More than 3,000 people packed The Bushnell in Hartford recently to hear former First Lady Michelle Obama in a moderated conversation. While the venue was large, the evening came across as an intimate conversation because she was “authentic,” funny, and told engaging stories.
While some advance publicity referred to it as a speech, it was Michelle and a moderator sitting in comfortable chairs on the stage, and talking. No press passes were issued and no press was invited to the Nov. 16 event, organized by The Connecticut Forum. It was just us (3,000 or so). And it felt like “just us.”
Raised in a Family that Expected Her to Achieve
When asked about why people always refer to her as authentic, Michelle said it came naturally. She learned, early on, to be herself: consistently, always, and not to have different personas in different settings. No acting, just being.
She traced her roots to South Side Chicago, to a loving extended family, to a family of modest means but with lots of joy, and music, and caring. In her family, young girls got respect, and were expected to achieve. She noted that she was fortunate to be in such a family and contrasted her experience to how girls and women are often treated worldwide: denied education, forced into child labor, molested and worse.
As the First Lady, she chose to avoid overly political issues that relied on legislative action. Rather, she focused on children, and nutrition and exercise. And her humor emerged as she noted that, to her amazement, there were those who thought that neither vegetables nor exercise were in their child’s best interest, and where did she get off being such a know-it-all?
How does she deal with the criticism? She knew she needed to hear other views, but also knew she did not need to read the diatribes. Staff-members were tasked with sorting out the salient, thoughtful counter arguments and being sure they reached her. But she avoided the negativism that could lead to a non-productive negative spiral.
A Celebrity Visit—With a Twist
Not everyone would know the effort she and Barack put into opening the White House as the “people’s house.” The Easter Egg Hunt, for example, reached new levels of participation. But so did the arts. Historically, presidents have hosted elegant dinners for high-profile leaders and artists. Michelle noted that she and Barack added a wrinkle. If a great artist was to be there, they brought groups of students prior to the elegant event to enjoy an earlier performance.
It is well known that composter/lyricist/playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda did premier the first song of Hamilton at the White House. It is less well known that after the show opened, the entire cast spent a day in the White House doing a series of discussions with young people, culminating with a full production of the show.
Keeping Life ‘Normal’ While Raising Daughters in the White House
Her focus on children certainly extended to her own. The Obamas worked hard to create a “normal life” for their family. Michelle gave several examples. She noted that when her daughters asked about the men on the roof of their school, with heavy weapons, she assured them that was normal; as were the black van motorcades when they went to parent-teacher conferences. The irony here was endearing, adding to her authentic down-to-earth persona, and highlighting just how hard she had to work to keep things “normal” in such extraordinary circumstances.
The Obamas negotiated a deal with the press. When the girls are at official functions they are “fair game” for photos and coverage, but not otherwise. Their presence at formal functions was intentionally limited, but Michelle worked hard to explain to them that their typical teenage “whatever” faces would not pass muster in public settings. They needed to not only be interested and engaged, but also to look the part. She encouraged an active smile, and threatened to tickle them if necessary.
As a father, I understood her focus and applaud her success. As it happens there was a sleep-over for the girls and their best friends the night before their departure from the White House. The friends had to leave without their normal, favorite full breakfast; but there was a continued air of normalcy.
Evening Concluded with Audience Feeling Inspired
This evening with a warm, engaging, funny woman was capped off with the question: ‘How do you deal with today? How do you stay optimistic?’ She reflected on her conversations about this with Barack. So the answer is: “These are the best of times.” It is hard to choose a time that was better. Michelle specifically excluded the era of slavery as better…while acknowledging that not everyone might agree. But if you look at the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Great Depression, etc.; it is not clear that there was a better, earlier time.
While there is conflict in the world, overall the level of violence is at historic lows and the quality of life for the world’s citizens is at historic highs. The press reports on the bad stuff, but there is more good stuff than ever; it just doesn’t get talked about as much, she said.
Perhaps, equally important was her observation that in the USA, change flows more from the bottom than the top. We are a country of the people, by the people and for the people. And our institutions support good things over time. We the people support those good things with our votes, our local and national engagement and by living our values. Certainly there is work to do, but together she said, we can accomplish good things.
Accompanied by my three associate deans (who certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity) we left feeling impressed by her strength of character and inspired to do the same kind of good in our own community.
John A. Elliott
Dean, UConn School of Business
John A. Elliott is dean of the UConn School of Business, as well as the Auran J. Fox Chair in Business. John is a certified public accountant with professional experience as an auditor and consultant. His research is concentrated on the role of accounting information in financial analysis and contracts. When not attending his son’s athletic events or visiting his daughter and her family, John and his wife, Laura enjoy travel. John is also an avid fan of the UConn men’s and women’s basketball teams. View Posts