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Mrs. Obama and the heckler

REUTERS/Jason Reed
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?

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

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.

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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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/11/2013 - 08:22 am.

    Couple of comments: The

    Couple of comments:

    The first ladies reflect their time and society. Their education and employment history reflect those also. But looking back, there are remarkably few first ladies that did not already have a track record of achievement outside of being “arm-candy” for the president.

    As for first lady reactions–they have the unenviable position of seeing the person they presumably care about most, aging and being worn and torn by the serious and deeply nuanced issues that their office must face.

    I believe that LBJ realized what a piece of crap he had stepped into in Vietnam. I believe that his wife knew the personal turmoil and damage of the decisions. The comment from Kitt was greeted by crying because it was impossible to describe the nuance and personal costs of the fateful decisions without trivializing the damage of the war. There were no possible words to explain. By that time, it was clear that the war would far outweigh the
    “war on poverty” in being the legacy of LBJ.

    How can anyone sit still when their spouse is described in hateful and un-nuanced ways? Why should they?

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/11/2013 - 11:10 am.

    Good for Mrs. Obama!

    Fascinating, how this opinion piece focuses on the proper role of a First Lady, using the example of our current First Lady who will tolerate no disrespect to her self, to her role, or to the occasion where she was asked to speak. Instead of focusing on the rudeness, impropriety and uselessness of heckling a speaker.

    At least the heckler didn’t get the attention she wanted; Mrs. Obama gets it all here. As if somehow the first Lady had made some sort of mistake, or shouldn’t have demanded respect.

    Hey, group! This is a proud and dignified black woman. I say Brava! to Michele Obama for tolerating no fools.

  3. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 06/11/2013 - 01:10 pm.

    first lady requirements

    First qualification of first ladies is to be authentic, an individual, not just a wife. This means choosing a path and sticking to it. Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and her mother-in-law, and Rosalyn Carter all did that well. Laura Bush, for example, was not Nancy Reagan, the adoring, dutiful, stand-in-the-shadows-and- smile wife who exercised her marital power behind the scene.

    The real problem is the sexism of some of the public and most of the media that seem to think the insipid, powerless Nancy Reagan version is the ideal. Michelle Obama should be recognized for the tough, no-nonsense woman she is, a mother of young girls who recognizes their father has little time for parenting so she is filling that gap.

    Why do we, the public, have to figure out what kind of first lady or first gentleman we want? If we believe in marriage so profoundly, we ought to take what we get with any officeholder and be grateful when we get serious, independent individuals.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/11/2013 - 02:52 pm.

      …insipid, powerless Nancy Reagan version…

      Pretty harsh.

      She, in my mind, was a successful woman in her own right and own path in keeping with the times. She was born in 1921, had an independent acting career at the point she married her actor-husband (age of 30 in 1952). Her husband tenure of governor of California began when she was 46. And then he was president was when she was 60 years old.

      Did she choose the political life? Or was it mainly her husband’s thing?

      Spouses get pulled along in surprising directions–especially considering the time.

      I’m no fan of Ronald Reagan, but I do reject the idea that Nancy was not an real authentic individual adult person in her own right.

  4. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 06/13/2013 - 04:02 pm.

    Who was rude?

    “At least the heckler didn’t get the attention she wanted;”

    Interesting that Ellen Sturtz is only ever referred to as “the heckler” or “the rude woman.”

    Even more interesting that so many people apparently believe that interrupting a speech is far, far ruder that the fact that 29 states will still deny you a livelihood based upon your sexual orientation. I think the latter is a but more indicative of “rude” behavior” but who am I?

    I’m actually a lesbian AND a huge Michele Obama fan. On this occasion, I think people have their priorities really messed up. The rudeness lies in how we deny basic rights to huge numbers of people, not whose little speech is interrupted today.

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