Barack and Michelle Obama’s return to the White House for the unveiling of their portraits was a joyous occasion. It was also evocative in any number of ways—most notably, a reminder of the importance of peaceful rituals involving the transfer of power.
If you haven’t seen any of the coverage, I’ve included above the only brief video I could find.
I found the comments by President Biden, former President Obama, and especially former First Lady Michelle Obama extremely meaningful. But our current First Lady’s remarks stayed with me.
She spoke last, closing the presentation. In her reminiscences, she captured—and reignited—the joy, promise, and hope that so many millions of Americans felt when Obama was elected.
Some may have found her remarks disturbingly naive—even discordant—as they depicted a time so vastly different from today. But to me, that was their value.
“Fourteen years ago — fourteen years ago, Michelle — on a cool night in November, a sea of people gathered in Grant Park to be a part of history. There was laughter and music and dancing.
“There were tears as friends and strangers alike held each other, overwhelmed with the joy that hope and change had been realized. The crowd roared, radiating the sense that anything we could dream was within our reach…
“That night, your family connected us all. And our family — the Obama-Biden team, every one of you who were ‘fired up and ready to go’ — together we changed the course of this country forever.
“And when I look at these portraits, I see family — your family, the family we all built, and the families across America that we served together. I see love, joy, and fellowship. And we are honored to hang them today and share them with the world.”
I am well aware that the despicable white nationalism that threatens our country today was fueled by the historic Obama Presidency, when the brilliant and gifted couple and their two darling daughters ascended to the White House. And I recall the awful racism that the magnificent Michelle Obama withstood with unerring grace.
But I can’t help recalling as well that there were more than a few Americans who voted for Obama—not once, but twice—and then voted for that awful man who declined to invite them to have their portraits unveiled. (And wow, do I hope there’s some way to prevent portraits of him and his wife from ever reaching those hallowed walls!)
Knowing all she knows, and having experienced the worst of America, Michelle Obama—like Jill Biden—stressed unity in her remarks.
She noted that this portrait ceremony “is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country.
“Because as Barack said, if the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then, again, it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can, too.
“That is what this country is about. It’s not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It’s a place where everyone should have a fair shot, whether you’re a kid taking two buses and a train just to get to school; or a single mother who is working two jobs to put some food on the table; or an immigrant just arriving, getting your first apartment, forging a future for yourself in a place you dreamed of.
“That’s why, for me, this day isn’t about me or Barack. It’s not even about these beautiful paintings. It’s about telling that fuller story — a story that includes every single American in every single corner of this country so that our kids and grandkids can see something more for themselves.
“And as much as some folks might want us to believe that that story has lost some of its shine, that division and discrimination and everything else might have dimmed its light, I still know deep in my heart that what we share — as my husband continues to say — is so much bigger than what we don’t. Our democracy is so much stronger than our differences.
“And this little girl from the South Side is blessed beyond measure to have felt the truth of that fuller story throughout her entire life, never more so than today.
The haters and the destroyers have had far too big a megaphone in this country. Some say they represent no more than thirty percent of Americans. Even if that’s optimistic, they certainly don’t represent the majority.
We mustn’t let the cowards who refuse to denounce them seize control. There were reasons for the “magic” that Jill Biden said the Obamas brought to the White House. They brought out the best in us.
We honor them—and the decent, kind, and loving Bidens—and our own futures by remembering the feelings we had then, knowing those feelings were real and true and were held not only by us, but also by many whom we may now regard as lost.