Why does everyone love Michelle Obama so much? Wait. That sounds like the wrong question. What's not to love, after all? She's smart, sassy, attractive, ambitious, successful; she has a gorgeous husband; two lovely, apparently well-adjusted kids. In many ways, the US First Lady exemplifies the perfect combination of grace and steel.
Let's put the question another way then: why did everyone hate Hillary Clinton?
Fair enough, not everyone. That's an exaggeration. But only slightly. It's easy to forget now how much antipathy the former first lady provoked when she first emerged on to the American political scene. Being smart, sassy, attractive, ambitious and successful didn't help her. Everything for which Michelle Obama is envied and adored were set down as black marks against Hillary Clinton's name. She just couldn't win.
She was even pilloried for having an allegedly undue influence over her husband's presidency. Critics called them "Billary", the construction of the name itself suggesting that she, the unelected consort, was the dominant influence.
The close alliance of the current president and first lady, by contrast, is approvingly regarded as the ultimate affirmation of their status as a power couple. Their joint nickname, Mobama, is used affectionately, in a way that Billary rarely was. Mobama, moreover, makes Michelle an addendum on to her husband's identity, rather than the pushy, nagging ball-breaker that was Hillary Clinton's common caricature.
The fact that the Clintons came as a team was never a secret, any more than it is for the Obamas. Nor is there anything wrong with it per se. Is it so bad for a politician to value the advice of a spouse rather than circles of highly paid flunkies? So why was Hillary deemed fair game for vilification for daring to have an office in the West Wing, where the action is, rather than in the East Wing, where first ladies had always, until then, confined themselves to overseeing the domestic life of the White House?
She was called shrill. Her fondness for trousers led to predictable jibes. Her hair was intimately analysed, not for style tips, as happens now with Michelle, but as material for further attack. There were T-shirts printed with the legend: "If only OJ had married Hillary instead." It didn't always come from the usual suspects either. Who can ever forget Clinton campaign consultant Dick Morris describing Hillary's laugh as "between a cackle and a screech", as if she was one of the witches in Macbeth? Imagine, meanwhile, if Hillary had described herself as a "busy single mother", as Michelle was quickly forgiven for accidentally doing not so long ago?
Even now that she's been a senator and secretary of state in her own right, Hillary commands respect rather than affection, whereas Michelle Obama continues to be treated with fawning sycophancy. Last week's RTE News special on her blink-and-miss-it visit to Dublin took Ireland's stereotypical craving for approval to an almost pathological level. Those who complained that the State broadcaster went overboard a few months ago in its coverage of the Papal Conclave were notable by their silence.
There is, of course, a sort of inverted racism at work here. Obama and his wife are shielded from criticism because of their race. As the first African American president and first lady, they're given the benefit of the doubt to a ludicrous extent. If they didn't like him or her, or what they were saying, many people still wouldn't admit it, because they wouldn't want to be seen to be racist. If a Republican president did half of what Obama does – sending drones to kill poor brown people on the other side of the world; spying on unprecedented numbers of US citizens – he'd be as infamous as Richard Nixon.
That's why Clare Daly was so magnificent last week for not falling for the deluge of PR-crafted BS about Obama which swept through Dublin on the couple's arrival on the island. The independent TD assessed him according to the same criteria by which she would assess any other president, and found both him and the "slobbering" media wanting. No politically correct kid gloves there. What Daly said struck a chord. The story was, for a time, the most read on the Irish Independent website, but RTE preferred instead to lather viewers with endless soft soap about Michelle and her very bored looking daughters tramping round Trinity College and Glendalough.
It's not just race, though. Part of it is the Cool Thing. Michelle Obama has that ease of engagement with popular culture which is now expected of public figures, who must "bust a move" on the dance floor and hand out Oscars. Coolness is the new tyranny, and Michelle, whilst hypocritically decrying the worship of superficial celebrity, is both its promoter and beneficiary.
Hillary, by contrast, was accurately summed up by Carl Bernstein, her less than flattering biographer, as a bit of a girl scout. Michelle Obama stays on non-threatening territory – campaigning against childhood obesity; turning the White House kitchens organic; delivering hokey cliches to young people at the Gaiety Theatre about how they should "dream about who you might become . . . become everything you want to be . . . believe in yourself". She's the equivalent of a beauty queen saying she wants world peace and people to be nicer to fluffy animals.
Hillary never hid either her seriousness or her earnestness, neither of which qualities are held in much esteem in women. Richard Nixon once quoted Cardinal Richelieu's words that "intellect in a woman is unbecoming". Hillary Clinton was always a victim of that prejudice against bookish bluestockings. Clever men rarely find their formidable intelligence held against them. Other things, yes, but not that. That the distaste for her intellectual mettle found such a receptive audience suggests we still have huge ambivalence about what we want from powerful women in public life.
We're pretty tough on female politicians – and by "we", I mean collectively as a society, but also specifically as women. Margaret Thatcher's very femininity was questioned because she didn't conform to cliche. Mary Harney was crucified by Irish feminists for the same reason. Joan Burton's getting it now. Feminists championed the cause of the Social Protection Minister, then knocked her down when she didn't behave, in office, as they had demanded. Too often women in power are not allowed to just get on with doing the job. They're shackled with expectations that are intimately tied up with the fact that they are women. In a way, the attacks on Hillary Clinton are a backhanded compliment to the fact that she's not afraid to get her hands dirty, and the worship of Michelle Obama an unintended insult, a sign that we're not taking her seriously.
At least, not yet. It may change. The First Lady is still young. When Barack leaves the White House, she'll still be two years younger than Hillary was when Clinton's second term ended. Michelle has a long career ahead of her, if she chooses to follow it. Maybe then the slobbering will end, and she too will find that women in public life are safe as long as they stay fluffy and non-controversial – or even when they lock themselves in an ideologically pure ghetto, like feminist virgin queens, far from the messy compromises of high office – but once they get down and dirty in real politics, they all come in for the Hillary Clinton treatment eventually.