‘To me, he was sort of like a unicorn,’ writes Mrs Obama, looking back on her courtship days with Barack. He was affectionate, loving, secure and brainy. Very brainy. ‘He consumed volumes of political philosophy as if it were beach reading.’ He was laid back but his sense of purpose was strong. ‘Barack was serious without being self-serious. He was breezy in his manner but powerful in his mind. It was a strange, stirring combination.’ In a languid late-night moment, she asks a penny for his thoughts. ‘Oh, I was just thinking about income inequality.’
This book takes you right back to those days when we all fell in love with Obama. The weirdly effective thing about a First Lady — or theoretically a First Husband, would he were imminent — is that they operate on the very softest side of politics, all heart, trust and gut feeling. The less overtly political a spouse is, the more effective they are, crossing the political divide, disarming, humanizing. Michelle is obviously as Democrat as they come, but she doesn’t harp on policy, party and polls. To her people are people, not votes. This book is the perfect antidote to, say, Tim Shipman. It describes no plotting, no calculation. In fact it sloshes with the milk of human kindness. It brings a glow, a soul to politics. When Obama asks her if he can run for office, she is reluctant but finally: ‘I said yes because I loved him and had faith in what he could do.’
It sounds gloopy, but Michelle Obama is too intelligent for that. She doesn’t do inane. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson grew up in a loving, working-class family on the south side of Chicago. She writes vivid, condensed portraits of her relatives. Great Uncle Terry had been a Pullman porter and ‘lived in a state of numbed formality — impeccably dressed, remotely servile, never asserting himself in any way, at least that I would see. It was as if he’d surrendered a part of himself as a way of coping.’ Her father Fraser ‘went to work every day in the blue uniform of a city laborer, but at night he showed us what it meant to love jazz and art’.
She was a tiny over-achiever, ‘ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was shooting for’. She knew what it was to feel cut off from affluent areas, to put up with the stuff which wears you down, such as the long ride to her college: ‘There’s no hurrying a bus ride, I can tell you. You get on and you endure.’ Her mother’s intervention made sure she skipped a grade in which the teacher had lost control of the class; a program that taught gifted and talented students apart from the rest of her school readied her for Princeton. As a student there she affected a relaxed demeanor but ‘lived like a half-closeted CEO, quietly but unswervingly focused on achievement’.
After Harvard Law School, she started climbing the ranks at a prestigious law firm, which is when she met the Unicorn. She was circumspect at first, appalled when he lit a cigarette during their first lunch together, and raised an eyebrow at his clothes (he was ‘unaccustomed to work attire’, as she puts it). She began to realize he was ‘so unusual, he seemed almost unreal’. He fasted on Sundays and spent all his money on books and newspapers. He wasn’t interested in making money, or even having a car ‘that wasn’t embarrassing’. ‘Like me, he’d never had it and he didn’t aspire to it, either. He wanted to be effective far more than he wanted to be rich.’ She was more established professionally, more ready to support a family. He was the dreamer. In the classic karmic dynamic of a good marriage, it is hard to say who was luckier to find the other.
The highly effective habits of Michelle Obama are something to behold. As a mother of small children, she thought nothing of starting at 4.45a.m. a couple of times a week so that she could fit in work-outs before the school run. Always fastidious, she struggled with Barack’s untidiness and lateness; with the books and papers spilling onto the floor of his bachelor pad. She made sure that in their first home he had a space for his mess, ‘a crowded, book-strewn bunker I referred to lovingly as the Hole’. She has come to understand that, even on holiday, he has to have a Hole; a bookish hatch that can open ‘directly into the spacious skies of his brain’.
Politics was not attractive to her but she was consistently involved in innately political action, such as mentoring and non-profit organizations. Occasionally she lets out a sharp political insight, such as the way Harold Washington in Chicago was overloaded with hope:
We’d made the mistake of putting all our hopes for reform on the shoulders of one person, without building the political apparatus to support his vision… When Harold Washington died, most of the energy he’d generated did, too.
She doesn’t explicitly link this with Obama, but the inference is there.
Their marriage coincided with her move from corporate law into the public sector. Barack stepped into state politics and was away from home four nights a week, voting in Springfield while, home alone, she pursued the invasive IVF treatment they needed for their longed-for family. Reports may have told you this is one of the book’s big ‘reveals’, but you cannot know until you read it how very thoughtfully and justly she describes it all, and with a dash of dramatizing vim, too:
It was maybe then that I felt the first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakeable commitment to the work. Or maybe I was just feeling the acute burden of being female. Either way, he was gone, and I was here, carrying the responsibility…. None of this was his fault, but it wasn’t equal either, and for any woman who lives by the mantra of equality that can be a little confusing. It was me who’d alter everything, putting my passions and career dreams on hold, to fulfill this piece of our dream. I found myself in a small moment of reckoning. Did I want this? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.
Later, once they decide he is running for president, Michelle explodes into action, touring Iowa non-stop, making hundreds of speeches to increasingly packed-out meetings. She is an incredibly effective campaigner.
The Iowa staff reported that my talks tended to yield a lot of pledges of support (measured in signed ‘supporter cards’…) At some point, the campaign began referring to me as ‘The Closer’, for the way I helped make up minds.
And yet some selectively edited news footage puts her patriotism in doubt, and she is briefly pilloried in the press as ‘a liability’. ‘I hadn’t chosen this,’ she splutters. ‘I’d never liked politics. I’d left my job and given my identity over to this campaign and now I was a liability? Where had my power gone?’
She had temporarily renounced it, of course, in order to support the bigger project of her husband’s rise to power. This is not a fashionable thing to do, and for someone as strong as Michelle Obama it did not sit easily. Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In but this is ‘Step Back’:
Our decision to let Barack’s career proceed as it had — to give him the freedom to shape and pursue his dreams — led me to tamp down my own efforts at work. Almost deliberately, I’d numbed myself somewhat to my ambition, stepping back in moments when I’d normally step forward.
She even writes, rather startlingly, just before the key vote in November 2008, that ‘personally, I still would’ve been content to lose the election and reclaim some version of our old lives’ — except the sentence finishes loyally: ‘But I was also feeling that as a country we truly needed his help.’ She also confides her secret ‘painful thought’: ‘Barack was a black man in America, after all. I didn’t really think he could win.’
The book keeps history fresh; it never seems a given that their marriage will work, or that he will be elected. Only once they are in the White House, the responsibility of power and the unreality of their lives deadens the read a little. Sample: ‘A First Lady’s power is a curious thing — as soft and undefined as the role itself. And yet I was learning to harness it…’ Michelle’s undoubtedly brilliant work on school nutrition and her White House fruit and veg allotment are slightly less than riveting; and there is even a rather misjudged dream sequence involving unsedated wild animals, presumably in order to add drama — while their real-life jeopardy, including several attempts on their lives with bullets fired at the upper windows of the White House and a knifed intruder, is downplayed. On gang crime and black lives lost, she is low and defeated, but at least she faces the issue. She also has a remarkable bond with the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in London, returning there three times, trying to make sure that her influence is more than fleeting and superficial.
She is gracious and thoughtful throughout, apologizing for every step of the inconvenience caused by her ‘date night’ in New York with Barack: to the New Yorkers whose cars were delayed by their motorcade, to the fellow diners who gave them an ovation when they left the restaurant, to the theatergoers who had to be security checked so they could see an August Wilson play at the same time as the Obamas, to the actors that night whose curtain up was delayed…. We get it. You’re a really nice lady. I could have lived without the photograph of your butler with his birthday cake.
But, for the main part, what a memoir. What a woman. The new regime gives a perspective that makes it all seem even more precious — and precarious. There are moments when she sounds heart-broken, for example on gun control. But this is also a rousing vindication of all that hopey-changey stuff and the personal foundations upon which it was built.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.