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Mrs. Obama and the heckler

Last week, a lot of people representing many different political persuasions were shocked when first lady Michelle Obama dealt straight on with a heckler at a private fundraiser.

How should a first lady behave? Is she subject to the same rules of the road as the president, or other elected officials? What, exactly, is her role?
REUTERS/Jason Reed

If you happen to think there isn’t much that shocks people anymore, well, think again.

stanik
Mary Stanik

Last week, a lot of people representing many different political persuasions were shocked when first lady Michelle Obama decided to not just turn a perfectly powdered cheek (as would have been the case for most of her predecessors) and dealt straight on with a heckler at a private fundraiser. The heckler, Ellen Sturtz, had been placed at the event by the LGBT rights group Get Equal to interrupt Obama’s speech with demands regarding the Obama administration’s policies concerning federal contracts for gays and lesbians.

Instead of just soldiering on with a strained smile, Obama told Sturtz and the crowd they could “listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have a choice.” Those in attendance quickly decided they wanted to listen to Obama and Sturtz was told she was the one who would have to leave.

Sturtz apparently was “taken aback” by Obama’s direct unwillingness to accept any smack Sturtz wanted to dish out. The Twitter response to the heckling was immediate and almost entirely supportive of Obama, with lots of people saying they did not want Obama to be construed as an “angry black woman” because she wouldn’t permit a heckler interrupt her speech.

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Eartha Kitt and Mrs. Johnson

Of course, this isn’t the first time a first lady has been yelled at because of the policies of her husband president.  Perhaps the most famous example of first lady heckling occurred in 1968, when singer Eartha Kitt told Lady Bird Johnson that “you send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” 

And although much of the 1960s was about questioning authority about issues such as the Vietnam War, the vast majority of Americans still thought first ladies should stand quietly and prettily behind their president men and plan parties and Christmas tree lightings. They were to be treated with polite dignity and magazine stories about their chocolate cake recipes. Reportedly, Johnson burst into tears after the exchange. While some thought Kitt was right to question the war policies of Johnson’s husband, most people thought Kitt displayed great insensitivity and boorishness. For some years after, her blazing hot career was deeply iced abroad.

I don’t know if the activist career of Sturtz will experience the same sort of icing, although I agree with those who thought she should have aimed questions (and not shouts) at the president because he and other elected officials are the ones who control policy, not the first lady. I also don’t think most heckling accomplishes much for most causes. There is heckling and there is legitimate questioning of authority, and I don’t believe they are always the same thing.

One thing I do know is that this situation again raises questions about presidential spouses, questions that have been raised many, many times before, in many different guises. How should a first lady behave? Is she subject to the same rules of the road as the president, or other elected officials? What, exactly, is her role? Is it that of quiet wife and well-coiffed and -dressed dinner hostess and foreign-visit consort? Or must she become heavily involved with serious causes to earn her Secret Service protection and East Wing office space and staff?

And in this age of Hillary presidential polling, what will we expect of the man who may be married to the first woman president?

Unlike many of our past first ladies, Michelle Obama is a highly educated, highly intelligent woman who for some years before she became first lady had a demanding career outside of the home. It’s almost inconceivable that such a person could just strike a strained smile or burst into tears when smacked with rude heckling. 

What should shock

It’s hard to believe so many past first ladies were willing to merely smile or cry through such treatment. Of course, America, in Washington and throughout the land, is a far more impolitic and nasty place than it has been in decades. That America has become such a place is what should shock people, not a person demanding the right to be heard when they were asked to speak.

But one of these days, or years, or decades, it would help if we figured out just what we expect of the person married to the president.  If we ever do so, that indeed might be shocking.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.

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