Tellingly Be­com­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - STEPHEN PHILLIPS

Michelle Obama’s new bi­og­ra­phy

BE­COM­ING MICHELLE OBAMA Vik­ing, 448pp, £25

Michelle Obama’s Be­com­ing nar­rates the re­mark­able rise of its au­thor from shoe­box apart­ment on Chicago’s south side through Ivy League col­lege to elite law firm and her col­li­sion with “an Afro-Kansan-In­done­sian-Hawai­ian-Chicagoan” with a “weird name and quixotic smile [who] bril­liantly up­ended ev­ery­thing”.

Bright and driven, she tests into an elite high school, thence – de­fy­ing a coun­sel­lor’s ad­vice to aim lower – to Prince­ton. She’s ad­mit­ted to Har­vard Law be­fore be­ing re­cruited to the part­ner-track at Si­d­ley & Austin in Chicago. Here, she runs head­long into an in­tern – 28 to her 25 fol­low­ing a de­tour into com­mu­nity or­gan­is­ing – on va­ca­tion from his own le­gal stud­ies at Har­vard. The two be­come smit­ten.

Thus, Be­com­ing af­fords a price­less glimpse of the young Barack Obama. One is re­minded of the sin­gu­lar per­son­al­ity (Michelle brands him a “uni­corn – un­usual to the point of seem­ing al­most un­real”) of this un­likely po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal – a re­nun­ci­ate with an out­size so­cial con­science and monk-scholar ten­den­cies who scan­dalises fas­tid­i­ous Michelle with his per­mis­sive at­ti­tude to­ward mar­riage (un­nec­es­sary) and smok­ing habit. Yet he’s an every­man who sails through brother Craig’s pick-up bas­ket­ball game lit­mus test – the ver­dict: “He’s no ball hog…but he’s got guts.” And he’s that rare beast: some­one un­be­holden to oth­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions, de­ter­mined to find his own path. “Barack was se­ri­ous with­out be­ing self-se­ri­ous,” Michelle re­flects. “It oc­curred to me, too, that quite pos­si­bly the man would never make any money.”

Michelle is spurred by Barack’s ex­am­ple to ex­pand her hori­zons beyond per­sonal up­ward mo­bil­ity – “It was one thing to get your­self out of a stuck place…an­other thing en­tirely to try to get the place it­self un­stuck.” She quits Si­d­ley for a non­profit de­voted to cul­ti­vat­ing com­mu­nity lead­ers. For his part, Obama is drawn to Michelle’s ground­ed­ness as a daugh­ter of the south side raised in a sta­ble fam­ily, rooted in Chicago’s African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

They’re mar­ried in 1992, form­ing a “yin-and-yang duo”. The vaunted “no-drama Obama” calm – a balm to the na­tion dur­ing crises – could be ag­gra­vat­ing in­ter-per­son­ally: “Barack…tends to re­main cool and ra­tio­nal, his words com­ing in an elo­quent (and there­fore ir­ri­tat­ing) cas­cade.” And you could take the man out of Hawaii but not Hawaii out of the man; he op­er­ated on is­land time – peren­ni­ally run­ning late, a fail­ing she char­i­ta­bly at­tributes to “eter­nal op­ti­mism”. Then there’s his bot­tom­less zeal for new projects. “He was like a cir­cus per­former who liked to set plates spin­ning…a se­rial over-com­mit­ter.”

Michelle caught flak dur­ing the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign for kvetch­ing about Barack’s fail­ure to pick up his socks after him and other do­mes­tic delin­quen­cies – deemed by New York Times colum­nist Mau­reen Dowd an un­seemly, in­fan­til­is­ing schtick. “For me, it had al­ways been im­por­tant that peo­ple see Barack as hu­man and not as some oth­er­worldly sav­ior,” she re­joins. “Mau­reen Dowd would have pre­ferred, ap­par­ently, that I adopt the painted-on smile and the ador­ing gaze.”

But this con­ve­niently over­looks Dowd’s in­ti­ma­tion that Michelle’s vig­i­lance did not ex­tend to pos­si­ble real dirty laun­dry – a trans­ac­tion to ex­tend their prop­erty line in­volv­ing a sub­se­quently-jailed wheeler-dealer who con­trib­uted to Barack’s po­lit­i­cal cof­fers.

Be­com­ing’s prose is at times ar­rest­ingly good. The sus­pense of Elec­tion Day is ren­dered with nu­mi­nous brevity: “You’ve leaped but you haven’t landed.” Then there’s this el­e­gant gloss on the stres­sors on her hus­band as pres­i­dent: “His job, it seemed, was to take the chaos and me­tab­o­lize it some­how into calm lead­er­ship…”

But – a func­tion per­haps of her de­lim­ited role as First Lady – it drags dur­ing the White House years. Chas­tened by Hil­lary Clin­ton’s fum­bled at­tempt to eke out more sub­stan­tive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for the of­fice, Michelle bri­dles at be­ing re­duced to futz­ing over pro­to­col. Still, she drills down on a drive to re­duce child­hood obe­sity. And her en­coun­ters with vet­er­ans are heart-rend­ing: “I found a broad-shoul­dered young man from ru­ral Texas who had mul­ti­ple in­juries and whose body had been se­verely burned. He was in clear agony, tear­ing off the bed­sheets and try­ing to slide his feet to the floor. It took us all a minute to un­der­stand what he was do­ing. De­spite his pain, he was try­ing to stand up and salute the wife of his com­man­der in chief.”

Michelle’s dis­dain for Trump has been widely re­ported; she blames him for cal­lously im­per­illing her fam­ily. Not long after he reprises “birtherism”, a gun­man shoots up the White House. More glar­ing though is her re­sound­ing si­lence on the per­sonal han­dover to Trump as pres­i­dent. Pres­i­dents and First Ladies, past and present, have formed a so­dal­ity tran­scend­ing party af­fil­i­a­tion. Trump’s snip­ing broke the chain.

And yet the Repub­lic beats on. “A hand goes on a Bi­ble; an oath gets re­peated,” she writes. “One pres­i­dent’s fur­ni­ture gets car­ried out while an­other’s comes in. Clos­ets are emp­tied and re­filled. Just like that, there are new heads on new pil­lows – new tem­per­a­ments, new dreams.”

Michelle Obama at the Water­front Hall in Belfast in 2013. Pho­to­graph: Dara Mac Dó­naill

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