- - Sunday, April 20, 2014


First ladies, almost from the beginning, have taken up lofty causes when they move into the White House.

Dolley Madison concerned herself with the plight of orphans. Ellen Wilson, shocked by the squalid streets of Washington, took up urban housing (and even got a bill through Congress, the first FLOTUS to do so). Rosalynn Carter made her signature issue mental health. Nancy Reagan took on youth drug abuse. Hillary Rodham Clinton made health care her cause. Laura Bush pushed reading.

And Michelle Obama took on the weighty issues of — fitness and food. Oh, and fat kids.

This first lady has been the weakest and most trivial in a half-century, no substance, and not even any flash — a Shelly O, maybe, but no Jackie O. One reason: She’s not all that likeable. She polls OK, but c’mon, who’d want to hang out with her? She just doesn’t seem fun, often has on that “I’m-Not-Amused” face. Something about her makes you think: Boy, she’s angry about something.

Remember that glare she gave the French first lady? How about that body language when hubby Barack was taking that selfie at the Nelson Mandela funeral (well, maybe she had a point).

And then there’s the 2008 campaign, when she said: “For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country.” And her Princeton dissertation, when she lamented her future in a “white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society, never becoming a full participant.”

Really? A black man is president — and he’s your husband! No, racism isn’t dead, and will never be in those backwood pockets of the South, but please, we’re well past the Jim Crow days, and someone — maybe even you, Shelly O — ought to be celebrating where America has finally arrived.

But Mrs. Obama has never been fully satisfied with America’s treatment of her. For some reason, she continues to harbor bitterness, and that comes through in nearly everything shes does. You gotta wonder when the president decides to head to Oso, Wash., as he is next week. Just need to get away? Cuz, what’s in Oso, Wash., that draws the president? Oh, an overnight. Gotcha.

Now, the White House, still searching for something for the first lady to do, has decided to dispatch her to Kansas for a speech at a spring graduation ceremony. Always ready to rile up race relations, the First Couple thought it would be a good idea if Shelley O went to Topeka on May 17, the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But a petition led by an 18-year-old girl against her visit has been gaining power since the announcement, and now sports more than 1,200 signatures. Parents are worried that they won’t get the number of seats they need for joyous relatives; students think the first lady will overshadow their big day. And everyone seems to fear the first lady’s speech will be geared toward that historic day when segregation was outlawed, not the educational achievement of the young graduates.

No one in America doubts the power of that day. America turned a huge corner with that momentous decision, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, culminating with the Civil Rights Act. The day should be celebrated, loudly and everywhere.

But is a high school graduation really the place for that? And should the first lady of the United States really use a commencement address to recall the horrors of racism — to students born more than 40 years later who are, one could argue, the least racist generation ever?

Taylor Gifford, 18, started her petition after students and parents complained about the first lady’s speech. “People think it’s a great opportunity, but it’s the graduates’ time. They are getting that diploma that they worked so hard for,” she told the Associated Press. “Families are feeling that they are being cheated out of the loved ones’ special day.”

Parents also thought the appearance would wreck the moment. Tina Hernandez, mom of Topeka High School senior Dauby Knight, told the Daily Mail that “I’m a single mother who has raised him for 18 years by myself.”

“I’ve told him education is the only way out. This is one of the biggest days of their lives. They’ve taken the glory and shine from the children and put it on Mrs. Obama. She doesn’t know our kids,” Ms. Hernandez said.

The AP report included this paragraph near the bottom: “Others have suggested that if she wants to mark the Brown anniversary, she could just visit the historic site that commemorates the decision, which is just a few blocks from the graduation venue.”

That’s right, The White House decided to send the first lady to a high school graduation a few blocks from the Brown site, which is housed in a former all-black school, on the day of Brown v. Board of Education. How thoughtful.

For her, maybe. Not so much for the kids.

Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at josephcurl@gmail.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.

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