The First Lady Is from Chicago

Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin

Peter Slevin decided to write about Michelle Obama while following the frenzied lead-up to 2008’s Iowa caucuses. Her personal story was part of the pitch at that crucial moment in her husband’s campaign.

Slevin interviewed friends and family, and drew from other writing about the First Lady in writing his new biography, Michelle Obama: A Life. These voices are almost ubiquitously friendly when he is not specifically discussing her conservative opposition. Michelle’s words are included fairly frequently, drawn from other people’s interviews with the First Lady (and one of his own from 2007, before the biography project began) and especially from her speeches on the campaign—most of the words within were for public consumption. All of this slightly deadens the book as a portrait of her personality, which is probably an inevitable consequence of writing the biography of a figure currently sitting at the center of American political and cultural life.

But if Michelle herself remains a little elusive in Slevin’s new biography, the world she lived in before she became the first black First Lady of the United States is fruitfully explored.

Take the South Side that Michelle grew up in. Its history is sketched as the background to the lives of her parents and grandparents: the Great Migration as her grandfather arrived from the South; Chicago’s machine politics when her father’s job at the city water department comes with an assignment to be a Daley-era precinct captain; segregation in real estate when her grandparents successfully move into a new apartment complex.

Or take the institutions where she received her education. When Michelle attends Princeton and then Harvard Law School, the book describes a community of black students (inside mostly-white campuses) thinking seriously about how to balance a perceived responsibility to return to their communities with the potentially huge salaries waiting elsewhere. Michelle’s senior undergraduate thesis in sociology hypothesized that successful black Princeton graduates would be less likely to want to help less successful black people (responses to the survey she sent out suggested this was not the case).

Michelle did spend a couple of years at a high-powered law firm, where she met her future husband, who Slevin coquettishly introduces an anonymous “young community organizer.” Work at the firm ultimately did not satisfy her—she is quoted remembering herself thinking, “if I die tomorrow, what did I really do with my life? What kind of a mark would I leave? How would I be remembered?”—and she left for the nonprofit sector. Along the way, her husband’s political career began to grow, and the story links back up with the more familiar public narrative.

Sometimes Slevin’s desire to provide context can go in strange directions. It is useful to learn about the neighborhoods around the University of Chicago when Michelle takes a job as the director of the University Community Service Center. It isn’t to learn that the Midway Plaisance is “where the first Ferris wheel carved steam-powered circles in the air during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition,” and that “The Midway bequeathed its name to carnivals around the country.” It is interesting to know that Michelle fell in love with Barack when she saw him give a speech in a church basement to people he knew as a community organizer. It isn’t to note that it happened “in a year that would see peaceful revolutions across Central Europe and an unarmed man defying a column of tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square.”

Slevin’s careful world-building is more rewarding when he writes about Michelle’s doubts concerning the possibility of a political career for Barack. The tight-knit home she grew up in accounts, perhaps, for her desire to avoid exposing their family to disruption and scrutiny. Some knowledge about the relationship of the South Side to the Daley machine helps explain why she might be skeptical about politics as a driver of change.

The difficulty Michelle and Barack had working out solutions to these worries is the most compelling part of the book. Barack’s work at the State Legislature drew him out of the house and put pressure on Michelle’s career—a problem that would only go away when her husband became Senator and then President. There is real conflict here, and because both Barack and Michelle have reflected seriously on it in public (Barack in his campaign autobiography The Audacity of Hope and Michelle in frank interviews near the beginning of the 2008 campaign) the conflict can be examined in depth. The book suggests a sort of settlement when it quotes Michelle as saying, after a period of frustration, “I was depending on him to make me happy. Except it didn’t have anything to do with him. I needed support. I didn’t necessarily need it from Barack.”

Through her husband’s political career, Michelle has been a source of “authenticity”; in her eulogy for the poet Maya Angelou, she said that she is pleased by the description. What it meant changed as the audience did. Running to be first state and then U.S. Senator, Barack was accused of not being black enough: because of Hawaii, because of Harvard, because of his white mother. Michelle responded to this forcefully in an interview during his campaign for the U.S. Senate, saying, “I’m as black as it gets. I was born on the South Side. I come from an obviously black family. We weren’t rich. I put my blackness up against anybody’s blackness in this state, okay, and Barack is a black man.”

Slevin brings forward sources that saw Michelle playing this role through the South Carolina primary, where the African-American vote was decisive. But some right wing figures began to paint her as an “angry black woman,” especially after a political flap when she said, about increased political engagement around her husband’s election, “for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” As the general election approached, some members of the campaign decided that Michelle’s delivery on the trail was, in Slevin’s words, “becoming a liability to a black candidate who would need white swing voters to win in November.”

Her keynote speech at the Democratic Convention would cement her reintroduction to the electorate.  The speech focused on her family and especially her father—a video beforehand placed her in a “regular folks frame.” She pointedly reiterated that she did love her country. Overnight tracking polls for the campaign saw her popularity shoot up after the speech and she has polled substantially better than her husband ever since (and comparably to past first ladies). There is, of course, a core of conservatives who deeply dislike her, and Slevin briefly plumbs the depths of the often-racist vitriol.

Some of the clarity of the narrative before and during the campaign is lost when the Obamas enter the White House. It would be interesting to revisit problems Michelle considered at the beginning of her husband’s political career. Did the obstruction her husband has faced in Congress reinforce her skepticism about politics? She was concerned that her husband’s political rise would swamp her own career—has the highly visible but constrained role of First Lady been satisfying? If she was concerned that the commute to Springfield took Barack too frequently out of his children’s lives, what was that relationship like in the White House? The constant scrutiny faced by the residents of the White House is countered by strict discipline about public relations, so it’s hard to imagine how answers to these questions could have gotten out.

Instead, this section of the book focuses on the First Lady as she has appeared to the public, and especially on the campaigns she has supported from the White House against childhood obesity and in support of army families and college attendance. There is tangible frustration when Slevin talks about the East Wing’s chilly relationship to the press. He quotes the First Lady as “not a big fan” of how the media has portrayed her. Consequently,  she is rarely available to members of the White House press corps. The unguardedness of her pre-political life and the mandatory exposure of the campaign trail provided information Slevin could use. The tightly managed White House, it seems, provided less.

In his acknowledgement, Slevin says that during the 2008 campaign “it became clear that Michelle merited a book that placed her at the center of her own narrative, not simply as the wife of the famous Barack, nor simply as First Lady.” Michelle Obama: A Life makes a good case for this intuition. It also suggests that the moment when she is no longer First Lady, and, as she is quoted saying in the book, will “be able to say whatever the hell [she] want[s],” will be intriguing.

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