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July 26, 2016

Michelle Obama's speech will resonate long after DNC ends

Painting a picture of her daughters playing on the White House lawn was the JFK Jr. under-the-desk photo updated for 2016

It wasn’t the 51-foot joint making its way down Broad Street, or the anger, tears and cheers of Bernie Sanders supporters.

It’s wasn’t Mayor Jim Kenney drawing parallels between those who support the Republican presidential candidate and the “Know-Nothings” who violently feared immigrants in the mid-1800s, or Paul Simon singing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”

It wasn’t Cory Booker’s “We Will Rise” oratory, or Sarah Silverman and Al Franken’s repartee as they took the stage as totems for those supporting opposing primary candidates, or Elizabeth Warren's eviscerating words.

All of that represented a fine start to the Democratic National Convention in and around the Wells Fargo Center on Monday.

But Tuesday morning, what stood out in my mind was the 14-minute Michelle Obama speech that shifted the mood in the room and, quite possibly, laid the groundwork for the Hillary Clinton campaign moving forward once the delegates leave Philadelphia.

Specifically, it was this line uttered about 11 minutes in, one that felt less political and more of a merging of historical sins, societal evolution and the joys of parenthood. And it was one rife with the prospects of racially partisan blowback.

"I watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent, black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” – First Lady Michelle Obama

The first lady led into it by celebrating Americans who give back to their communities by volunteering (or, as in the case of Orlando, donated blood after the Pulse night club massacre), heroes who serve in our armed forces and police officers and protesters who want to make the world better for the next generation.

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent, black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Obviously, I can’t relate to being an African American woman raising two children along with a presidential spouse in Washington, D.C.

What I can relate to hearing someone stand up at a time of great hostility between races, social classes, political leanings and people on opposite sides of even the most inane “debate” topics – side note: a hot dog is not a sandwich – and disarm anger with powerful imagery.

I find myself thinking about what she was saying, and here’s where I landed: Generations of struggle would have been for naught hadn’t good people risen up and done good things. Because they did, the construction-based fruits of a nation’s shameful past now provide a venue for a redemptive vignette that resonates with all (ok, most) parents across the country.

Instead of hearkening back to slavery’s role, Obama could have said she wakes up in the house that serves as the center of American power, but she went the historically accurate and jarring route. Thank goodness for that.

Kids play with dogs on lawns all day, everywhere, but African American children of presidents have never before played with their dogs on their lawn which just happens to be outside the White House.

It’s the recreation of the image of John Kennedy Jr. peeking out from under the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk as his proud dad barely conceals a grin while trying to work, but with layers of history and struggle serving as the backdrop.

It’s a statement of awed pride in what her husband, family and race have accomplished through the lens of a parent watching her children with a swollen heart.

I’m sure people have been carping about how that was neither the time nor place to evoke a nation’s sins. Whatever. 

This isn't about politics. This is about thanking Michelle Obama for providing the perfect device to describe the importance, and legacy, of what’s happened in the past eight years to my 6-year-old son, and I'll probably do so when we take our dog for a walk.