Video + story: First Lady wows donors, Vermont National Guard members during whirlwind visit to Vermont

First Lady Michelle Obama hugs a Vermont National Guard member after speaking at the Army Aviation Support Facility at the Vermont National Guard airfield in South Burlington on Thursday June 30, 2011. Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist
First Lady Michelle Obama hugs a Vermont National Guard member after speaking at the Army Aviation Support Facility at the Vermont National Guard airfield in South Burlington on Thursday June 30, 2011. Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist.

Editor’s note: Kate Robinson contributed original reporting from the fundraising reception at the Sheraton Hotel. The video is from CCTV. A “pooled” report about the ECHO Lake dinner from Molly Walsh, a reporter for the Burlington Free Press, is included at the end of this story.

For Vermont, the first day of the next presidential election season began yesterday, with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, addressing three audiences in rapid succession during a six hour visit to the state. En route to the Green Mountains, she met with a select audience of about 125 people on Thursday, including Gov. Deval Patrick and his wife, at a private house in Chestnut Hill, Mass. That fundraiser was expected to garner about $600,000. Here in Vermont, two sold-out events, one with tickets beginning at $100 and the other with a cost of $2,500 to $5,000 per person, produced an estimated $500,000.

Mrs. Obama also visited with Vermont National Guard members and their families in a distinctly nonpolitical event.

At all three venues her rock star presence wowed the small crowds. In South Burlington, at the Vermont National Guard event, Mrs. Obama gave a candid and personal speech that lasted about 15 minutes. When she stopped speaking, the audience of about 700 — veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their families — quietly surged toward Mrs. Obama en masse for an opportunity to see her face to face and shake her hand.

At the reception that followed at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Burlington, Mrs. Obama took the stage to rapturous applause. In a 25-minute speech, she conveyed a sense of empathy with Americans who have fallen on hard times, and she communicated her husband’s commitment to bettering the lives of middle class Americans. She also expressed a keen awareness that the coming re-election campaign will be a long, hard-fought battle set against the backdrop of a conservative backlash that has gripped much of the country. Though the Tea Party movement has had little influence on Vermont politics, far-right entrenchment in Congress and states across the country has led to radical policy and budgetary proposals. The president, who is a Democrat, has tried to find middle ground with the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. Last week, however, he assailed super-rich Americans who aren’t contributing their fair share to the nation’s coffers.

Mrs. Obama said she has overcome her “cynicism” about politics because the president listens to the stories of Americans who are struggling, and he has taught her that solving the nation’s problems in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse is a matter of making step-by-step, hard-won progress.

The First Lady reiterated this theme of empathetic connection with the difficulties ordinary Americans face in all three speeches.

At the Democratic fundraisers, it’s not surprising that audiences fully embraced her message. She was, after all, speaking to the choir.

Not so at the Vermont National Guard event where a number of military personnel interviewed for this story said they didn’t vote for Mrs. Obama’s husband in 2008. Still, they said they respected President Barack Obama’s role as commander in chief, with remarks such as, “He’s the boss.”

But even in this somewhat reserved and skeptical crowd, Mrs. Obama won many hearts and minds. Members of the military who were interviewed afterward said they were personally touched by Mrs. Obama’s grasp of Vermont’s citizen-soldier tradition.

In her speech, Mrs. Obama drew attention to the state’s commitment to President Obama’s “surge” strategy in Afghanistan. Vermont, last year, had the largest deployment of troops from the Vermont National Guard since World War II. The state also has a number of active duty military personnel in the Marines, the Navy, the Army and the Air Force who participated in both Middle East conflicts.

Anticipation for Mrs. Obama’s speech started to build two hours before her arrival. Vermont National Guard members and active duty military quietly began filtering into the hangar-like Army Aviation Support Facility in South Burlington early on Thursday afternoon. Men and women in desert camouflage, and civilians, many of whom were relatives of the uniformed active duty and Guard Members, waited patiently. As a Guard jazz played pop and jazz standards, veterans and their families whiled away the time by catching up with old friends and entertaining the many small children in the crowd. When the First Lady finally strode onto the dais, they stood and cheered.

They weren’t disappointed. Obama’s message to the guard members was simple and to the point: “Thank you.” The First Lady told the more than 600 Vermont National Guard members and active duty military personnel, most of whom had been on at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan and/or Iraq over the last 10 years, that their hard work and personal sacrifice would not be overlooked or forgotten.

She compared their transformation from ordinary Americans who work full-time as “teachers, and firefighters, and doctors” and then go off to war for yearlong turns overseas to “the Clark Kent/Superman routine.” Their neighbors and friends, she said, may not understand that in addition to coaching Little League and taking turns in the carpool, they are “serving and sacrificing right alongside active duty members of our military.”

“So I come here today on behalf of a grateful nation to say two simple words that you all should hear every single day: Thank you,” Mrs. Obama said. “And I come here to celebrate the people who serve right alongside you without ever wearing a uniform: your amazing families, our heroes right here at home.”

Mrs. Obama lauded the strength of individuals and families that have endured the death of loved ones and those who survived injuries in the war effort. Before she gave her brief remarks, she met with members of Gold Star Families who lost relatives in Afghanistan or Iraq, including Janet Merchant, whose son Spc. Christopher Merchant was killed in Iraq in 2006, and Regina Meckle, whose son Pfc. Kyle Gilbert was killed in action in Iraq in 2003.

Michelle Obama speaking in South Burlington on Thursday. Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist.
Michelle Obama speaking in South Burlington on Thursday. Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist.

Dave Smith, a member of the Vermont Air Guard, said: “I think the biggest thing was, I felt she understood the National Guard and the military. I feel she was speaking to me. She talked about the specific challenges the Guard and the military face.”

Smith was impressed with Mrs. Obama’s “Joining Forces” program, which is designed to promote awareness of the sacrifices military families make.

The First Lady said every federal agency has been asked to meet nearly 50 goals – “everything from improving access to mental health care and childcare to helping spouses and veterans find jobs.” The administration is working with businesses and nonprofits to ensure that military spouses who have to move duty stations can find work with companies like Siemens, Sears, Kmart and Sam’s Club. The program includes support for 16,000 veterans and spouses who want to start businesses.

“So we’ve put out a call to action,” Mrs. Obama said. “Our motto is very simple: Everyone can do something. All people have to do is ask themselves one question, and that is: ‘What can I do to give back?’”

First Lady’s VIP soirees

Vermont may not have the financial clout of Boston—though it is rumored that more was raised here than in the Boston-area appearance—but judging from the frequent applause and cheering during the First Lady’s appearance at the Sheraton Hotel in the afternoon, it did deliver likely voters, donors and volunteers for the 2012 Obama campaign. A woman in the crowd sang out “We love you, Michelle” just after she began speaking which drew both laughter and applause.

There was another practical purpose to this campaign swing beyond helping to raise some $60 million in the second quarter of 2011 for the Obama 2012 run. The 25-minute speech Mrs. Obama gave closely paralleled the speech, reported in Boston.com, that she had given in Chestnut Hill earlier in the day. This second round was an opportunity to hone a campaign speech she will be taking to other states soon.

Mrs. Obama used a teleprompter, but she spoke fluently and for the most part with ease as she underscored the need for activism among Obama supporters and for being “in it for the long haul” to achieve Democratic goals such as improving life for the middle class, assuring healthy food for Americans, particularly children through school programs, and uniting the country in “nation-building” at home instead of abroad as troops come home.

Among the points that drew the most applause were Mrs. Obama’s call for a clean energy economy, equal pay for equal work for women, proper support for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and assurances that as the U.S. balances its budget it continues to support college education funding, such as Pell grants, good public schools and continuing tax relief for the middle class.

In a small roped-off area in front of the stage a select group stood wearing yellow rubber bracelets. The young man standing guard would not or could not explain what beyond the wearing of the bracelet explained this privileged upfront position, but the speculation was that these were the donors who had paid $500, the top end of the scale for the reception.

At the dinner event held at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, 100 guests gave Mrs. Obama more than one standing ovation as she urged them to help campaign for her husband’s reelection and finish the work started in his first campaign.

At the end of a speech at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, she asked “Are you in?” The crowd responded “Yeah.” She returned with “I love you all. Are you fired up? … We have to do this.”

Under tight security that included K9s and Secret Service agents, the first lady arrived at the aquarium as the guests at the $5,000-per-plate dinner ate seared beef tenderloin with roasted shrimp and shaved radishes, herbed bulgar salad and arugula bearnaise sauce.

Guests included former Gov. Howard Dean, utility executive Mary Powell, Burlington lawyer Jerome O’Neill, Sen. Patrick Leahy and his wife Marcelle, Peter Welch and his wife, and Gov. Shumlin and one of his daughters.

Jane Stetson of Norwich, the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairwoman, introduced the first lady, and extolled her energy and dedication. She talked about her friendship with the first lady and her husband Barack Obama and joked that she had a “girl crush” on the first lady.

Michelle Obama stepped up to the microphone at 6:41 p.m. She said “Vermont is beautiful. We will be back.” She mentioned the good skiing, good ice cream and warm people.

Michelle Obama credited her husband with taking an economy that was on the brink to “an economy that’s starting to grow again.” She said that because of the president’s health care reform “millions of folks will finally be able to afford a doctor.” And because her husband pushed for the elimination of don’t ask-don’t tell, “Our troops will never again have to lie about who they are.”

She also gave her husband credit for the operation that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, saying the al-Qaida leader has been brought to justice. “That happened under this presidency.”

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Anne Galloway

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  • Relevance to Vermont: ZERO

    Importance: close to zero

    Glitterati fawning: priceless

    • Penny Chevalier

      @boardman: Sourpuss!

  • Terry Bequette

    It was obviously (repeat: obviously!) relevant to the members of the guard and their families in attendance.