Michelle Obama Comes and Goes

by Natasha Vargas-Cooper

After John McCain closed out the Sharron Angle rally on Friday, her campaign coordinators played a bit of amateur propaganda. Pictures of foreclosed houses, stock photos of agonized couples looking at stacks of unpaid bills, a chart of unemployment rates, all flashing by quickly to a soaring soundtrack. At the crescendo of all this pictorial despair appeared the image of First Lady Michelle Obama. In it she is reclining on a beige chaise lounge in a sleeveless violet dress, one hand cupped along the side of her neck, revealing her diamond wedding ring that matches her teardrop diamond earrings, and above her is the big word Vogue, the issue that claims: “The First Lady the world’s been waiting for.” No other item inspired such audible, ferocious ire.

The gymnasium never quite got filled up at the Harry Reid/Michelle Obama rally today at the Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas. (The crowd did, however, feel better about the media.)

Actually, after the mariachi band, after two congresswomen did some impromptu phonebanking on stage, after a doctor friend of Harry Reid’s read a letter about the Senator’s commitment to Democratic social policy, after a 20-minute dance session conducted by the panicked, stalling twentysomething staffers to Miley Cyrus, the crowd had actually thinned a bit.

After a near two-hour wait, Harry Reid announced the arrival of “Michelle Obama! ‘The Closer!’”

The crowd of senior citizens, rank and file union members, college age volunteers, and a few families that pulled their kids out of school to see the First Lady shrieked and stomped their feet with excitement. For a few moments, the gymnasium rumbled with applause.

Reid’s speech, recited just minutes before (it had a list of various votes he had cast in the interest of the “families/working people” of Nevada, accounting for “16 tax cuts!”), was instantly blotted out by Michelle Obama’s gravitas and self-introduction as “Chief Mom.” In a prim black dress, with her shoulders rolled back and big open face locked on the crowd, Mrs. Obama talked about her childhood as a daughter of a water plant worker. She went to talk about how it instilled in her a commitment to hard work for the sake of a family’s ability to thrive.

“That’s what this is all about after all,” she said, “The American Dream. Barack knows it. I know it. And Harry knows it.” Reid nodded from his folding chair.

Mrs. Obama evokes the moral authority of a no-nonsense mother. “This is exactly what Barack promised you,” she said, a little edge in her voice. “He promised you change. And change is hard.”

Mrs. Obama’s speech seemed unscripted and was well received. It was also an amorphous bore of a thing that could have been delivered anywhere. The universal themes of struggle, hope and change have resonated in any venue, from a Milwaukee union hall to the Ladies Auxiliary Club in Bel-Air.

There is something extremely specific happening in Nevada and the First Lady and the Senate Majority Leader more than glossed over it today. The speech they gave was just like every other swing-state speech, an attempt to shore up wavering loyalty.

The economic despair of Las Vegas that once was relegated to the margins of the city during boom times has long since spilled out. The swaths of foreclosed subdivisions are totems of the dramatic downturn in the national media but they are just miles away from today’s rally. This is at ground zero, essentially; they are in the country’s foreclosure capital.

And this is Las Vegas — where tragedy always makes itself quite at home in the culture. On a nearby low-rent but not destitute boulevard lined with thrift stores and greasy spoons, there was a line of about thirty people. Given that it was noon on a Monday, one could easily mistake the crowd for tourists. They also looked like the sort of folks who line up for show tickets to the Rat Pack tribute show in the Copa Room at the Plaza, or for a bus tour of the desert outlet stores. They were all careful to stay under the shade of the storefront’s awning that read: WE BUY YOUR GOLD!

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is in Nevada through the election — you can reach her via Twitter.