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The Globe and Mail

America likes its first ladies all rose and no thorn

I've been listening to Michelle Obama read her new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. There are far worse ways to spend a day. She's got that great Chicago accent, for one thing, which reminds me of tall buildings and big skies. And I get to imagine her slapping Barack's hand when he reaches for the Doritos. (There's quite a bit of preaching about how she cleared junk food from the family kitchen, and only allows the girls dessert on Sunday.)

As well, the story of how she came to plant the first vegetable patch at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden is full of useless but wonderful trivia: Thomas Jefferson, for example, was obsessive in his quest to grow a four-foot cucumber, a fact I intend to bore people with from now until my death.

And yet, I kept wondering as Ms. Obama described her broccoli and figs, is a four-foot cucumber really the proper subject of study for a woman who has a law degree from Harvard? I would rather have listened to her opinions about unemployment, the Arab Spring or urban planning. I'm not saying that learning about vegetables and working to defeat childhood obesity aren't worthy goals; of course they are. They're just so safe.

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But Ms. Obama has clearly learned the Lesson of Hillary, which is, in short: "Estrange not the voter, especially during an election year." As Jodi Kantor notes in her biography The Obamas, the first lady is vigilant about not appearing to be a policy bossy boots, or a decorating dictator, like those who came before: "Openly influential first ladies like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton were deemed meddlers, unelected figures who held unearned power." Ms. Obama is determined to spend the coin of public goodwill more wisely, and if that means using fertilizer to help her husband get re-elected, so be it.

There is, of course, a soft-diplomacy precedent for this. As her husband campaigned for a second term in 1996, Ms. Clinton (I'd call her Ms. Rodham, but she'd been sanitized of her original name by then) was considered too pushy. She was "the smiling barracuda" to the right-wing press, and even Newsweek, when it featured her on the cover, asked readers, "Saint or Sinner?"

So what kind of response would you expect from "the only first lady who arrived at the White House with a five-page resumé," as one newspaper put it? In her husband's re-election year, she wrote a book about children. Literally, a motherhood issue. It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us showed a gentler Ms. Clinton who talked about her difficulties with breastfeeding and the challenges of bringing an infant home from the hospital.

True, she wrote about policy as well – education, health care – and it was no where near the literary nadir represented by another of Ms. Clinton's books, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets (I'll bet that doesn't make it onto the five-page resumé). Still, as a political ploy, it was both transparent and successful: It Takes a Village was a bestseller, and guess who got re-elected in 1996?

In its way, American Grown is an equally genius bit of pamphleteering. It could have been printed in red, white and blue ink, so often does it use words and images designed to stir a patriot's heart: harvest, hope, seeds that flourish. There's a pervasive nostalgia for a time when children rode their bikes alone after school, hard-working parents put vegetables on the dinner table and kids got sent to bed if they didn't eat them. It might as well have been titled We're All In This Together, Pilgrim.

The book details Ms. Obama's journey from neophyte gardener to Beltway Martha Stewart, but there is another message on offer: "Whatever detours or bumps in the road we would face, I was determined that this garden would succeed. Fortunately, it did. The seeds took root, the plants grew and produced all kinds of fruits and vegetables and each new season in our garden brought new gifts and lessons." I don't think we need the services of Bletchley Park to decode that one.

I love Ms. Obama. At least, I love the version of her that appears in Ms. Kantor's book: tetchy, driven, no-nonsense, incredibly smart, possessing a B.S. detector as sensitive as a truffle-sniffing dog's nose. I want to see more of that Michelle, but I fear it won't happen – at least not until she escapes the White House. The country wants its first lady to be all rose and no thorn.

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However, she can look to Ms. Clinton for inspiration of another kind.

In case you hadn't noticed, the U.S. Secretary of State gets to say what she thinks, often quite loudly, and people listen. One day, if we're lucky, the same might be true of the Gardener-in-Chief.

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