MICHELLE OBAMA X OPRAH

The for­mer US first lady in con­ver­sa­tion.

Harper’s Bazaar (Australia) - - Contents - Pho­tographed by MILLER MOB­LEY

OPRAH WIN­FREY: First, let me just say: noth­ing makes me hap­pier than sit­ting down with a good read. So when I re­alised — in the preface! — what an ex­tra­or­di­nary book was com­ing, I was so proud of you.you landed it.the book is ten­der, it is com­pelling, it is pow­er­ful, it is raw. Mil­lions of peo­ple have been won­der­ing how you’re do­ing, how’s the tran­si­tion, and I think there’s no bet­ter ex­am­ple than the toast story. Can you share the toast story?

MICHELLE OBAMA: Well, I start the preface right at one of the first weeks af­ter we moved into our new home af­ter the tran­si­tion — our new home in Wash­ing­ton, a cou­ple miles away from the­white House. It’s a beau­ti­ful brick home, and it’s the first reg­u­lar house, with a door and a door­bell, that I have had in about eight years. OW: Eight years. MO: And so that toast story is about one of the first nights I was alone there — the kids were out, Malia was on her gap year, I think Barack was trav­el­ling, and I was alone for the first time. As a first lady, you’re not alone much. There are peo­ple in the house al­ways, there are men stand­ing guard. there is a house full of SWAT peo­ple, and you can’t open your win­dows or walk out­side with­out caus­ing a fuss. OW: You can’t open a win­dow? MO: Can’t open a win­dow. Sasha ac­tu­ally tried one day — Sasha and Malia both. But then we got the call: “shut the win­dow.” OW: [Laughs] MO: So here I am in my new home, just me and [my dogs] Bo and Sunny, and I do a sim­ple thing. I go down­stairs and open the cabi­net in my own kitchen — which you don’t do in the White House be­cause there’s al­ways some­body there go­ing, “let me get that. what do you want? What do you need?” — and I made my­self toast. Cheese toast.and then I took my toast and I walked out into my back­yard. I sat on the stoop, and there were dogs bark­ing in the dis­tance, and I re­alised Bo and Sunny had re­ally never heard neigh­bour dogs. they’re like, What’s that? And I’m like, “yep, we’re in the real world now, fel­las.”

OW: In read­ing the book, I can see how ev­ery sin­gle thing you’ve done in your life has pre­pared you for the mo­ments and years ahead. I do be­lieve this.

MO: That’s if you think about it that way. If you view your­self as a se­ri­ous per­son in the world, ev­ery de­ci­sion that you make re­ally does build to who you are go­ing to be­come.

OW: Yes, and I can see that from you in the first grade.you were an achiever with an A+++ at­ti­tude.

MO: Yeah. Look­ing back, I re­alised there was some­thing about me that un­der­stood con­text. My par­ents gave us the free­dom to have thoughts and ideas very early on.

OW: They ba­si­cally let you and [your brother] Craig fig­ure it out?

MO: Oh gosh, yeah, they did. And what I re­alised was that achieve­ment mat­tered, and that kids would get tracked early, and that if you didn’t demon­strate abil­ity — par­tic­u­larly as a black kid of the South Side from a work­ing-class back­ground — then peo­ple were al­ready ready to put you in a box of un­der­achieve­ment. I didn’t want peo­ple to think I wasn’t a hard­work­ing kid. I didn’t want them to think I was ‘one of those kids’. the ‘bad kids’. there are no bad kids — there are bad cir­cum­stances.

OW: You men­tion this phrase that I like so much, I think it should be on a T-shirt or some­thing. “fail­ure,” you say,“is a feel­ing long be­fore it be­comes an ac­tual re­sult. It’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity that breeds with self­doubt and then is es­ca­lated, of­ten de­lib­er­ately, by fear.” Fail­ure is a feel­ing long be­fore it be­comes an ac­tual re­sult. You knew this when?

MO: Oh, first grade. I could see my neigh­bour­hood chang­ing around me.we moved there in the 1970s. We lived with my great-aunt in a very lit­tle apart­ment over a home she owned. She was a teacher and my great-un­cle was a Pull­man porter, so they were able to pur­chase a home in what was then a pre­dom­i­nately white com­mu­nity. Our apart­ment was so small that what was prob­a­bly the liv­ing room was di­vided up into three ‘rooms’. Two were for me and my brother; each fit a twin bed, and it was just wood pan­elling that sep­a­rated us — there was no real wall, we could talk right be­tween us. Like, “Craig?”, “Yep?”, “I’m up.you up? ”we would throw a sock over the pan­elling as a game.

OW: The pic­ture you paint so beau­ti­fully in Be­com­ing is that the four of you — you, Craig and your par­ents — each was a cor­ner of a square. your fam­ily was the square.

MO: Yes, ab­so­lutely.we lived a hum­ble life, but it was a full life.we didn’t re­quire much, you know? If you did well, you did well be­cause you wanted to. A re­ward was maybe pizza night or some ice-cream. But the neigh­bour­hood was pre­dom­i­nantly white when we moved in, and by the time I went to high school, it was pre­dom­i­nantly African-amer­i­can. And you started to feel the ef­fects in the com­mu­nity and the school. This no­tion that kids don’t know when they’re not be­ing in­vested in — I’m here to tell you that as a first grader, I felt it.

OW: You say your par­ents in­vested in you. They didn’t own their own home. They didn’t va­ca­tion —

MO: They in­vested ev­ery­thing in us.

“We have to hand [our chil­dren] hope. Progress isn’t made through fear.” –MICHELLE OBAMA

My mom didn’t go to the hair­dresser. She didn’t buy her­self new clothes. My fa­ther was a shift worker. I could see my par­ents sac­ri­fic­ing for us.

OW: Did you know at the time it was a sac­ri­fice?

MO: Our par­ents didn’t guilt-trip us, but I had eyes, you know? I saw my fa­ther go­ing to work in that uni­form ev­ery day.

OW: Your fa­ther drove a Buick Elec­tra 225. So did my fa­ther. MO: Deuce and a Quar­ter. OW: Deuce and a Quar­ter. MO: We had our lit­tle as­pi­ra­tional mo­ment when we’d get in the Deuce and a Quar­ter and drive to the nicer neigh­bour­hoods and look at the homes. But the Deuce and a Quar­ter for my fa­ther rep­re­sented more than just a car be­cause my fa­ther was dis­abled. He has MS, and he had trou­ble walk­ing for quite some time. That car was his wings. OW: Yes. MO: There was power in that car. I call it a lit­tle cap­sule that we could be in and see the world in a way we nor­mally couldn’t.

OW: So af­ter high school, you went to Prince­ton and then Har­vard Law School. And then you joined this pres­ti­gious law firm in Chicago. Now, this — when I read this, I put three cir­cles around it and two stars — you write, “i hated be­ing a lawyer.”

MO: It took a lot to be able to say that out loud to my­self. In the book, I take you on the jour­ney of who that lit­tle striv­ing, star-get­ter be­came, which is what a lot of hard-driv­ing kids be­come: a box checker. Get good grades: check. Ap­ply to the best schools, get into Prince­ton: check. Get there, what’s your ma­jor? Uh, some­thing that’s go­ing to get me good grades so I can get into law school, I guess? Check. Get through law school: check. I wasn’t a swerver. I wasn’t some­body who was go­ing to take risks. I nar­rowed my­self to be­ing this thing I thought I should be. It took loss — losses in my life that made me think, Have you ever stopped to think about who you wanted to be? And I re­alised I had not. I was sit­ting on the 47th floor of an of­fice build­ing, go­ing over cases and writ­ing memos. OW: What I loved about it is, it says to ev­ery per­son read­ing the book: you have the right to change your mind. MO: Oh gosh, yeah. OW: Were you afraid? MO: I was scared to death.you know, my mother didn’t com­ment on the choices we made. She was live-and-let-live. So one day she’s driv­ing me from the air­port af­ter I was do­ing doc­u­ment pro­duc­tion in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and I was like, I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I can’t sit in a room

and look at doc­u­ments. I won’t get into what that is, but it’s deadly. Deadly. Doc­u­ment pro­duc­tion. So I shared with her in the car: I’m just not happy. I don’t feel my pas­sion. Any my mother — my un­in­volved, live­and-let-live mother — said, “Make the money, worry about be­ing happy later.” I was like [gulps], “Oh. OK.” Be­cause how in­dul­gent that must have felt to my mother. OW: Yes. MO: When she said that, I thought, Wow — what — where did I come from, with all my lux­ury and want­ing my pas­sion? The lux­ury to even be able to de­cide — when she didn’t get to go back to work and start find­ing her­self un­til af­ter she got us into high school. So, yes. It was hard.and then I met this guy Barack Obama. re­la­tion­ship? The loss of his fa­ther? ‘Hey, what are you think­ing about over there?’ I whis­pered. He turned to look at me, his smile a lit­tle sheep­ish. ‘oh’, he said, ‘i was just think­ing about in­come in­equal­ity.’” MO: That’s my honey. OW: You re­ally let us set­tle into the re­la­tion­ship. I mean, down to the pro­posal and ev­ery­thing.you also write about some ma­jor dif­fer­ences be­tween the two of you in the early years of your mar­riage. You say :“i un­der­stood it was noth­ing but good in­ten­tions that would lead him to say, ‘i’m on my way!’ or ‘Al­most home!’” MO: Oh gosh, yes. OW: “And for a while, I be­lieved those words. I’d give the girls their nightly bath but de­lay bed­time so that they could wait up to give their dad a hug.” and then you de­scribe this scene where you’d waited up: he says, “I’m on my way, I’m on my way.” He doesn’t come.and then you turn out the lights — I hear them click off, the way you wrote it. MO: Mm-hmm. OW: Those lights click, you went to bed. You were mad.

MO: I was mad. When you get mar­ried and you have kids, your whole plan, once again, gets up­ended. Es­pe­cially if you get mar­ried to some­body who has a ca­reer that swal­lows up ev­ery­thing, which is what pol­i­tics is. OW: Yeah. MO: Barack Obama taught me how to swerve. But his swerv­ing sort of — you know, I’m flail­ing in the wind. And now, I’ve got two kids and I’m try­ing to hold ev­ery­thing down while he’s trav­el­ling back and forth from Wash­ing­ton or Spring­field. He had this won­der­ful op­ti­mism about time. [Laughs] He thought there was way more of it than there re­ally was. And he would fill it up con­stantly. He’s a plate-spin­ner — plates on sticks, and it’s not ex­cit­ing un­less one’s about to fall. So there was work we had to do as a cou­ple. Coun­selling we had to do to work through this stuff.

OW: So what was the ar­gu­ment, or the con­ver­sa­tion, that got you to say yes to him run­ning for the pres­i­dency? Be­cause you men­tion in the book that ev­ery time some­one would ask him, he’d say, “Well, it’s a fam­ily de­ci­sion.” which was code for “If Michelle says I can, I can.” MO: Imag­ine hav­ing that bur­den: Could

he, should he, would he? That hap­pened when he wanted to run for State Se­nate [in Illi­nois]. And then he wanted to run for Congress. then he was run­ning for the US Se­nate. I knew that Barack was a de­cent man. Smart as all get-out. But pol­i­tics was ugly and nasty, and I didn’t know OW: Barack Obama. MO: He was the op­po­site of the box checker. He was swerv­ing all over the place.

OW: You write, about meet­ing him: “I’d con­structed my ex­is­tence care­fully, tuck­ing and fold­ing ev­ery loose and dis­or­derly bit of it, as if build­ing some tight air­less piece of origami. … He was like a wind that threat­ened to un­set­tle ev­ery­thing”. at first you didn’t like be­ing un­set­tled. MO: Oh God, no. OW: This I love so much — a mo­ment that cracks me up: “I woke one night to find him star­ing at the ceil­ing, his pro­file lit by the glow of street­lights out­side. He looked vaguely trou­bled, as if he were pon­der­ing some­thing deeply per­sonal. Was it our

that my hus­band’s tem­per­a­ment would mesh with that. And I didn’t want to see him in that en­vi­ron­ment. But then on the flip side, you see the world and the chal­lenges that the world is fac­ing.the longer you live and read the pa­per, you know that the prob­lems are big and com­pli­cated. And I thought, Well, what per­son do I know who has the gifts that this man has? The gifts of de­cency, first and fore­most, of em­pa­thy sec­ond, of high in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity. This man reads and re­mem­bers ev­ery­thing, you know? Is ar­tic­u­late. Had worked in the com­mu­nity. And re­ally pas­sion­ately feels like, This is my re­spon­si­bil­ity. How do you say no to that? So I had to take off my wife hat and put on my ci­ti­zen hat.

OW: Did you feel pres­sure be­ing the first black fam­ily? MO: Uh, duh! [Laughs] OW: Uh, duh. Be­cause we’ve all been raised with, You’ve gotta work twice as hard to

get half as far. Be­fore you came out, I was say­ing, “she’s metic­u­lous, not a mis­step —” MO: Do you think that was an ac­ci­dent? OW: I know it was no ac­ci­dent. But did you feel the pres­sure of that?

MO: We felt the pres­sure from the minute we started to run. First of all, we had to con­vince our base that a black man could win. It wasn’t even win­ning Iowa.we first had to win over black peo­ple. Be­cause black peo­ple, like my grand­par­ents — they never be­lieved this could hap­pen. They wanted it. they wanted it for us. But their lives had told them, “No. Never.” Hil­lary [Clin­ton] was the safer bet for them be­cause she was known. OW: Right. MO: Open­ing hearts up to the hope that Amer­ica would put down its racism for a black man — I think that hurt too much. It wasn’t un­til Barack won Iowa that peo­ple thought, OK. Maybe so.

OW: There’s a sec­tion in the book that cer­tain news chan­nels are go­ing to have a field day with.you write about Don­ald Trump stok­ing the false no­tion that your hus­band was not born in this coun­try.you write: “Don­ald Trump, with his loud and reck­less in­nu­en­dos, was putting my fam­ily’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never for­give him.” Why was it im­por­tant for you to say that at this time?

MO: Be­cause I don’t think he knew what he was do­ing. For him, it was a game. But the threats and se­cu­rity risk that you face as the com­man­der in chief, not even within your own coun­try but around the world, are real. And your chil­dren are at risk. In or­der for my chil­dren to have a nor­mal life, even though they had se­cu­rity, they were in the world in a way that we weren’t. And to think that some crazed per­son might be ginned up to think my hus­band was a threat to the coun­try’s se­cu­rity; and to know that my chil­dren, ev­ery day, had to go to school that was guarded but not se­cure, that they had to go to soc­cer games and par­ties and travel and go to col­lege; to think that this per­son would not take into ac­count that this was not a game — that’s some­thing that I want the coun­try to un­der­stand. I want the coun­try to take this in, in a way I didn’t say out loud, but I am say­ing now. It was reck­less and it put my fam­ily in dan­ger and it wasn’t true.and he knew it wasn’t true. OW: Yeah. MO: We had a bul­let shot at the Yel­low Oval Room dur­ing our ten­ure in the White House. A lu­natic came and shot from Con­sti­tu­tion Av­enue. The bul­let hit the up­per-left cor­ner of a win­dow. I see it to this day: the win­dow of the Tru­man Bal­cony, where my fam­ily would sit. that was re­ally the only place we could get out­door space. For­tu­nately, no­body was out there at the time. The shooter was caught. But it took months to re­place that glass be­cause it’s bombproof glass. I had to look at that bul­let hole, as a re­minder of what we were liv­ing with ev­ery day.

OW: You end the book by talk­ing about what will last. And one of the things that has lasted with you, you say, is the sense of op­ti­mism. “i con­tinue, too, to keep my­self con­nected to a force that’s larger and more po­tent than any other elec­tion, or leader or news story — and that’s op­ti­mism. For me, this is a form of faith, an an­ti­dote to fear.” Do you feel the same sense of op­ti­mism for our coun­try? For who we are, as a na­tion, be­com­ing?

MO: Yes. We have to feel that op­ti­mism. For the kids. We’re set­ting the ta­ble for them and we can’t hand them the crap.we have to hand them hope. Progress isn’t made through fear. We’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing that right now. Fear is the cow­ard’s way of lead­er­ship. But the kids are born into this world with a sense of hope and op­ti­mism. No mat­ter where they’re from. Or how tough their sto­ries are. they think they can be any­thing be­cause we tell them that. So we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to be op­ti­mistic. And to op­er­ate in the world in that way. OW: You feel op­ti­mistic for our coun­try?

MO: [Tears up] We have to be.

Obama and Win­frey in con­ver­sa­tion.

Obama as first lady in the Red Room of the White House.

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