also stood in contrast to what had been a full day of jokes and insults at the Republicans’ expense. Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland delivered one of the most-quoted lines of the day, saying, “If Mitt were Santa Claus, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.”

Kal Penn, who’s alternated in recent years between starring in stoner movies and serving as a youth liaison in the Obama White House, may have given the most purely entertaining speech. Making fun of the GOP convention’s most lampoonable moment — Clint Eastwood’s argument with an imaginary President Obama — Penn cited some of Obama’s achievements, then said, “Thank you, invisible man in the chair.’ He also urged anyone tweeting about his speech to use the hashtag #sexyface. Sure enough, by the time Penn finished speaking, #sexyface was trending on Twitter.

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