Monday 23 September 2019

Krissah Thompson: 'Self-portrait of former first lady reveals why Michelle does not want White House return'

Star performer: Michelle Obama on the campaign trail for Barack – she is not keen to follow his path to the Oval Office. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Star performer: Michelle Obama on the campaign trail for Barack – she is not keen to follow his path to the Oval Office. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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.)

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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)

Irish Independent

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