Michelle Obama and the Roots of Reinvention

How the First Lady learned to dream big.

By Geraldine Brooks
Photograph: Photo by: Matthew Rolston

On the campaign trail, Michelle Obama tempered her South Side Chicago strength with a Jackie Kennedy genius for style, tone and warmth. Future first ladies will be judged against a new standard: Michelle’s. Here is Geraldine Brooks’s portrait of a woman in transition.

"She’s a hugger," Michelle Obama’s press secretary warned me. So when I find myself enfolded by a pair of long, well-toned arms, I’m not as astonished as I might have been. It is early June, and Obama has just arrived in Montana for the last day of campaigning in the long Democratic primary season. I’ve been hovering on a rope line, eavesdropping on her conversations. She has bestowed hugs on a few supporters, but with a press ID pinned to my lapel, I wasn’t expecting one. (Reporters rarely score hugs from anyone but their own family.) When I identify myself, she disentangles without recoil or embarrassment and says she is looking forward to our interview: "It’s great you came out here to see what I do."

Then she moves on, a Secret Service agent at each elbow, to greet a toddler being held aloft by his mother. "Hi! So glad I got to meet you before your nap!"

For a woman who didn’t like politics and didn’t want her husband to run for president, Obama has become a polished campaigner. I first met her the summer before, when Barack’s candidacy seemed destined to be flattened by the Clinton juggernaut. The event was an evening fund-raiser (disclosure: I was there as a campaign donor) on Martha’s Vineyard, and Michelle had been pleasant but detached as she worked the room. I got the impression she would much rather have been at the beach with her daughters.

The Montana Michelle is entirely different. Casually elegant in a silver-gray sweater over linen pants, she moves through the crowd as if she is genuinely enjoying each encounter. Warm, focused, she switches easily from light banter with those who just want to shake her hand to grave attentiveness with those who buttonhole her about policy. Beside me in the crowd, a campaign volunteer named Loretta Howard recalls how a young woman at another rally had asked Barack if he’d consider an Obama-Obama ticket. "He said that if he did, Michelle would have to be the one on top." The women standing nearby smile. They like this, the slightly henpecked pose the candidate occasionally affects, even if Washington insiders like Maureen Dowd sniff that it is emasculating. These women — ranchers, some of them, with capable hands, who left battered pickups in the parking lot — understand what it means when a man calls you his rock.

Earlier, when Michelle addressed the crowd, she spoke without notes about the lessons of the 16-month primary season. "I don’t care where I’ve been, I don’t care what state or community, I don’t even care if Barack got crushed in that state. People have been decent, they’ve been open, they’ve listened, they’ve been kind…That’s the America that I’ve come to know."

Attacking Michelle

But in the past year, another America has also been visible, in articles and Internet posts vilifying Michelle Obama and exposing a deep vein of racism and reaction that could yet sink the election for her husband. Barack’s unconventional childhood and white Kansas roots confound racial stereotyping; Michelle Obama has been an easier mark. Her bluntly spoken rejection of a simpleminded, Panglossian vision of America riled conservatives, from high-profile pundits to anonymous bloggers. The National Review featured a scowling picture of her on its April cover and characterized her as Mrs. Grievance and "a peculiar mix of privilege and victimology." A Fox News commentator famously characterized the Obamas’ joyful dap the night Barack clinched the nomination as a "terrorist fist jab," while a satirical New Yorker cover depicted her with an Angela Davis ‘fro and an AK-47. On the Internet, it was open season:

"Would she just go away," read an anonymous post on usatoday.com. "Her face is scary at four a.m."

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