Why Michelle Obama doesn’t want a White House re­turn

Irish Independent - - The Week - Kris­sah Thomp­son

AS MICHELLE Obama’s highly an­tic­i­pated me­moir ‘Be­com­ing’ ar­rives, it’s clear the for­mer first lady is oc­cu­py­ing a space in the cul­ture be­yond pol­i­tics. With an arena book tour fea­tur­ing A-list spe­cial guests, she seems to ex­ist in the mid­dle ground be­tween two icons she calls friends, Oprah Win­frey and Bey­oncé Knowles-Carter. Her ap­proach is short of Win­frey’s full-on con­fes­sional style but goes fur­ther than the guarded in­ti­macy of Knowles-Carter’s art and per­for­mances.

Her book walks a sim­i­lar line. It’s re­veal­ing, right down to the glossy cover photo in a ca­sual white top – one shoul­der ex­posed, eyes bright. (Spoiler: It’s not the kind of shirt a soon-to-be po­lit­i­cal can­di­date wears.)

But Obama, fa­mously guarded as first lady, still val­ues her pri­vacy – even as she of­fers frank opin­ions about Don­ald Trump and dis­closes past fer­til­ity strug­gles.

“I don’t think any­body will be pre­pared to read a me­moir like this – es­pe­cially com­ing from a first lady,” said Shonda Rhimes, the tele­vi­sion pro­ducer, who read an ad­vance copy.

The first-lady me­moir is a rite of pas­sage, but Obama’s is dif­fer­ent by virtue of her iden­tity, tak­ing her his­toric sta­tus as the first black woman to serve as first lady and melds it deftly into the Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive.

She writes of the com­mon as­pects of her story and – as the only White House res­i­dent to count an en­slaved great-great-grand­fa­ther as an an­ces­tor – of its sin­gu­lar sweep.

In the 426-page vol­ume, Obama lays out her com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with the po­lit­i­cal world. But her me­moir is not a Wash­ing­ton read full of gos­sip and po­lit­i­cal score-set­tling, though she does lay bare her deep, quak­ing dis­dain for Trump, who she be­lieves put her fam­ily’s safety at risk with his ve­he­ment pro­mo­tion of the false birther con­spir­acy the­ory.

“The whole [birther] thing was crazy and mean-spir­ited, of course, its un­der­ly­ing big­otry and xeno­pho­bia hardly con­cealed. But it was also dan­ger­ous, de­lib­er­ately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks,” she writes.

“What if some­one with an un­sta­ble mind loaded a gun and drove to Wash­ing­ton? What if that per­son went look­ing for our girls? Don­ald Trump, with his loud and reck­less in­nu­en­dos, was putting my fam­ily’s safety at risk. And for this I’d never for­give him.”

It is the most di­rect and per­sonal lan­guage she’s used about Trump.

‘The Wash­ing­ton Post’ ob­tained an early copy of Obama’s book, which will be re­leased on Tues­day. Even those who have fol­lowed Obama’s life closely in the decade-and-a-half since her hus­band was a rel­a­tively un­known Illi­nois politi­cian will come away with fresh un­der­stand­ing of how she sees the world and the peo­ple and ex­pe­ri­ences that shaped her.

She di­vides the me­moir into three parts: ‘Be­com­ing Me’, ‘Be­com­ing Us’, ‘Be­com­ing More’. The first sec­tion is a deep, of­ten so­ci­o­log­i­cal ex­plo­ration of Chicago and its peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions. Its tex­tured dis­cus­sion of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, race and class are re­minders Obama ma­jored in so­ci­ol­ogy and mi­nored in African-Amer­i­can stud­ies at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity.

The sec­ond sec­tion, ‘Be­com­ing Us’, is a romp through her ro­mance with Barack Obama, start­ing a fam­ily with him and her search for work she loved. It be­gins with words never be­fore writ­ten by a first lady about her man: “As soon as I al­lowed my­self to feel any­thing for Barack, the feel­ings came rush­ing – a top­pling blast of lust, grat­i­tude, ful­fil­ment, won­der.”

‘Be­com­ing More’ tra­verses their life as pub­lic fig­ures. It con­tains her own view of her legacy and ac­com­plish­ments as first lady and what it felt like to live un­der the in­tense scrutiny she faced. As she cam­paigned for her hus­band’s re-elec­tion in 2012, she writes she felt “haunted” by the ways she’d been crit­i­cised and by peo­ple who had made as­sump­tions about her based on the colour of her skin.

She thought then about what she owed and to whom: “I car­ried a his­tory with me, and it wasn’t that of pres­i­dents or first ladies. I’d never re­lated to the story of John Quincy Adams the way I did to that of So­journer Truth [born into slav­ery and an anti-slav­ery cam­paigner].”

From the pref­ace, Obama promises a story that cov­ers the full con­tour of her life – grow­ing up in a “cramped apart­ment on the South Side of Chicago” to liv­ing in “a place with more stairs that I can count”. From “be­ing held up as the most pow­er­ful woman in the world” to be­ing “taken down as an ‘an­gry black woman’”.

Obama is most rev­e­la­tory when writ­ing about her 30s; how she con­tin­ued to grieve the deaths of a dear friend and her beloved fa­ther; how she dealt with her ver­sion of the chewed-over “can I have it all?” dilemma work­ing mothers face.

She also shares in­ti­mate de­tails for the first time, for in­stance, that she and her hus­band had trou­ble get­ting preg­nant, suf­fered a mis­car­riage, and both daugh­ters were con­ceived through in vitro fer­til­i­sa­tion.

And that she did a great deal of this while her hus­band was away serv­ing in the state leg­is­la­ture, leav­ing her to ad­min­is­ter the shots that are a part of that process her­self.

Rhimes, who has read mem­oirs by other first ladies and cre­ated a fic­tional one on her TV drama ‘Scan­dal’, said: “I love the hon­esty and the hu­mour and the beauty with which she ad­dressed the ro­mance of her mar­riage and the tribu­la­tions of her mar­riage and mother­hood.”

The White House years are the pe­riod on which Obama has had least time to re­flect. There are mo­ments she speeds through and oth­ers where she re­cites her ap­proach to plan­ning her first-lady pro­grammes, in­ten­tion­ally fo­cus­ing her ‘Let’s Move’ ini­tia­tive on chil­dren so as to avoid be­ing ac­cused of over­reach.

She con­tends the fire­wall be­tween the Of­fice of the First Lady and West Wing was solid – men­tion­ing that her hus­band called her to the Oval Of­fice only once, af­ter the tragic New­town shoot­ings. They both mourned, and she links the gun vi­o­lence there to the ur­ban shoot­ings in her home­town and ex­presses her dis­be­lief re­gard­ing the con­gres­sional fail­ure to pass gun-con­trol leg­is­la­ture.

As to her in­flu­ence on Barack Obama’s poli­cies and plans, there’s no in­di­ca­tion she sought to sway de­ci­sions or served as in­for­mal ad­viser. In­stead, fam­ily time be­came sa­cred; world is­sues pushed aside in favour of tales from mid­dle school. Af­ter their fam­ily din­ners, he had his briefing books, and she had hers.

Through­out, Obama makes it clear she re­mained wary of the po­lit­i­cal press and the pub­lic “gaze”; felt, at times, bul­lied, stereo­typed and un­der-served – par­tic­u­larly dur­ing her hus­band’s 2008 cam­paign.

Her book, which is be­ing re­leased one week af­ter the midterm elec­tions, will spark con­ver­sa­tion as the Democrats look for a stan­dard-bearer for the 2020 gen­eral elec­tion.

She seeks to put an end to calls for her to run for of­fice: “I’ve never been a fan of pol­i­tics, and my ex­pe­ri­ence over the last 10 years has done lit­tle to change that. I con­tinue to be put off by the nas­ti­ness.” (© The Wash­ing­ton Post)

Don­ald Trump, with his loud and reck­less in­nu­en­dos, was putting my fam­ily’s safety at risk. For this I’d never for­give him

Star per­former: Michelle Obama on the cam­paign trail for Barack – she is not keen to fol­low his path to the Oval Of­fice

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