Opinion

Renée Graham

Michelle Obama, speaking her mind

Former first lady Michelle Obama smiles while speaking at the Partnership for a Healthier American 2017 Healthier Future Summit in Washington, Friday, May 12, 2017. Obama appeared at an annual health conference sponsored by the nonprofit organization that sponsored her anti-childhood obesity initiative. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Michelle Obama speaks at the Partnership for a Healthier America summit in Washington on May 12.

Michelle Obama’s tongue is untied.

Speaking at the annual Partnership for a Healthier America summit last week, Obama, in no uncertain terms, expressed her dismay with the Trump administration’s reckless plan to roll back school lunch nutritional standards she advocated as first lady.

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“Moms, think about this. I don’t care what state you live in,” she said. “Take me out of the equation; like me, don’t like me, but think about why someone is OK with your kids eating crap.”

Some were taken aback by Obama’s use of the word “crap,” but it was another part of her comment that hit my ear like a pealing grace note: “Take me out of the equation; like me, don’t like me.” With the White House in her rear view, Obama could finally acknowledge that fervent conservative opposition to a program designed to make children healthier was really about opposition to her.

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Obama always knew, like her husband always knew, that resistance to anything she proposed was about more than policy or party loyalty. Yet because they were the first African-American president and first lady, both were bound by an unwritten rule dictating they could never mention this country’s pathological racism as a primary reason for all the nonsense thrown at them during their White House years.

Obama faced a huge conservative uproar in 2010 when she launched her “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity. Reaction was so swift and outlandish you’d have thought she had proposed kids playing in traffic as a fun way to burn calories.

Rush Limbaugh implied that Obama’s physique proved that she wasn’t practicing what she was preaching. (For the record, Obama is in exceptional shape, but truth finds no quarter in Limbaugh’s dopey diatribes.) Michele Bachmann, then a Minnesota congresswoman, carped that Obama was trying to create “a nanny state.” Fact-free Sarah Palin even claimed Obama was antidessert.

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Every first lady picks a pet project, like Laura Bush’s anti-illiteracy campaign or Nancy Reagan’s unintentionally glib “Just Say No” antidrug effort. They carefully choose noncontroversial causes that easily cross party lines. At least that was the case until Obama’s “Let’s Move,” but then attempts to undercut her were apparent even before her husband became president. In 2008, she was criticized for telling a crowd, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Instantly, conservatives painted Obama as unpatriotic and un-American, yet so many of us knew what she meant.

What Newsweek called “just a slip under the relentless pressure of campaigning” spoke deeply to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider in this nation. It’s an essential truth America refuses to reconcile that, for many of us, inclusion is little more than a word easily spoken but infrequently realized. Still, Obama would never “slip” again — not when Fox dubbed her “Obama’s baby mama,” not when this elegant, intelligent woman was called an “ape in heels,” not when constant attempts were made by petty and revolting people to tear her down. (Imagine the reaction if Obama, after her husband’s victory, had stayed in Chicago with her daughters so they could complete the school year.)

“It can feel isolating,” Obama once said of her life in the White House. “I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.”

Now Obama is being true to herself in a way once unheard. For eight years, Michelle Obama smiled, displayed her humor and compassion, but also held her breath. She’s now writing a book on her White House years, and many hope she will spill the tea on all the dramas we didn’t see. Yet her pointed comments about the Trump administration’s decision to cut nutritional standards for school kids show that we won’t have to wait for that book’s publication to finally hear our former first lady exhale at last.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham
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