RSS
Michelle Obama's heckler standoff: Who won?
The first lady confronted a heckler at a fundraiser on Tuesday evening. Was losing her cool... cool?
 
First Lady Michelle Obama during a soundcheck before the Democratic National Convention in September 2012 in Charlotte, N.C. 
First Lady Michelle Obama during a soundcheck before the Democratic National Convention in September 2012 in Charlotte, N.C.  Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Political figures can choose to handle hecklers in lots of ways. Taegan Goddard runs through some successful techniques at The Week, from the NRA's Wayne LaPierre simply waiting for security to usher the interrupter out, to Ronald Reagan telling a gadfly to "shut up" in 1980. President Obama has become quite deft at using charm to disarm hecklers — and he's had some practice.

First Lady Michelle Obama showcased an unusual heckler strategy on Tuesday. "One of the things that I don't do well is this," she said, staring down a gay-rights activist who interrupted her speech at a private Democratic Party fundraiser. (Listen to the interruption below) "Do you understand?" According to a reporter present, Obama then walked from the lectern and approached the heckler, later identified as Ellen Sturtz, 56, of the gay-rights group GetEqual.

"Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving," Obama told Sturtz, according to the reporter. "You all decide. You have one choice." The audience, which had paid between $500 and $10,000 to attend, obviously chose the first lady — loudly — and a woman near Sturtz told her, "You need to go."

"She came right down in my face," Sturtz told The Washington Post, after being escorted out of the room. "I was taken aback."

Normally, the reaction to anything Obama-related falls pretty cleanly along partisan lines. That wasn't quite true in this case. Here's conservative pundit John Podhoretz, of Commentary:

And the more liberal Nicholas Kristof, of The New York Times:

Adam Martin at New York described Michelle Obama's reaction as "downright steely," suggesting that the first lady "must have been somewhat taken aback," too, because she isn't usually the recipient of heckling. Gawker's Taylor Burman allowed that Obama's response was "not quite as graceful as her husband's two weeks ago," when the president respectfully handled constant interruptions from Code Pink's Medea Benjamin during a major foreign policy speech.

At Queerty, John Gallagher is less sympathetic to Sturtz. "GetEqual likes to pride itself on its confrontational tactics," he said, but Sturtz was "taken aback" when Obama got in her face? Sorry, no. "Rule one in politics: If you dish it, you better be able to take it."

Oh please, says Elizabeth Scalia at Patheos. Handling hecklers is part of the first lady's job description.

Was the heckler out of line? Sure. But it's the heckler's nature to be out of line, and that's when a bit of grace or wit puts things aright. Saying "I can't deal…" that's a deficiency the office can't afford.... Free citizens are allowed to question, to mock, and even to heckle, as long as they're not inciting violence. And you're the first lady of a nation that, we are told, still honors this idea.... Yes, yes, the peasants are revolting. But in America, they still get to hoist up their slacks and bellow their questions. And you get to answer them like a lady. Like the first lady. Not, however, like the queen. [Patheos]

No, "good for Michelle Obama," says David D. at Uproxx. "I may be imagining things but it seems like the Obamas have been heckled and shouted at more than any other presidential family since the Clevelands." (Was Grover Cleveland routinely heckled? "I have no idea," D. says.) Look, "trolls gonna troll, as they say in my cul-de-sac," and Michelle Obama handled her heckler "in the most boss way possible," he says. In fact, the president could learn a thing or two from his wife — and so could hecklers."These idiots who have been yelling at these press conferences make me want to oppose their causes out of spite."

So on the evening's tally sheet, Michelle Obama and Ellen Sturtz both got mixed press for their confrontational tactics, but Sturtz is out $500. On the other hand, people are now talking about Sturtz's cause: Getting President Obama to sign an executive order to ban federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or identity — essentially a weaker, executive version of the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Earlier Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney had reiterated Obama's support for passing ENDA in Congress rather than signing an executive order. But in 2008, BuzzFeed's Chris Greider says, then-candidate Obama told a Houston LGTB group that he supported a "formal written policy of non-discrimination that includes sexual orientation and gender identity or expression... for all federal contractors."

You could call Obama's not signing an ENDA-like executive order an "unfulfilled commitment," then, says Tommy Christopher at Mediaite. But it fits this president's modus operandi. "Obama has presided over an unprecedented expansion of LGBT rights, but has consistently favored legislative action over exercises of executive authority, dating back to his early refusal to suspend discharges under the now-repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy."

Here's audio of the confrontation:

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week