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."

You can read Michelle Obama’s life two ways. In the first version, she is the quintessential modern woman success story: intelligent, articulate, and accomplished, with two Ivy League degrees, a pair of charming children and, by her early 40s, a slew of career achievements. But the trajectory of her life can be read quite differently, as a depressingly retrograde narrative of stifling gender roles and frustrating trade-offs. In significant ways, it is her husband’s career, his choices — choices she has not always applauded — that have shaped her life in the last decade. For Toni Irving, a Notre Dame university assistant professor who’s a friend and admirer, Michelle’s story epitomizes many women’s fate. "She’s just as well-prepared" as her husband, Irving says. "A comparable educational background, a community-based career, an active life, an agile mind — but she is also the primary caregiver, the one who manages so much in their lives." Now his grand ambitions have pushed her into a harsh and unforgiving limelight, where every sentence she utters is parsed for error and every public moment is a minefield. The very qualities that make her an icon of 21st-century womanhood — her strong opinions, her frankness in expressing them, the confidence born of bootstrap triumphs — make her a rich target for those who still believe that outspoken woman and first lady should never be synonymous.

Two weeks after the Montana primary we meet again, this time at a downtown Chicago hotel. I ask how it feels to be characterized and mischaracterized by all manner of strangers and to have new identities constantly thrust on her. (Not that all these identities are negative. Her Secret Service code name is Renaissance, a handle resonant of quattrocento elegance and hip Harlem nights. To the Crow Nation, she is Arrowhead Woman, a name given to her by a tribal elder, in honor of her flinty strength.)

Obama lets her long-fingered hands fall open in her lap in a kind of gentle shrug. "This might be a confusing journey if I were 30 or 20. But at 44, fortunately, I’m more comfortable with who I am and I’m more clear about who I am. Had I done this 10 years ago, I don’t think I could have done it with as much enjoyment. It would have been more painful. Now all the hard stuff really just rolls off your back." What has helped, she says, is feedback from people who actually saw and heard her on the campaign trail. She says their message has been "‘Don’t change.’ People, women particularly, say: ‘Be who you are.’ And my husband and my children don’t want me to change, and they’re the people I listen to the most."

And yet she has changed, not only in her swift mastery of campaigning but also in the newfound canniness of her public utterances. It’s hard to imagine the Obama of today making the statement she did back in February: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country."

The Transformation

Some women are watching Obama’s transformation with mixed feelings. It can be "heartbreaking’‘ to see her "navigate this new world of utter spousedom, when she’s so much more than that," says Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Plain Dealer of Cleveland and the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Schultz, author of And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man, left her newspaper job briefly to help her husband campaign in 2006. When Barack went on the road with them "and heard me making some crack backstage, he’d say, ‘You’ve got to meet my wife. You would love Michelle’; it was never when I was being warm and fuzzy," Schultz says. Last summer, Schultz and Senator Brown saw Michelle’s appearance on The View together and watched as the camera panned over Obama’s legs while she talked about not wearing pantyhose. "And my husband said, ‘I can’t believe she has to do this.’"

The most detrimental characterization of Michelle Obama is as an angry black woman, a female version of the Obamas’ controversial former pastor, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright. To test this characterization, I read her a quote from James Baldwin that lodged in my mind the first time I read it. The white Southern novelist William Styron had drawn fire for trying to imagine the inner life of a black man in his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Baldwin, the great African-American writer, had come to his defense. "Each of us," Baldwin wrote, "helplessly and forever, contains the other. Male in female, black in white and white in black. We are part of each other."

I ask Michelle whether she believes that. She uncrosses her long legs and leans forward.

"I didn’t believe that as a child, no. Or as a teenager." At Princeton in the 1980s, she had remained somewhat aloof from the white students, partly by preference and partly because blacks weren’t welcome at the exclusive eating clubs that dominated campus social life. The family of her first roommate, a Southern white woman, had protested to the university administration because their daughter had been assigned to room with a black person.

Obama began to believe what Baldwin wrote only much later, she says, when her working life brought her in close contact with a wide range of people. "When you live in the world a bit more and you have more exposure to people and their values and their true souls, you make friends, you make enemies, you roll up your sleeves and work with people. You find out that our spirits are more connected. It’s just that we oftentimes don’t live and work and breathe together." When we do, she adds, "People who think they wouldn’t like someone of a different race always find someone they like and come to trust. And then they treat that person as the exception, when in fact [she] is probably more the rule."

She pauses for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Trust has no color," she says emphatically. "I’ve come to realize that, and I think we’re beginning to realize that as a nation."

This faith, that people can change, is what fuels her, she says, and helps insulate her from the harshness of campaign scrutiny. Politics has taught her that "You don’t pay attention to the high highs or the low lows. And you embrace the positive," she adds. "If you talked to my mom, we were just raised like that."

Motherly Bonds

I had met her mother earlier that day. Marian Robinson, 71, still lives in the small liver-colored brick house in South Side Chicago where Michelle and her brother, Craig (now head basketball coach at Oregon State university), grew up, and where Michelle returned to live after completing degrees at Princeton and Harvard. Her father, Fraser, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 30, nevertheless worked as a pump operator for the city; Marian stayed home with the kids. Dropping in on the family for the first time, Barack said in his 2004 book, The Audacity of Hope, was like dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver.

"That’s very accurate," Robinson says, laughing, but at the same time making clear that she wasn’t a twinset-and-pearls mom like June Cleaver. Neither Marian nor Fraser went to college. On a city worker’s wages, they could afford to rent only limited space — one bedroom and one bath stretched to accommodate four. Today, there’s a daycare center next door and a gas station on the corner. It’s a decent neighborhood of working families, but the meaner streets of the South Side are only blocks away.

Michelle attended a nearby elementary school, but the local option for high school was grim: a troubled, failing school like so many in the inner cities. So she traveled 90 minutes each way by city bus to get to Whitney Young, a magnet high. Because the buses were crowded by the time they reached her stop, she would ride in the wrong direction for an additional half hour to get to the beginning of the route and secure a seat so that she could study.

That was typical, her mother recalls. "Michelle would do whatever it took. If she couldn’t tackle something from one end, she would go to the other end and tackle it."

Soon after her son-in-law’s campaign began, Robinson left her job as a secretary to help look after the Obama girls, Malia, now 10, and Sasha, 7. The day we talked, she was due to pick them up from day camp. Nowadays, she explained, "Michelle causes a lot of confusion wherever she goes. Me, I can take the kids without calling attention." Were the girls worried, I asked, about the possible move to Washington? "They’re not focused on going to Washington. What they’re focused on is getting a dog," which, Robinson says, is their promised compensation if the family ends up moving.

Later, I ask Obama about a poignant quote in The Audacity of Hope: Malia, then 6 years old, told her father that she wanted "a simple life." Her face softens. "Yeah," she says. "That’ll make you cry. Malia was wise at 6, and she’s only gotten wiser." She is keenly aware that Malia’s current life, with TV crews at her birthday party, is far from simple. Especially when Dad’s around.

When you ask Michelle Obama what she would do as first lady, it’s her habit to deflect the question by saying that the size of her role will depend on how well her girls handle the transition. Asked which first lady might be a model, she replies that she finds something admirable in all of them. It sounds like a learned response, not something the blunter, franker Obama would have said a year earlier. When she sees my skeptical expression, she quickly adds that the very experience of being out there and being judged has made her see how hard a job it is, whether for Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. "There’s no clear definition of the right way to do it, and everybody has an opinion about when you’re doing it wrong."

Coping with Obstacles

Kati Marton, who studied the last 12 first ladies for her book Hidden Power, says Michelle Obama could make history in the White House. Yes, Hillary Clinton was a professional woman of achievement who landed in a traditional role. But Obama is a "dramatic departure," Marton says: someone with urban, working-class roots who "not only survived but thrived as a black woman at Princeton — still something of a white WASP bastion in the 1980s.’‘ Obama has "an unbelievable opportunity to seize the day and make use of the world’s grandest stage," Marton adds, and she couldn’t have done better than to take Jackie Kennedy as her style icon. "By choosing that classical, chic, but not boldly adventuresome style, Michelle Obama allays fears that — let’s face it — the notion of an African-American first lady stirs in the hearts of many."

Assuming her daughters make a seamless transition to White House life, Obama says, she would focus on "work-family balance." It’s another answer with too-perfect political pitch. How far would an Obama administration go in opposing corporate lobbies that have kept employee gains to a minimum on issues like family leave and pay equity? The campaign’s "policy people’‘ are working on the specifics, she says; her job is to raise the issue’s profile, and she has her own struggle as reference point.

"What I found myself — and most of my friends — doing," Michelle says, "is, we just cope. We’re taught that as women: Just handle it. Just adjust. We accommodate things that aren’t healthy instead of turning around and going, ‘This has got to change.’"

Right out of Harvard Law, Michelle Robinson took a job working on intellectual property issues for the bluechip Chicago firm Sidley & Austin. "That was what you were supposed to do after going to a good law school: Go to a big firm and make money. When you’re a kid like me who paid for her education on loans, the idea of making more money than both your parents combined ever made is one you don’t walk away from. Two years in, I was doing fine, enjoying it, but I wasn’t bounding out of bed in the morning."

In the summer of 1989, as the now-familiar narrative goes, Michelle was assigned to mentor a first-year Harvard Law student Sidley had hired for the summer. She found the tall young man with the unusual name rather importunate; he kept asking her for dates. But when she learned about his life before law school, as a community organizer among laid-off factory workers in Chicago, she was impressed. Ice cream followed, then a Spike Lee movie.

Six months later, Michelle’s beloved father died from complications of his MS. Around the same time, her best friend from college, Jamaican-born Suzanne Alele, died of lymphoma at 25. The two blows in quick succession made her question her career. "I thought, if I died tomorrow, is this what I want to have done with my life? And the answer was a resounding no!"

Starting a Life Together

Partly inspired by Barack, she began to think about public service: "What do I care about? What do I think will bring me joy?" She realized that she wanted a "career that would pay homage to the community I came from. Working in a corporate firm, I was very removed from that community, physically, emotionally, and psychologically." One day, she realized she couldn’t even see the South Side from the high floors of the deluxe Sidley offices, and that seemed symbolic of her distance. So she went to work as an assistant to Chicago’s mayor and then as assistant commissioner of city planning and development. "It still wasn’t enough, because city government is like a corporation in many ways."

Then Obama found her way to the job she says is "by far the best thing I’ve done in my professional career": heading a youth leadership program, funded by AmeriCorps, called Public Allies. "It was the first thing that was mine, and I was responsible for every aspect of it." Public Allies, which Obama designed, staffed, and ran, recruited a diverse group of young people, 18 to 30, from every kind of racial background and with educations ranging from a Harvard JD to a GED certificate. For the first time, she says, "my passions and talents converged." She is proud that many of the program’s graduates are now running for office or directing nonprofits.

By that time, Michelle and Barack had married, and as they began to think about starting a family, Michelle realized that she couldn’t head up Public Allies if she went part-time. So she recruited a successor and took a job with the University of Chicago, "closer to home." That job — to get university students actively engaged in the community — was an effort to break down the town-gown divide Obama had felt while growing up in the shadow of an elite institution that held itself aloof from its neighborhood. "As a black kid on the South Side, the University of Chicago was a foreign entity to me," she says. Obama had never set foot on the campus. Soon enough, she was an important player, one who was also helping to change the university’s reputation as stuffy, humorless, and bound by tradition. "The unofficial motto of U of C then was, Where fun goes to die," says Curt Columbus, who headed Chicago’s University Theatre then and is now artistic director of Trinity Rep in Providence. "Hiring Michelle was part of an effort to change that, and she did." Columbus also worked with her on a separate assignment, the sexual harassment policy committee. That was a "highly charged environment, because it was complex cases, tied to personalities,’‘ he says. "She was great at it. She had a real directness and sense of humor: not bawdy, just a down-to-earth ‘let’s get this done.’"

When Malia was born, Obama went part-time in the university job and learned what so many women have: "It’s like, oh, so you take half a salary and you do the same amount of work. They don’t take anything off your plate." She recalls those years as one big fiesta of guilt. "I was always guilty, 100 percent of the time," she says. "‘Am I doing my job to the fullest?’ ‘Am I being the kind of mother I want to be to the fullest?’" The sheer logistics were daunting: looking for a part-time sitter when most wanted full-time work, then finding someone good who didn’t drive, which left Obama spending lunch hour doing pickups and drop-offs. She is keenly aware that she was better off than are many women with no flexibility or negotiating power who cannot afford a sitter of any kind.

But the pressure precipitated a painful period in the Obama marriage. Barack, a state legislator by then, was away in the state capital, Springfield, three days a week. He was also teaching a class in constitutional law. "Tired and stressed, we had little time for conversation, much less romance," he writes in The Audacity of Hope. "My wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained…I found myself subjected to endless negotiations about every detail of managing the house, long lists of things that I needed to do or had forgotten to do, and a generally sour attitude." It was only much later, he writes, that he was able to see that "no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners," when the kids arrived, "it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments."

A New Job

Finally, while on maternity leave with Sasha, Obama decided to quit and take a financial hit, even though neither she nor Barack had paid off their college loans. "I’d made the decision. Then I got a call from the president of the U of C Medical Center — a new president." He wanted somebody to do community outreach for the hospital. At first, Michelle declined to meet with him. But "people said, you really have to talk to this guy, he’s great. So I’m thinking, I’ll do this as a courtesy, demand a whole bunch of stuff he’s not going to give me, he’ll say no, and we’ll be done."

To make her point, she went to the interview with 2-month-old Sasha in her arms. "I had on a breastfeeding top. I strolled in: ‘Hi! This is me! New baby!...’" She launched into her deal-breaking list of demands: high salary, decent budget, an absolute right to structure her own hours. "And I said, I can’t be in your office all afternoon in meetings. Also, I can’t be your diversity — a nice person who could ‘represent.’" The hospital would have to deliver the resources she needed.

To her astonishment, he said yes to everything, "so I built this whole new arm of the hospital." Among the changes she pioneered: the hospital now spends some of its budget buying goods and services from local suppliers, and considers racial health disparities in shaping research projects. "It all happened quickly," Obama says. "When you go from nothing to something, that’s fun." Her boss kept to his agreement about the job; she found that the flexibility made her more productive.

Now on leave from the hospital and a reported salary of more than $300,000, Michelle has a new role: potential first lady. Her staff of three women works out of the campaign’s national headquarters, in a glass office building near the Chicago Art Institute. On the day I visit, the senator, in shirt-sleeves, is there, sitting in a meeting, his back to the room, his already familiar silhouette — slender frame and improbably round head — like an inverted exclamation point.

If Barack Obama wins the election, says Connie Schultz, "Michelle will have a new job whether she wants it or not. And the first lady job doesn’t pay." But Schultz, who was reluctant to see her own husband run for the senate, feels she understands what brought Michelle around. "You’re looking at all these people pushing him. And you hear the hope in his voice. And so you’re going to be the big fat obstacle? Your only note in history is, you’re the reason he didn’t run?"

In an e-mail, Obama tells me that she’s "put heart and soul" into the campaign — and knows what’s at stake. She relates the story of a little girl in a Newberry, South Carolina, beauty shop who asked her, " ‘Mrs. Obama, do you realize that if Barack Obama wins, it will be historical?!’ I said, ‘What would that mean to you?’ She told me, ‘It will mean I can dream anything for myself.’ This election is all about making sure my girls and all of our kids grow up in a world where they can dream anything and then reach those dreams."

The little girl teared up, says Obama. "I couldn’t help but hug her. There was so much of this little girl in me. Dreaming big."

Originally published in MORE magazine, October 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:22

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