LYNN SWEET: First lady’s tough stand against violence is long overdue
BY LYNN SWEET Twitter: @lynnsweet April 10, 2013 9:08PM
On Wednesday, April 10, 2013, First Lady Michelle Obama joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a coalition from Chicago's business and philanthroptic communities to support successful community-based programs that serve at-risk youth, at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, Wednesday, April 10, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: May 12, 2013 2:19PM
The usually cautious first lady Michelle Obama came home Wednesday to voluntarily plunge herself into a controversy, speaking out for the first time on two life-and-death matters: On preventing youth violence in Chicago and the need for Congress to at least vote on gun control measures.
To this I can only add: Finally.
What is the point of being one of the most popular people in the U.S. with a powerful platform if you don’t use it. I just hope Mrs. Obama’s era of being risk-averse is over — when it comes to protecting kids in her city, my city, our city.
I’ve covered Mrs. Obama for years and never saw her as emotional in public as she was in delivering her speech before some 800 Chicagoans at the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan.
They were gathered together by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to help bolster the fund-raising he is leading to create a $50 million pot of money to finance a variety of programs to help at-risk Chicago kids. Wednesday marked the first time Mrs. Obama has lent her considerable support specifically to a Chicago project.
What triggered Mrs. Obama’s breaking up — tearful and choking on some of her words — was her recounting of attending the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year old King College Prep student shot to death last January in a park about a mile from the Obama family home in Kenwood.
Hadiya’s horrible death profoundly impacted Mrs. Obama — raised on the South Side, a product of Chicago’s public schools and park district summer camps — because she heavily identified with the Pendleton family — which struck her as very similar to her own.
One could almost hear the unspoken words, “but for the love of God this tragedy could have fallen on me or my own,” when Mrs. Obama talked about meeting Hadiya’s parents at the funeral.
“What I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family. Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her. But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine.”
Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley was at the luncheon and he told me afterwards, “I’ve never seen that kind of emotion, I’ve never seen that depth of feeling.”
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Hadiya’s mother, told me afterward, “I was very appreciative she took my family story so sincerely. Choking up, her sister, Kimiko Cowley-Pettis completed her thought, that it was very meaningful that Mrs. Obama “compared herself and her upbringing to Hadiya’s.”
The White House on Tuesday was downplaying the possibility that Mrs. Obama was going to comment on the series of measures proposed by President Barack Obama to curb gun violence pending in Congress. Usually, Mrs. Obama does not go near anything controversial. And everything about gun control is controversial.
Instead, the suggestion was that Mrs. Obama would be handling in her speech the less controversial aspects of the comprehensive approach needed to reduce violence — not getting into gun-control — instead focusing on behavioral, educational, and mentoring programs such as the ones Emanuel wants to underwrite serving Chicago youths.
But these are make-or-break days for the gun-control measures. The Senate is poised to start a series of major votes on gun bills on Thursday — first having to dispose of a Republican filibuster threat that could block everything.
The White House has been looking for enough GOP senators to put together a 60-vote filibuster-proof coalition. And Mrs. Obama on Wednesday joined in the push, crossing the invisible line she, and her handlers, have been drawing for years to keep her out of the fray.
Jumping in, Mrs. Obama said, “Right now, my husband is fighting as hard as he can, and engaging as many people as he can, to pass commonsense reforms to protect our children from gun violence. And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress.”
We don’t know yet if Mrs. Obama has actually started a new activism. I hope her first efforts to help Chicago’s at-risk kids — and prod Congress to curb gun violence — won’t be her last.