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The PJ Tatler

by
Mike McNally

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June 22, 2011 - 7:57 am

Michelle Obama gave a speech this morning to a U.S.-sponsored Young African Women Leaders Forum in Soweto. It was mostly the usual Hope’n’Change boilerplate, part Sermon on the Mount, part Oprah-esque commencement address. But this bit caught my ear:

Like my husband, I came from a modest background. My parents saved and sacrificed everything they had so that I could get an education. And when I graduated, got a job at a big, fancy law firm — nice salary, big office. My friends were impressed. My family was proud. By all accounts, I was living the dream.

But I knew something was missing. I knew I didn’t want to be way up in some tall building all alone in an office writing memos. I wanted to be down on the ground working with kids, helping families put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

So I left that job for a new job training young people like yourselves for careers in public service. I was making a lot less money. My office wasn’t so nice. (Laughter.) But every day, I got to watch those young people gain skills and build confidence. And then I saw them go on to mentor and inspire other young people. And that made me feel inspired. It still does.

Those listening could have been forgiven for thinking Mrs. Obama went straight from “down on the ground working with kids” and “making a lot less money” to the White House, because – perhaps out of modesty – she left out a significant chunk of her resume: the part where, after she and her husband had established their activist credentials, she took a $120,000-a-year admin job at the University of Chicago Hospital.

I don’t know how tall the building was, but I’m sure she would have spent a fair bit of time alone in her office, and must have written the occasional memo. This was the job in which Mrs. Obama famously received a $200,000 pay rise shortly before her state Senator husband requested a $1 million earmark for… UCH, the hospital she worked for; her job which was so important that when Mrs Obama left, UCH didn’t bother to replace her.

The disingenuousness on display here is bad enough, but what’s really irritating is the implication that white-collar jobs are somehow beneath the Obamas and their ilk. Millions of Americans do what Mrs. Obama presumably thinks are ‘unfulfilling’ office jobs – they’re jobs that generate the money that makes the privately- and publicly-funded community programs in which the Obamas dabbled possible. Never mind that when it suited Mrs. Obama she took one of those jobs.

Mrs Obama’s remarks are of a piece with her husband’s suggestion that young people should aspire to be doctors and engineers rather than investment bankers. And note the inverted snobbery implicit in her description of law firms as “fancy” (those fancy lawyers are, along with the wicked investment bankers, among the most generous donors to the campaign coffers of her husband, and Democrats in general).

The Obamas just don’t seem to understand that while they’re busy transforming America, other – and apparently, in their view, lesser – people are working hard just to keep it running.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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