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The two wives’ speeches

Posted: September 7, 2012 6:50 p.m.
Updated: September 10, 2012 5:00 a.m.

I’m going to leave comparisons between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s acceptance speeches to the big gun pundits. Instead, I believe this was the year of the wives when it came to the Democratic and Republican conventions: Michelle Obama and Ann Romney.

One of the most often said remarks in the days since the First Lady spoke last week is how similar the speeches turned out. That may be true on the surface, but reading the speeches as I did -- rather than watching them, which I didn’t -- stripping them of the pomp and circumstance, reveals the differences.

In looking at both texts, there is a lot of love in both speeches. These women, obviously, love their husbands. Ann Romney talked about how she and Mitt met at a high school dance. “(H)e was tall, laughed a lot, was nervous -- girls like that.” She talked about how she is the daughter of a Welsh coal miner, how her husband’s  father never graduated college, becoming a carpenter. Mrs. Romney’s father -- the son of that coal miner, became mayor of her hometown. Mr. Romney’s father surpassed his beginnings, becoming the head of a car company, she said, and governor of Michigan.

Mrs. Obama, too, talked about falling in love with her husband on dates in his “car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door.” She talked about how both their families “didn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions.” Her father was a water plant pump operator, working hard while living with Multiple Sclerosis. President Obama, she said -- and as most of us know by now -- “was raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills, and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help.”

These are both good stories, used by Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama to try to help voters connect with their husbands.

In that respect, I think both women succeeded. Both women also claimed they were keeping politics and party out of their speeches. Let’s see.

To me, the best political speeches -- and make no mistake, that’s what Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama’s speeches were -- are those that speak to the strengths of the candidate, not the weaknesses of their opponents. I’m far more interested in a candidate who tells me what successes they’ve had (with my own fact-checking, thank you very much), those items they know need improving (honesty counts, you know), and what they propose to do in the future.

I’m far less interested in having them tear down their opponents and point out what’s wrong with the world that only they can fix.

Mrs. Romney talked about “parents who lie awake at night side by side, wondering how they’ll pay the mortgage or make the rent.” She said she’s heard people say “I’m running in place,” “we just can’t get ahead.”

This is true. These people exist and it’s nice to acknowledge that -- frankly, I’m one of them.

“But the last few years have been harder than they needed to be,” Mrs. Romney said. “But we’re not dumb enough to accept that there aren’t better answers.”

She then talked about how her husband will make things better.

The implication, of course, is that President Barack Obama is to blame for whatever mess we might be in and that only her husband, Mitt Romney can fix it. Why? Because he took a small company and made it into “another American success story” -- a success she admitted made those who started it, which includes her husband, “successful beyond their dreams.”

I applaud the Romney family’s success. It is inspiring. So inspiring that Mrs. Obama may have actually referred to it in her speech a week later.

“Like so many American families, our families weren’t asking for much,” Mrs. Obama said. “They didn’t begrudge anyone else’s success or care that others had much more than they did... in fact, they admired it.”

The closest she came to “digging” at the Romneys, if it can be called that, is when she said President Obama “started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods...” and “you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules -- and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square.”

Aside from that apparent implication that Mr. Romney’s success has blinded him to the 99 percent, I found no instance where Mrs. Obama portrayed Mr. Romney as someone who, if elected, would move the country backward.

Indeed, she said President Obama is the type of person who “never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise” -- that, for him, “there is no such thing as ‘us’ and ‘them’ ... he doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican or none of the above.”

Rather than focus on how bad things are, but without being dismissive of the last few years’ hardship on American families, Mrs. Obama declared that “doing the impossible is the history of this nation ... it’s how this country was built” -- that “if our parents and grandparents ... could raise beams of steel to the sky, send a man to the moon, and connect the world with the touch of a button,” we, too, can sacrifice for our children and grandchildren.

For me, the difference between Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Romney’s words is the difference in the way a number of Democrats and Republicans have approached the current American season.

Mrs. Romney came across as an America too far from the finish line, offering her husband almost reluctantly (“You may not agree with Mitt’s positions on issues or his politics”) as the country’s “hard working” savior. Mrs. Obama, on the other hand, came across as an America almost to the finish line asking us to trust that her husband is the man who will help us “keep moving this great country forward.”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

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