Michelle Obama heckled: How'd she handle it?

Tuesday night was a rare moment of unscripted anger from Michelle Obama, who has generally avoided direct political confrontation and has approval ratings higher than those of her husband.

Molly Riley/AP
President Obama and first lady Michelle leave after visiting Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, in Arlington, Va. Mrs. Obama threatened to walk out of a Washington fundraiser Tuesday night after a heckler interrupted her speech.

Michelle Obama threatened to walk out of a Washington fundraiser Tuesday night after a heckler interrupted her speech.

It was a rare moment of unscripted anger from a first lady who has generally avoided direct political confrontation and has approval ratings higher than those of her husband.

“Heckling at fund-raisers is a fairly common practice, but it’s almost always directed at the president, which is why Michelle Obama must have been somewhat taken aback,” writes Adam Martin in New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer.

The incident occurred as Mrs. Obama was speaking at a Democratic National Committee event in a private home in Washington’s posh Kalorama neighborhood. She was already wound up, speaking urgently, even pointedly, about the children at a high school in a tough neighborhood of Chicago that she had recently visited.

“Right now, today, we have an obligation to stand up for those kids,” she said.

Then Ellen Sturtz, an activist from the gay rights group GetEQUAL, began yelling for President Obama to sign an executive order to protect gays and lesbians working for federal contractors from employment discrimination.

Mr. Obama promised to sign such an order as a candidate in 2008, but has yet to do so, pointed out GetEQUAL in a press release following the incident.

Still, the first lady was not pleased about the interruption.

“One of the things I don’t do well is this, do you understand?” Mrs. Obama said.

According to audio recordings of the event, she then threatened to leave if the heckler didn’t stop. The crowd was behind the first lady for the most part, chanting “stay!”

A media pool report quoted Mrs. Obama as saying to Ms. Sturtz, “Listen to me or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

(This bit got left out of the official White House transcript of the event, though.)

The heckler – who had bought a ticket to the fundraiser and was thus entitled to attend – was then escorted from the room. Mrs. Obama stayed and finished her speech.

What can we tell from this? For one thing, for all her ease on “Ellen” and other shows, Mrs. Obama still has stuff to learn about public speaking.

Anger is much less effective than humor or a sort of rope-a-dope flexibility. Mr. Obama showed this in his May 23 speech on counterterrorism at the National Defense University. He was interrupted by Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin, whom he engaged in a bit of back-and-forth before saying, “This is part of free speech, is you being able to speak but also you listening and me being able to speak.”

He got applause for that. Of course, it was easy for him be relaxed: He was on a secure Defense Department installation.

Mrs. Obama might just have been channeling her inner parent. She sounded a bit like someone speaking to a teenager who’s neglected homework to watch “Arrested Development.” Perhaps this is why Sasha and Malia seem so well behaved.

And she has given some ammunition to critics who consider her a food scold and too nannylike. Some conservatives complain about Mrs. Obama’s push for kids to eat more vegetables and so on as an intrusion into parental prerogatives. Critics were quick to point out that the White House did not include most of Mrs. Obama’s response Tuesday night in its transcript. Coverup, anyone?

Maybe. It’s also possible it wasn’t included because she left the stage during the incident and it wasn’t recorded on the official mike.

Finally, we’ll note that this is not the first time the first lady has encountered audience animosity. She and second lady Jill Biden were booed at a NASCAR race in Florida in November 2011.

Mrs. Obama’s experience was mild compared to what Lady Bird Johnson went through in the fall of 1964 when she campaigned in the South for her husband. LBJ had just signed the Civil Rights Act, and many white Southerners were incensed. In Richmond, Va., Mrs. Johnson was greeted by a banner that read, “Fly Away Lady Bird.”

But she pressed on, giving 47 speeches to a total of half a million people.

“I am aware that there are those who would exploit [the South’s] past troubles to their own advantage," she said on Oct. 9, 1964, in New Orleans. "But I do not believe the majority of the South wants any part of the old bitterness.”

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