Drew Dixon Williams on Michael Jackson’s Legacy

July 7, 2009

Our dear friend Drew Dixon Williams has spent her life in the domains of politics and music, plotting the ascent of voices with the power to move us on all sorts of levels. She weighed in on Michael Jackson’s impact this week, on a website she recently launched called Second Ladies. Second Ladies is designed “to harness and sustain the enthusiasm about our phenomenal First Lady in order to build and support a community of similarly empowered women.” The site is an exciting platform, an explicit mechanism for fostering leadership, particularly among women.

A parade of commentators has tried to articulate Jackson’s influence over the last week, but Williams brings new insight to the discussion of how he changed music and culture forever. And while she says that she is “not altogether comfortable opining on a regular basis,” we hope this post is a sign of things to come. A taste below and the full link here:

As has been said many times in the barrage of media coverage following his death, MJ broke down barriers. He was the first black artist whose videos got played on MTV. His records defied the long-standing precedent of segregated airwaves to get airplay on rock and pop radio stations in the eighties. Those milestones were significant to be sure, but in my opinion, the biggest barriers that he broke down were psychological. His gift was so great that he transcended race, not just in terms of format, but in terms of feeling. All across the globe men, women and children let Michael Jackson get under their skin, even as his own skin morphed towards an ideal image of beauty that he himself was in the process of obliterating.

Unsolicited Advice for Michelle’s New Chief of Staff

June 7, 2009


  1. Congratulations.  Figuring out how to spend her political capital sounds like the greatest job in the world right now.
  2. Approval is not the same thing as impact.
  3. Don’t hide the arms. They’re the reason I still make it to the gym periodically, and I think I speak for millions.    
  4. Challenge the assumptions behind the substance v. style debate. We can handle the complexity of both. 
  5. Her comfort in her own skin inspires us. 
  6. Community service is a worthy priority. But service need not be limited to our national borders, and community need not be defined locally. Our fate will be determined by the health of our global neighborhood. 
  7. Resist learning too many lessons from Hillary’s political missteps in the East Wing.  Michelle is a different woman, and this is a different moment.
  8. Never forget that she helped to close the deal.  
  9. Consider infiltrating the Presidential Gifts Committee. 
  10. Most of us want to live in a world where she is fully unleashed.

The Hug

April 5, 2009


I find myself needing to spend a minute on The Hug. Apparently, in preparing for a royal audience, centuries of protocol can basically be summed up as “whatever you do, don’t touch the Queen.” Forget the curtsey/no curtsey debate. Forget never turning your back on royalty. In terms of national slights, forget even the last-minute trip to Best Buy last month when the Browns visited, and we belatedly remembered the British fetish for exchanging house-warming gifts. The one thing you don’t do is touch Her.

So what did Mrs. Obama have to go and do? She touched her.

And what happened next? Clive Aslet captured the moment in a magnificent Op-Ed tribute to the Queen in the UK’s Telegraph titled, “Now That’s A First Lady.”

And when Mrs Obama – no Lizard of Oz, as Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was dubbed when he dared to put his arm around the Queen in 1992 – committed a similar breach of protocol by placing her hand on the royal back, what was the response? Could one believe one’s eyes? A tiny gloved hand crept around the First Lady’s back, the arm attached to it too short to go more than half way. Is this what psychiatrists call the disinhibition of old age? No, the Queen perfectly judged the situation. She wanted the Obamas, two emotionally explicit people, to feel among friends. She bent the rules. She got it right. We knew she would.

As Aslet suggests, the moment that mattered was not Michelle’s “mistake,” but the Queen’s response to it. In a culture that is still coming to terms with the truth and pain of its racial history, the royal gesture was packed with meaning. The Queen is a living symbol of the worldview that all men are not really created so equal, a worldview that has done more damage to more people on a global scale than perhaps any other, particularly on the continent of Africa. And she chose not to enforce her aristocratic prerogative with this couple of African descent now at the helm of a former British colony.

Michelle invited the Queen to make a basic human connection. Premeditated or not, it was bold. But the truly revolutionary part was that Elizabeth took her up on it.