The Washington Post
Michelle: A Biographyby Liza Mundy
She can be funny and sharp-tongued, warm and blunt, empathic and demanding. Who is the woman Barack Obama calls "the boss"? In Michelle, Washington Post writer Liza Mundy paints a revealing and intimate portrait, taking us inside the marriage of the most dynamic couple in politics today. She shows how well they complement each other: Michelle, the highly/i>
She can be funny and sharp-tongued, warm and blunt, empathic and demanding. Who is the woman Barack Obama calls "the boss"? In Michelle, Washington Post writer Liza Mundy paints a revealing and intimate portrait, taking us inside the marriage of the most dynamic couple in politics today. She shows how well they complement each other: Michelle, the highly organized, sometimes intimidating, list-making pragmatist; Barack, the introspective political charmer who won't pick up his socks but shoots for the stars. Their relationship, like those of many couples with two careers and two children, has been so strained at times that he has had to persuade her to support his climb up the political ladder. And you can't blame her for occasionally regretting it: In this campaign, it is Michelle who has absorbed much of the skepticism from voters about Obama. One conservative magazine put her on the cover under the headline "Mrs. Grievance."
Michelle's story carries with it all the extraordinary achievements and lingering pain of America in the post-civil rights era. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, the daughter of a city worker and a stay-at-home mom in a neighborhood rocked by white flight. She was admitted to Princeton amid an angry debate about affirmative action and went on to Harvard Law School, where she was more comfortable doing pro-bono work for the poor than gunning for awards with the rest of her peers. She became a corporate lawyer, then left to train community leaders. She is modern in her tastes but likes to watch reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Brady Bunch.
In this carefully reported biography, drawing upon interviews with more than one hundred people, including one with Michelle herself, Mundy captures the complexity of this remarkable woman and the remarkable life she has lived.
The Washington Post
Michelle Obama has generated plenty of blog commentary, TV interviews, and magazine covers this year, much but not all of it positive. Using interviews with her subject's family and friends, as well as the periodical record, Washington Post reporter Mundy (Everything Conceivable) presents this comprehensive look at Michelle Obama and her relationship with Barack Obama. Believing that Ms. Obama has become a role model not only for African American women but for all women trying to balance family and careers, Mundy provides insight into Ms. Obama's experiences during her youth in a tight-knit neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. She also reflects on how Ms. Obama's education at Princeton and Harvard Law during the early years of their integration affected her outlook on U.S. race relations. The author offers a balanced appraisal of her subject's accomplishments and personality, including an examination of the apparent conflict posed by her being critical of the U.S. health-care system while working as a public relations officer at the University of Chicago Hospitals, and she shows that Ms. Obama is often uncomfortable in the political arena. Mundy also offers delightful stories about the Obamas' family life. Readers who want reassurance that Michelle Obama is up to the job of First Lady and those who just want to know more about her won't be disappointed. Recommended for public libraries.
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Read an Excerpt
While Michelle was at Princeton, a watershed event had occurred in Chicago: Harold Washington was elected mayor in 1983, the city's first black mayor. It was a tremendous victory for the African American community, practically and psychologically, as the newcomer Barack Obama would later hear from his barber. Which is not to say that racial peace broke out in the city. During his first term, Washington became engaged in a long-running battle with the white-majority council that got so nasty that once, the mayor threatened to punch out his chief antagonist, council leader Ed Vrdolyak, telling him he would get a mouthful of something he didn't want. On another occasion Vrdolyak taunted a Washington supporter, Walter "Slim" Coleman, so badly from the council floor that Coleman leaped over the rails and was about to attack Vrdolyak but was restrained by several bailiffs.
But Washington's tenure, according to Judson Miner, a white attorney who worked for Washington as corporation counsel, carried a basic lesson: It became clear to people that "an African American could run Chicago and it wouldn't fall apart." Running for his second term, Washington did better among whites; while he did not get a great many more white votes, fewer whites voted against him. Washington's death from a heart attack at his desk in 1987 was a tremendous blow, but his tenure changed racial dynamics in the city.
This wasn't clear at first. Barack told me that after Washington's death, he felt disillusioned by the splintering of the progressive biracial coalition that had supported the mayor, who was replaced by an undistinguished councilman picked by the old machine. "I was, like many people, impressed by the degree to which he could mobilize the community and push for change. I was frustrated by the inability to build an organization that could sustain all that excitement and deliver [results]." At that point, Obama says, "I was somewhat disdainful of politics. I was much more interested in mobilizing people to hold politicians accountable."
That attitude helps explain what Barack decided to do after he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. He was offered many jobs and could have gone to work anywhere. Abner Mikva, a former U.S. congressman who was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, called to offer him a clerkship, and when Obama turned him down, Mikva jokingly says he assumed Barack was an "uppity black" who would only clerk for a black judge. Michelle was also surprised that he was uninterested in clerking, even for a U.S. Supreme Court justice. She said Barack had gone to law school because he realized, working as a community organizer, that to bring about change he needed to better understand how laws are created.
"You've got to have a grasp of the law, so he goes to law school, he goes to law school for more than just being a lawyer," Michelle told me. "Even though he was head of the law review he didn't become a Supreme Court clerk, which is the natural progression. Never did it cross his mind. Here I am, knowing the power of his position: 'You're not going to clerk for them? You're kidding me!' He's like, 'No, that's not why I went to law school. If you're going to make change, you're not going to do it as a Supreme Court clerk.' It was change, it was always change. It was always this notion, how do you help move this country."
Instead, Obama took a job at Judson Miner's civil rights law firm, though he first spent six months on a voter registration drive, Project Vote, targeting low-income African Americans. It was an effort strikingly reminiscent of what Michelle's father, Fraser Robinson, the genial precinct captain, had done, walking the streets of South Side exhorting folks to go out on election day and vote Democratic. The drive was so successful that it helped Bill Clinton win in Illinois and assisted Carol Moseley Braun in becoming the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. He also embarked on his book project, writing his first memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Obama got the book contract after his election to law review president attracted admiring profiles in newspapers around the country. Miner laughs, though, at the fact that publishers making a clichéd assumption about his background assumed it would be the tale of how a young black man heroically rose from the ghetto. Instead, Obama would write a complex memoir about growing up biracial and fatherless in Hawaii and Indonesia, then leaving for the mainland to find his identity as a black man in a variety of American landscapes. Miner says that during a series of lunches, Obama quizzed him on race relations under Harold Washington, asking what it had been like for him, working in a government run by an African American. Miner's firm did mostly civil rights litigation, including voting rights and discrimination cases, often suing the city. The firm, Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, was small and the work didn't pay particularly well, Miner says, but it was prestigious and had a reputation for hiring upand-comers. Moreover, Miner along with Newton Minow and Abner Mikva would introduce Obama to a range of supporters and political contacts, including African Americans, Jewish leaders, progressives, socalled lakefront liberals, politically involved socialites. During those lunches, Miner says, "It was really clear that he was interested in government."
But while Barack was reaching out to Chicago's progressive coalition, Michelle was embedding herself in a mayoral administration that many of the same people regarded with suspicion. During her last, dissatisfied year at the law firm Sidley Austin, Michelle began sending letters to general counsels for universities, trying to find an area of the law that might be more satisfying. In 1991, she wrote to Valerie Jarrett, a high-level operative in the second Daley administration who came from a distinguished Chicago family. Jarrett had grown up in Hyde Park and she had attended one of the top private schools in the country, the Laboratory Schools affiliated with the University of Chicago. Her mother was a child psychologist and her father, a pathologist, was the first African American to receive tenure at the University of Chicago's department of biological sciences. Jarrett, who had a law degree from the University of Michigan, was working as deputy chief of staff for Richard M. Daley, the first Mayor Daley's son, who was now himself mayor. She was instantly impressed with Michelle. "I offered her a job at the end of the interview....She was so confident and committed and extremely open," Jarrett would say later. But before Michelle would accept, she asked that Jarrett have dinner with her and Barack.
According to one account, Barack was concerned, even then, about how it might affect his nascent political career if his wife were to work for Daley, who, while not the Machine politician his father had been, was regarded by many as representing the establishment that independents had long been fighting against. "Certainly, it would be something that they would look upon [unfavorably] in Hyde Park anyone who worked for Daley would be highly suspect," says the political consultant Don Rose, which may be one reason why Michelle did not stay long in the job. Obama was also worried, according to biographer David Mendell, that Michelle might be too straightforward and outspoken to survive in a political setting. He fretted, too, that if she was going to enter this realm, she needed someone to look out for her. Patronage was waning as a style of doing business, but in Chicago it still helped to have a mentor. Jarrett agreed to have dinner with Michelle and Barack. "My fiancé wants to know who is going to be looking out for me and making sure that I thrive," Jarrett recalled Michelle saying. At the end of the evening, Jarrett asked, "Well, did I pass the test?" and Barack smiled and said she did.
That dinner would set a pattern. While many professional husbands and wives operate in spheres that don't overlap, Michelle and Barack have been more of a tag team, making speeches at each other's behest, inviting each other to sit on panels, in large part because they share the same academic and professional training Ivy League, Harvard Law as well as the same mission. Michelle would later assert, "Barack hasn't relied deeply on me for his career path, and I haven't relied on him at all for mine." This is true in the sense that she is a highly qualified person perfectly capable of securing jobs on her own merits. Still, it's also fair to say that the two of them are more closely melded, personally and politically, than many couples, and have helped each other along. "Fundamentally we work well together because we share the same values," Michelle would later say to the Hyde Park Herald.
Michelle was valuable to Barack, politically, in a number of ways. Through his work as an organizer, he already made contacts and earned stature with leaders and politicians on the South Side, but she helped him deepen and broaden that stature, having grown up there herself. "There are a lot of successful people who have a hard time working in the community because they're not from there," their friend John Rogers told Newsweek. "Craig and Michelle can do it because it's where they come from." She knew some of South Side's political leaders; her friendship with Santita Jackson would be an entrée into the Jackson household and an introduction to Santita's father and brother, Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jr.
And at the same time, thanks to her own ambition and achievements, Michelle would provide him with contacts in the new professional class, introducing Barack to some of the people who would be his well-connected friends and most important financial supporters. Through her job with the city, she had made contacts in Daley's inner circle. Jarrett was chief among them; she became a friend and confidante, and an extraordinarily useful person for Barack to have in his corner. One of the most powerful women in Chicago, Jarrett would go on to serve as chair of both the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Stock Exchange, on the board of the University of Chicago Medical Center, and as president and CEO of Habitat Company, a major real estate development and management company. And she would chair Obama's finance committee during his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Michelle also was the conduit to John W. Rogers, Jr., a Chicago native who founded the first African American-owned money management firm and proved a tremendous fund-raising asset. Rogers had played basketball with Craig Robinson at Princeton. Craig also introduced the Obamas to Martin Nesbitt, chair of the Chicago Housing Authority and another basketball-playing buddy of his who would become one of Barack's closest friends. Both Rogers and Nesbitt would provide Obama with a way in to Chicago's growing black business class. The city had always had a group of affluent black families, some of them magnates who made their money early on from businesses and media serving the South Side. But that group had matured and expanded to include a lot of younger, dynamic black Chicagoans. By this point, says Don Rose, Chicago had a black upper middle class "that would include a fairly wide range of people, some of them of economic substance, some of them of political substance. It might include judges, lawyers by the eighties you've got the Chicago Bar Association beginning to absorb a lot more African American lawyers, and things have taken hold. You've got brokers and underwriters and professionals in the knowledge field. [Michelle] moved rather naturally into [this sphere] as a Princetonian and a Harvard graduate."
All in all, they constructed an enviable life of friendships both genuine and useful, with people of all ethnicities and religions. Michelle has always valued friendship. Her Princeton thesis was dedicated to her family and to "all of my special friends"; and her yearbook entry expressed her philosophy that "there is nothing in this world more valuable than friendships. Without them you have nothing." She and Barack went on golfing weekends with Miner and his wife, attended music festivals with the Minows, enjoyed a range of relations with people who shared their lifestyle as well as their progressive values and political involvement. "These are folks," says Marilyn Katz, a member of their social circle, "who talk to their friends a number of times a day."
Katz is struck by how Chicago, in so many ways, turned out to be the ideal incubator for Obama's career. The city never quite saw the physical decline and out-migration of other industrial cities, in part, ironically, because the first Mayor Daley kept white residents there by preserving segregation as long as he did, but also because of some of the city's own innate strengths. It has a diverse employment base, and even as the manufacturing sector declined, there were other industries the financial sector to keep the city afloat and keep people living there. As a result, the city had a vibrant professional class, and a politically engaged one, since Chicago has always been an intensely political city. It has a nexus of people who work, relax, and raise their kids together. "There is a core of urban folks who play together, hang together, and who see each other on a regular basis," says Katz, who participated in the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, worked for Harold Washington's campaign, and, like many '60s activists, has settled down a bit. She now runs a public relations firm.
When Michelle was hired by the Daley administration, she was an assistant to the mayor, making about $60,000 a year, but Jarrett was soon promoted to head the department of planning and development, and took Michelle with her. Michelle's new job was "economic development coordinator," which according to city records involved "developing strategies and negotiating business agreements to promote and stimulate economic growth within the City of Chicago." There is a lovely kind of closure here. After all those decades in which African Americans had had their lives hemmed in and circumscribed by city planners, Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarrett now were the city planners.
Colleagues in city government describe Michelle as a good problem solver and a manager who was unafraid to tell people their shortcomings, a trait that probably would not surprise her high school typing teacher. One colleague, Beth White, recalled that a junior staffer wanted a promotion and approached Michelle, who readily explained why she was not qualified, enumerating the ways in which the staffer fell short. "A lot of people are uncomfortable doing that," says White, but Michelle wasn't. She was kind, White said, but firm.
She and Barack had also, inadvertently, settled in a good place for working women. Unlike, say, Washington, D.C., a commuter city where most downtown workers go home to Arlington or Bethesda and end up living a long drive from their friends, Chicago is a place where many working women live in proximity. "From the time Michelle came [back] to Chicago she was immediately recognized as a young leader. She was recognized as brilliant and beautiful, and immediately accepted into a very sophisticated social circle," says Katz, describing how, in Chicago, a girlfriendy confederation of black and white women shops together, works out together, calls one another in the middle of the night to see who is up and making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to go into lunchboxes. Katz organizes an annual excursion to visit salons and go consignment shopping attended by city employees, journalists, politicians. At the May 2008 fund-raising luncheon for Jan Schakowsky where Michelle spoke, Katz says, "I could have gone to a hundred tables and known somebody at the table." The same, certainly, is true of Michelle. The circle, for one thing, is the most integrated in the city. In this context, "class is much more of a dividing line in the city than race," says Katz.
If Michelle was helpful to Barack, the converse was also true. In the early 1990s, Barack was on the founding board of Public Allies, a new nonprofit whose mission was to train young people to work in the nonprofit sector, with the hope of producing a fresh generation of public service leaders. The Chicago branch needed an executive director, and Obama suggested Michelle. In 1993, she was hired. Barack resigned from the board before she took over. Two years later she would be profiled in a Chicago Tribune article on socalled Generation Xers, young people born after 1964 who were being characterized as a "nomadic" workforce with less employer loyalty than their boomer forebears. "I wear jeans and I'm the director," said Michelle, who was described as "having changed careers three times, with accompanying lower salaries another characteristic of the age group that wants to do meaningful work."
According to Julian Posada, her deputy director at Public Allies, Michelle was as hardworking as her husband. Public Allies would soon become part of the Clinton administration's AmeriCorps program, and she was determined that the Chicago branch would succeed and excel, which it did. Among other things, she was a zealous money raiser, and left the organization, three years after starting, with cash in the bank. "There was an intensity to her that you know, this has got to work, this is a big vision, this isn't easy," recalls Posada. "Michelle's intensity was like: we have to deliver." He was impressed with her sleeves-up attitude. "I'm sure she came from a lot more infrastructure. There was no sense that this was a plush law firm, that's all gone. It's like, 'Who's going to lick envelopes today?' Nothing was beneath her."
One of the first orders of business was recruiting "allies," young people who would spend ten months working in homeless shelters, city offices, public policy institutes, and other venues for public service. Allies were recruited from campuses and projects alike. Michelle knocked on doors in Cabrini Green, a notoriously rough public housing project, but also phoned friends to ask if they knew any public-spirited undergrads at Northwestern. "We would get kids from a very very lily-white campus to come sit down with inner-city kids, black, Hispanic, Asian," says Posada. In addition to recruiting and managing allies, she had to raise funds from Chicago's well-established foundations, competing with more established charities. As such, she had to be in touch with the old-money world of private philanthropy and the nomoney world of housing projects, moving easily between almost every world that existed in Chicago.
Being a boss suited her. "Michelle was tough, tough in a goodsense," says Posada. She was kind, he says, telling him when she thought it was time for him move on and go to business school to develop more skills. She was attentive to every aspect of the program: raising money, inviting speakers, managing staff. "Even things she didn't know about she was like, let's pick it up, let's go. She was very good about being meticulous about the details: Are you on message? Are we meeting people's expectations?" The person who hired her, Vanessa Kirsch, would later say that Michelle "had incredibly high expectations and was constantly asking questions, making sure we were using her time well." In this, she seems to be describing the same person Quincy White worked with: someone who wanted to be in charge and who grew impatient if she felt her time was being wasted. "There were days when, even though she worked for me, I definitely felt like I worked for her," Kirsch said.
There was also an ideological dimension to the program. Part of its goal was teaching people to work with peers of radically different backgrounds. Four days a week the "allies" would intern with a variety of nonprofits, but on Fridays they would be brought into the office for diversity training. "You'd take people through, what are your biases, people would learn how other people were feeling about stuff," says Posada, who describes the sessions as containing both a "lot of squishy stuff" and "incredibly powerful growth opportunities for individuals." Sometimes the workshops were led by outside experts, sometimes by Michelle. According to one ally, Beth Hester, who is white, Michelle could be a forceful coach. "The most powerful thing she ever taught me was to be constantly aware of my privilege," Hester said, continuing, "Michelle reminded me that it's too easy to go and sit with your own. She can invite you, in kind of an aggressive way, to be all you can be."
The exercises were not for everyone at first. One ally at the branch of the program in Los Angeles later said she didn't feel comfortable in initial sessions. "It was too touchy-feely," said Nelly Nieblas, a member of the 2005 Public Allies class in Los Angeles. "It's a lot of talk about race, a lot of talk about sexism, a lot of talk about homophobia, talk about isms and phobias." But Nieblas, who has cerebral palsy, came to value the experience after doing an exercise where people had to take one step back for each disadvantage they had confronted, and she ended up with her back against the wall. After that, she realized that her liabilities were not any harder to overcome than those of others. In Chicago, the allies were matched in unlikely groupings and sent on scavenger hunts, assigned, say, to spend a day tracking down and interviewing five nonprofit leaders. It was a way of getting disparate people to work toward a goal. "That was part of what Public Allies was you had to get over any phobias, or stuff you have," says Posada.
Many allies found Michelle inspiring. "You kind of know when you're in the presence of somebody who is really terrific," says Jobi Petersen, who was in the first class of Chicago Allies. "I owed a lot to her. She's really fair, she's calm, she's smart, and she's balanced and she's funny, she doesn't take any crap. I get a little bit angry when I hear the thing about her being negative. She is the least negative person I've ever met. She is a can-do person." Peterson remembers a time when "one of the allies was despairing about how difficult things were, or the world wasn't bending their way, and [Michelle] would come back and say, 'You know what, today you have to get up and do something you don't love doing. If it's helping people, it's worth it.' She had a way of making you feel you could do anything. Humor, personal style, warmth, she can be strong and tough and not come across as nega-tive. She's got timing. She can pass you one look and you'd laugh."
Part of Michelle's adult mission, clearly, was breaking down self-segregation and moving people outside their clans, a goal she talks about often in campaign speeches. These exhortations are one of the more controversial aspects of her public persona. Not everybody wants to be invited in a "kind of aggressive way" to be all they can be; not everybody wants to be forcefully reminded of their privilege. In January 2008, speaking at the University of South Carolina, Michelle embroidered on this theme, telling the students who came to hear her that "we don't like being pushed outside our comfort zones. You know it right here on this campus. You know, folks sitting at different tables y'all living in different dorms. I was there. Y'all not talking to each other, taking advantage of the fact that you're in this diverse community. Because sometimes it's easier to hold on to your stereotypes and misconceptions. It makes you feel justified in your own ignorance. That's America. So the challenge for us is, are we ready for change? Real change?"
She took some heat for this speech, which is posted on YouTube with notations like "Michelle Obama That's America!" Critics complained she was chastising whites, but in fact she was chastising everybody. It's easy to see from the video that the students in the front row, the only ones visible, are black. Critics also point out that her vision of America can seem strikingly negative; hers is a country in which people are disconnected and still segregated, a theme she returns to over and over. "We are still a nation that is too divided," she told the USC students. "We live in isolation from one another...Throughout this country, people live in isolation, and they tend to believe that their pain is unique to them, and their struggles are unique to them, and we become more isolated." In her view, it's social and racial isolation that leads to inequality and a lack of empathy leads, for example, to a situation where American soldiers are bearing the brunt of the Iraq war and the rest of America is out shopping, unaware, in many cases, that a war is even going on. Her message is the same as Obama's we are one another's keepers; our fates as citizens are inextricably tied but he tends to deliver it in loftier, more majestic terms, and she tends to sound bleaker and, possibly, more realistic. In another speech, she told an audience that Obama would require people to conquer their inner isolationist: an Obama administration, she declared, would "demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zone. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage." Obama, she said, "will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed."
This comment agitated conservatives, who rushed to defend Americans' constitutional right to remain in whatever comfort zone feels most comfortable. In the National Review, Mark Steyn argued that Michelle's urgings sound totalitarian, as though under an Obama administration there might be a national community reeducation day in which we all would be required to walk around our suburban cul-de-sacs reciting our biases. And it's true, she does sound a little schoolmarmish in that snippet. But these speeches, above all, prove that Michelle is hardly the militant racial separatist some of the same detractors portray her as. Just the opposite; she could be described as a passionate and even radical integrationist. During that same speech, she lectured the USC students about how, "when you are on a college campus, it is a rare opportunity that you have to live with people who are not like you, where you are forced to engage and have conversations...where you are potentially going to talk to somebody who doesn't agree with you, who lives in a different way." It almost seemed as if she were talking to the young Michelle Robinson at Princeton, as if she were looking back, wishing she had reached out even in an atmosphere that did not encourage it.
In a way, Michelle Obama can't win, not against the people who are determined to dislike her. Critics read her Princeton thesis and argue that she's Angela Davis in designer sundresses, an upper-income black nationalist, harboring all sorts of resentment despite her unity-modeling black-and-white outfits. When she urges integration and commingling and leaving one's own personal Green Zone, she's dismissed as a Stalinist. But her work at Public Allies and her campaign speeches show how passionately she feels about the value of different Americans surmounting their instinctive boundaries. "We have so much more in common as people," she told People magazine in 2007. "It's just that we don't cross paths enough as communities."
At Public Allies in the early 1990s, she recruited Barack to the cause. Posada remembers Barack came to do one of the Friday workshops, delivering a riveting lecture on community transformation, what might be called Changing the World 101. At the time, Posada says, Barack was "really intense I think a lot more intense than I've seen him now." He says, "I remember him giving a speech about how you have to really understand who has power and what their self-interest is, if you want to move an agenda. That message still has stuck with me today."
Posada got the sense that the Obama marriage consisted of two highly driven, highly intense, highly functional, highly intelligent people who believed in the same things, shared the same goals, wanted to accomplish the same social program, and who both were able to throw themselves into their work. Michelle, he says, was in the office all the time. The marriage was new enough that sometimes she would sign a check "Michelle Robinson" and he would have to bring it back to sign with her married name. Barack still had his crummy car, a ridiculous old copper-colored jalopy; sometimes it would break down and Michelle would ask Posada to pick him up from a basketball game. Posada was invited to their Hyde Park condo and recalls that she was proud of it, and tidy, directing him to take off his shoes before he entered. "I can tell you that Michelle was very, very disciplined as far as her household. She ran a tight ship. It was always clean."
They would continue to have a collaborative marriage. Michelle would invite Barack to speak at events and panels, and she would consult him on her career choices. Newton Minow stayed in touch with both of them, and later his wife, Jo Minow, recalls wooing Michelle to the board of what is now called the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an organization for movers and shakers with an interest in international politics and law. She took Michelle to lunch with the head of the group, they worked on her for a while, and Michelle told them she was flattered but had a lot of things on her plate. A few months went by and Jo called and asked if she had given any thought to it. "I really want to talk to Barack about it," Jo remembers Michelle saying, "which, I thought, was very indicative of the relationship they have they do things as a team." She did join that board, one of six she belongs to. Among the other groups whose boards she sits on is Muntu Dance Theater, a South Side dance company that performs traditional African and contemporary dance, and Facing History and Ourselves, whose mission is educating young people about prejudice, by fashioning curricula to help students learn about the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and segregation in America.
Work aside, others who know the Obamas say that the personal dynamic of their marriage is one in which Obama simply adores his wife and makes a point of saying so. Michelle has described him as a romantic husband, in a kind of limited way. "He is not Mr. Door Opener," she told the Hyde Park Herald. But he does bring her flowers and is good about remembering anniversaries.
"He worships her," says Martha Minow. "Barack says, 'If I'm a ten, Michelle's an eleven.'"
He also defers to her authority. "He's always saying, 'She's the boss. Gotta check with the boss,'" Minow continues. "This is a partnership. This is real partners."
Michelle the boss has said that there's a rule in their marriage: She gets to tease, and Barack does not. She is the one who gets to rag him publicly about leaving his socks around and not putting away the butter, and he is the one who does not get to rag her publicly about...anything. (He does allow himself the indulgence of mentioning, in The Audacity of Hope, that early in their marriage Michelle had a talent for acquiring parking tickets.) A mutual friend says it's sometimes hard when he and his wife have dinner with Michelle and Barack, because Barack will so elaborately praise Michelle that at the end of the dinner, his wife always wants to know why her husband doesn't talk about her that way. "He is so wonderful about Michelle, both about what he writes and says...it's not praise for praise's sake, it's honest and believable."
It must also have become clear to her, early on, that money was not something that motivated the man she had married. It might be an overstatement to say this gave her pause, but Barack's absence of financial ambition is something she gave thought to. When she first met him, "He had no money; he was really broke," she told the Hyde Park Herald. "He wasn't ever going to try to impress me with things. His wardrobe was kind of cruddy....He had five shirts and seven blue suits and a bunch of ties. He looks good in his clothes because he is tall and thin, but he has never been into clothes. I had to really tell him to get rid of the white jacket. He had good taste, but he just doesn't care about those things. His first car had so much rust that there was a rusted hole in the passenger door. You could see the ground when you were driving by. He loved that car. It would shake ferociously when it would start up. I thought, 'This brother is not interested in ever making a dime.' I would just have to love him for his values."
Copyright © 2008 by Liza Mundy
Meet the Author
Liza Mundy is the bestselling author of Michelle: A Biography and Everything Conceivable. A longtime award-winning reporter for The Washington Post, she is currently a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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