Peddling the American Dream

THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT doing 140km/h on a Jo’burg highway at 4:30pm on a weekday with no car in sight — except for the thousands of poor suckers who aren’t going anywhere, backed up and blocked from every onramp — that screams: hanging out with Michelle Obama is very, very cool.

Africa’s economic capital came to a complete standstill this week; at least, that is, when the United States’s first lady moved anywhere for her scheduled events. Her 20-plus motorcade, led by half a dozen hulking black Chevy SUVs with Maryland and Washington DC plates, were filled with secret service men armed to the teeth and prone to searching every bag and body part as often as possible in an effort to keep Flotus — the First Lady of the United States, as she is known by White House staff — safe.

“That’s how we travel,” the aide next to me whispered as we flew down the highway towards Zandspruit to visit a childcare centre. “I always wonder what it’s really like … we never see any cars.”

Life in the Obama bubble means traffic disappears and speed limits do not apply. The downsides are your pee breaks are monitored, sniffer dogs check you for explosives and you constantly seem to go into lockdown and are told you cannot leave the premises.

You see, the Americans do not screw around. With robotic precision, they move in and out of an area with the help of dozens of well-dressed aides, and men and women in dark suits and ties and little white earpieces, and big men with cropped hair and khaki pants and golf shirts with guns strapped to their calves, and conduct an undertaking of untold magnitude with nearly flawless accuracy.

It’s a nice vantage point from which to take in the sights. And there were many. Obama arrived on Monday night at Waterkloof Airforce Base on White Star — a Boeing 757 that is her ride — with Malia, Sacha, her mother Marian Robinson, her niece Leslie Robinson and nephew Avery Robinson. After disembarking and walking down the red carpet, she nodded to the local press corps who had waited more than four hours for that shot, much of it in the freezing cold, hopped on to the motorcade and sped off into the darkness towards a Sandton hotel.

The next morning, she went to the US ambassador’s residence to shake hands with the likes of Moeletsi Mbeki, Winnie Mandela, Patrice Motsepe, Pregs Govender and Cheryl Carolus, among 100 others. She went on to meet Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, President Jacob Zuma’s second wife (a snub, screeched the international press, as Zuma was “unavailable” to meet). By 12.30pm, she was at the Mandela Foundation to meet Graça Machel and took a brief, sober look at some of the archives — no questions, please. After that, she went to see Nelson Mandela for a short visit — no press corps, thank you.

So it wasn’t until Zandspruit that we could really begin to see what Michelle Obama was selling. When the motorcade pulled down the makeshift road that led to the Emthonjeni Community Centre, the residents of the informal settlement waved excitedly from the sidelines — contained by hordes of national and metro police — their phones held high to get a shot of greatness.

The white press van suddenly came to a halt, the door swung open and Obama’s aide gave the order: “Go, go, go,” she said. And so we went, directed by the police and the secret service who swarmed in to secure the area.

The press corps was herded into a corner on the plot where the daycare centre sat. There was fresh paint on the tyres and the play structure and a group of stunned three- and four-year-olds waited dutifully to perform for the honoured guest.

We were assembled and we waited. And then, on cue, she entered. The cameras went off, clicks circling her like a swarm of locusts. Obama tickled the children, hugged them and then introduced her mom.

“I brought my mommy,” she said. “She came with me.” Then, flashing the Obama smile: “How y’all doin’?”

The kids sang for her and she would read to them. The first lady and first daughters’ choice: Dr Suess’s Cat in the Hat: Americana at its very best.

They practised for this reading. Each of them knew which section was theirs — yellow highlights and black underlining indicated who would say what — and Obama’s animated face and pitch of voice made you know this is what she’d rather be doing. Her mother stood on the sidelines, in a knitted beige sweater and light-blue ballet flats, grinning with pride at her daughter, her grandchildren and the kids at their feet.

We like Michelle Obama, too, Mrs Robinson. And it’s because you raised her so well. Somehow, we can relate to the woman born in 1964 as Michelle LaVaughn Robinson because we can see ourselves in her — even if she is a gorgeous, nearly 1.8m-tall African-American woman with flawless skin and a sense of style that landed her on the cover of Vogue.

Obama grew up in the most American of all places, the Midwest, Chicago, the daughter of a city worker who had multiple sclerosis and worked anyway because that’s what you do and a mother who stayed at home with the kids. Remarkable kids, it turns out. They would both skip second grade and end up at Princeton.

Obama got her law degree from Harvard and in 1992 married the son of an African immigrant and an American white woman, the first black man to hold the highest office of the most powerful country in the world — an even more stunning feat when you consider that blacks make up just 13% of the population there.

We like Michelle Obama because she’s beautiful and smart and humble. We like her because she loves Stevie Wonder and macaroni and cheese and working out. We like her because she’s a woman of the world, even if her future mother-in-law, born Stanley Ann Dunham, saw her differently.

According to the recently released A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott, Dunham, who was born in Kansas but spent much of her life overseas, wrote in a letter that Michelle was “nice”, “not beautiful but quite attractive” and “a little provincial and not as international as Barry”, the name the president went by for years.

Clearly, some things have changed since then.

After a few games with the kids — which had the first family, including grandma, gyrating their hips to the command of a bossy and undeterred four-year-old — it was game over. Back to the van. One of the administration’s high-ranking African advisors hitched a ride on the leg towards the Apartheid Museum. She spoke about how the president was committed to reaching out to youth on the continent. She talked about the young African women we’d soon meet who were chosen as part of the first lady’s plan to extend leadership opportunities. We’re in the new international order, she said.

“You have these emerging centres of power,” she told the group, “and South Africa is clearly one of those. It’s the economic engine of the continent.”

As the motorcade sped down Beyers Naude, one of the foreign correspondents muttered, mostly to himself, in disbelief at the unlikely placement of the squatter camp next to an upmarket commercial nursery.

Seconds later, trying to work out the conundrum, he gestured towards a sign. “Huh. Ladies kickboxing. This could be Orange County,” referring to an industrial surf town just south of Los Angeles.

The group would have found it fascinating to hear about our other conundrums of late: how the continent’s economic engine, which comes with ladies kickboxing and squatter camps, is kicking around ideas of nationalisation. Or about ANC Youth League plans to take US President Barack Obama to the International Criminal Court for bombing Libya.

But there was no time to chat. As soon as we arrived at the museum, the door swung open.

“Go, go, go,” the aide commanded and we grabbed our things and were ushered into an auditorium.

The young female leaders Obama had chosen — 76 of them between 16 and 30 — were lined up for a photo opportunity. She arrived and promptly ignored the row of cameras to turn to the young women before her.

“I want my girls to be just like you,” she told them.

And you know she meant it. Her girls are at the centre of her and her husband’s lives. It was the potential toxic exposure to the Oval Office that caused them to think long and hard about entering the race. Ultimately, it was the girls who pulled them towards it. “We want them to be able to dream of anything for themselves. I want my girls to travel the world with pride,” she told a crowd at the University of California, Los Angeles, in February 2008, just before 20 primary elections took place.

But truly? Obama knows that life’s more about luck — or the lack of it — than anything else. In The Audacity of Hope, Barack writes about the “hint of uncertainty” he found in his wife’s eyes, “as if, deep inside, she knew how fragile things really were, and that if she ever let go, even for a moment, all her plans might quickly unravel”.

And that’s why we like her, too. For knowing that it’s a game of chance, that not everything is as it seems and that it can all fall apart at a moment’s notice. And yet she forges ahead regardless.

According to a March 2008 profile in the New Yorker, before Obama got an increase at the hospital where she worked as an administrator in 2004 — which more than doubled her salary and came at the same time as her husband was elected to the Senate — she was making $121 910 a year, a respectable but certainly not an excessive salary for someone in her position. In the past seven years, the Obamas have been on one of the quickest rides to the top of the world-power and wealth class, any way you slice it.

It was not long ago, wrote Barack in The Audacity of Hope, that one afternoon when he was still a senator, he called his wife to tell her about important legislation he was working on, which would restrict the black-market arms trade.

She cut him off. There were more pressing issues:

“We have ants.”

“Huh?”

“I found ants in the kitchen. And in the bathroom upstairs.”

“Okay …”

“I need you to buy some ant traps on your way home tomorrow. I’d get them myself, but I’ve got to take the girls to their doctor’s appointment after school. Can’t you do that for me?”

“Right. Ant traps.”

And with that, she was gone, into a meeting, leaving Barack to wonder whether other senators had to pick up ant traps on the way home.

It’s the recent memory of real life that helps keep her honest. But it’s also because the Obamas are unabashedly American middle class. (“March,” she directed her own children at the daycare centre, commanding them to follow the marching nursery school children to the reading area. And her children obeyed. They also reportedly make their beds daily and walk the dog.)

The American Dream tells us if you work hard, go to school, are a good person and pay your bills on time, you’ll do alright. Hell, you’ll do better than that and you’ll certainly do better than your parents. But if you ask many Americans today they’ll tell you that it’s not so.

A recent Gallup poll found that less than 50% of Americans believed it likely that today’s youth would have a better life than their parents — the lowest on record since 1983.

Michelle Obama knows that all too well. In her speeches in the run-up to the election that would crown her husband king, she told stories of a broken America. Of a country where people who are lucky enough to go to university don’t finish paying off their debt until their own kids are in college. A place where if you get sick, you could go bankrupt because of the cracked healthcare system.

It’s no longer the country Obama grew up in, she told those potential voters. Back then, her father’s humble salary supported the family and got the kids through college. In today’s America, that sort of thing doesn’t happen. And she knows it.

Still, we like her. We like her because she is a good daughter, a good mother and a good wife. We like her because she talks straight and can’t seem to help herself from being anything but herself. We like her because she’s a cool customer who once said, according to the New York Times, that the only redeeming part about campaigning for her husband’s 2000 congressional bid was that “visiting so many living rooms had given her some new decorating ideas”.

On Wednesday, the press corps lined up their cameras and their pens to take down her speech at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, where so many years ago protesters took refuge from the apartheid security forces. From 4am, satellite trucks began lining residential streets.

Alf Khumalo queued up with the rest of the media to pick up his accreditation, to be in the front row yet again to document history.

“It’s symbolic,” he said of Obama’s visit to Regina Mundi. “It’s a historic moment. In some ways, our lives here in South Africa and the lives of African Americans are parallel.”

The pews slowly filled up, mainly with women from across the swaths of the middle classes. They came, young and old, gussied up and proud, and sat to hear Obama speak of hope for a better future, perhaps somehow to be touched by her good fortune, which might finally get them healthcare or a car or university degrees for their children.

Obama came to the podium and faced a packed house pulsing with excitement. As she spoke, she weaved together the shared and separate histories. She spoke of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy (the latter visited South Africa in 1966), and of Albertina and Walter Sisulu. She talked about the 1976 uprising and the struggle for freedom. She told us to hold our leaders to account, to stamp out corruption, to speak openly. She talked about her own career and how, when she graduated, she got a job at a fancy law firm with a nice salary and a big office.

“By all accounts, I was living the dream,” she said. “But I knew something was missing. I wanted to be down on the ground working with kids, helping families put food on the table and a roof over their heads.”

She went back to the community, she said, and encouraged others to do the same. “Not fortune, not fame, not your pictures in history books, but the refusal to remain a bystander when others are suffering, and that commitment to serve however you can, where you are.”

At the end, Obama, the woman who once had a clear distaste for politics and who has fame and fortune and her face in history books, had the crowd chanting: “Yes we can!”

Alas, Obama is far from home. Even before she had reached the podium, the claim on South Africa’s future was already staked out by Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane, who told the crowd at the tail end of her welcome address: “We want freedom in our lifetime. We want economic emancipation in our lifetime.” Her call was met with thunderous applause.

Which is the point. Freedom is ours — now we want our stuff.

What the Obamas are serving up is a big slice of apple-pie America with a generous dollop of hope. That “yes, we can” elect a black man president of the most powerful nation on the planet, so maybe, just maybe, we can change the course of this whole mess if ya’ll pitch in and help out.

The thing is, the American Dream as it was once packaged and promised is now dead.

What we’re working on now — Americans and South Africans alike — is faith more than anything. Faith that the world will get better, that we’ll get to send our kids to college, that the Earth won’t implode and that we won’t be eating cat food when we hit retirement. The Obamas do hope better than anyone.

But it’s not an easy sell. Because once you’ve tried something, once you’ve had a glimpse of the good life, tasted it even for just a moment, it’s hard to go back. It’s like going for a few rides in the first lady’s motorcade and witnessing firsthand the power of the US government, its sheer efficiency and might, so that driving yourself to Soweto on a Wednesday morning before sunrise, even if it is to see one of the most powerful women on the planet, suddenly turns you back into a pumpkin.

Mail & Guardian, June 24, 2011

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