First Lady Michelle Obama at St. Jude
As would be learned later, Barack Obama, president of the United States, would find time on Wednesday to visit to an elementary school somewhere, and video snatches of the event — including attempts by the President to be playful with the schoolkids, fingering the modified Mohawk hairdo of one boy and inviting another child to feel his own close-trimmed head hair —turned up-on the evening news broadcasts.
His wife Michelle had been dealing with children, too — right here in River City. She came to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, ostensibly to be escorted on a tour and get a sense of the dedicated and innovative care that children with cancer were receiving at the fabled treatment center, but more importantly, perhaps, to impose on the hospital’s stricken but hopeful young charges the magic of her own presence.
She joked, she gently probed, she asked the kids of St. Jude boilerplate questions for the most part — “Do you like sport?” “What’s your favorite team? — but did so in such way as to merit — and draw — real answers and extended dialogues.
Most importantly, she developed relationships, both with the children — most of them bald from the effects of their treatment, with no hair to tousle, but heartwarmingly cheerful — and with their parents, who rimmed the small playroom Wednesday as onlookers and hailed from near and far, one child telling the First Lady that he was from Ukraine, though his accent bore little trace of such a place.
They do come from all over, though, to have their illnesses dealt with, and, as anyone knows who pays close attention to St. Jude’s various public testimonials and promotions, on television and elsewhere, the place of their destination mystifyingly remains unaddressed in such presentations. This is not happenstance; it is a matter of policy, as a spokesman for the hospital acknowledged to a meeting of the Memphis Rotary Club last year.
He was asked to explain, and his explanation had been simultaneously forthright and unclear. It had to do with fundraising strategies, he suggested, and with creating an image of St. Jude as beyond geography — like some therapeutic Camelot, as it were. But there was also just a tinge, it seemed, of wanting to avoid express identification with Memphis, Tennessee. In any case, those two words are — never or almost so— spoken in St. Jude’s conversations with the world.
But they will be coupled, in various datelined accounts, with the visit of First Lady Michelle Obama to the city and to the famous hospital on Wednesday, and that is an ancillary benefit for us to be pleased with, surely.
"I think it's really important to highlight the great work that's going on here,"the First Lady said, adding pointedly, "If you haven't noticed, when I go somewhere, cameras follow."
The main beneficiaries of Wednesday's evebt were, of course, the young patients — whose conversations with the smiling, teasing, keenly interested Michelle Obama evoked vistas beyond the hospital walls — gaily decorated as these (at least in the playroom) were. Guided by her, these children were led into imagining lives and livelihoods and adventures yet to be had and places yet to be seen and visited. She invited them to imagine a future, and so they did.
She jested with a couple of mothers about being so taken with their children that she wanted to take them with her. “But not tonight,” responded one, clearly flattered. “I can have her ready in an hour,” said another, equally delighted.
This Obama seemed nothing at all like the wonky, rugged, disciplined woman of so many news reports. There was a gorgeousness about her that didn’t necessarily make it to her published photos. She looked like nothing so much as a movie star.
And a down-to-earth one at that. Asked if she liked to play with the First Couple's dogs, Michelle Obama was rueful about the animals' sense of priority. "They don't care about us when there's food around."
Asked about the advantages of being Fist Lady, Obama acknoledged such perks as meeting personages like the Pope, the Queen of England, Beyonce,,,, "And you guys," she said, by way of highlighting her list "This is cool stuff for me."
A child asked: Would she be willing to do a selfie with the patient group? "We'll do a self-ie, an us-sie, a you-sie, a we-sie, whatever you guys want to do," Michelle Obama answered.
And, at the end of her chat with the patients and their parents, she did just that, posing for a group portrait.
For something like an hour on Wednesday, in front of a watching and fascinated press corps who had waited a good two hours for her late plane to arrive, she had supplied the children of St. Jude with something beyond the well-known state-of-the-art treatment and the committed care-giving of the famous institution.
She turned the place into a kind of Camelot, all right — right here in Memphis, Tennessee.