The September 2007 issue of Vogue, weighing five pounds, has more ad pages than any magazine issue before or since. For that reason, as well as the lavishness and glitz of the products on display, both in the ads and in the articles, the issue now has the dubious distinction of icon: exemplar of the profligacy that would lead shortly to the Great Recession. Michelle Obama occupies a big fashion photo spread in the issue. In one memorable shot, she reclines, posed sinuously—the better to emphasize the long curve of her backless designer evening dress.
Now I challenge you to find online any photographic record of this particular Michelle Obama fashion shoot (Annie Leibovitz, no less). Although the accompanying article, written in that Vogueish effervescent style, is readily available, the photographs—well, it’s as if they never existed.
Also missing from what now constitutes the public record—a Google search—are the photographs of (then) Senator Obama’s wife sitting in the front row at American couture shows during New York Fashion Week.
Curious that these photographs reappear every so often in European publications but never in American ones.
These anomalies might lead an inquiring journalist, particularly one with a seven-figure book advance in her pocket, to dig and delve for the possibility that the current White House has its own Fixer, that staple of the modern corporation—and if so, who, what, when, how.
Alas, Jodi Kantor does not seem to have such mettle. Her just-published book The Obamas, an account of both the marriage and early days in the White House, is a huge disappointment—all the more so because Kantor is a terrific sketch artist, as her recent biographical piece for The New York Times on Mitt Romney well illustrates.
Although Kantor writes at some length about Michelle Obama’s appearance on the cover of the March 2009 Vogue, as well as the accompanying in-house debate over whether or not the First Lady should do it, Kantor never mentions the earlier photo spread. The omission of the 2007 Vogue appearance—a telling contrast with the 2009 article—encapsulates much of what is missing, woefully missing, from Kantor’s book.
First, research. Kantor has not done enough of it. Although she traveled to Chicago to interview Obama friends and acquaintances, Kantor did not dig deeper, and into much more important detail than the existence of a previous appearance in Vogue. The result—peculiar for a book written by a Times reporter—is a near-hagiographic re-telling of the Obama campaign version of the “Obamas-in-Chicago” backstory.
“The Obamas were horrified,” Kantor writes, “their worst suspicions about that world [Chicago politics] confirmed.” Kantor allows this assessment from an unnamed Obama friend(s) to stand. She fails to point out that through his association with Tony Rezko Obama was very much a part of that world.
Kantor lets stand Michelle’s remark, apropos “all white Irish Catholic” running city and state politics, “’You shouldn’t have a better chance if you’re a Kennedy than if you’re an Obama. Why is it that they have the right to this?’” Kantor does not point out any of the obverse: African-Americans are also very powerful in Chicago politics; the Obamas, part of an Ivy League-educated African-American Chicago elite, had an early, quick entrée to civic and cultural boards and the kind of recognition and access this provides; Barack was already taking advantage of a Kennedy-esque rise to power unprecedented since the 1960s.
Kantor fails to investigate Michelle Obama’s tenure at Chicago law firm Sidley Austin (the supposition in the legal world for why she left is quite different from her own assessment that she wanted to have a more direct impact on people’s lives). Kantor fails to comment upon the conclusion in some Chicago circles that the work Michelle’s father did at the water plant was a patronage job—nothing wrong there, except that, if true, it complicates Michelle’s disdain for Chicago politics.
The result for Kantor’s book is that Barack and Michelle Obama come off as peevish, spoiled, out-of-touch. “Underlying issues of poverty and education had little chance of being addressed,” Kantor quotes a Kevin Thompson on Michelle’s thoughts about Chicago. Kantor does not mention the “small schools movement” then taking place in Chicago, or any of the other local experiments in educational reform that have, among other results, propelled Arnie Duncan to an Obama cabinet position. Surely, Michelle Obama knew what was going on in Chicago education. The salient question here: does Jodi Kantor know?–because her indirect quote on Michelle Obama’s thoughts on Chicago education makes it look like Michelle felt she was alone in her concern.
I feel (almost) sure that Jodi Kantor admires and likes the Obamas, for all their very human faults, as much as I do. Through lack of thorough research, however, she inadvertently creates a negative portrait of the First Couple. (The only adult, by the way, who comes off well and with dignity in the book is Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson.)
An even better example of this backwash effect is Kantor’s acceptance of the Obama version of their marriage at face value. Early in her book, and at some length, Kantor describes the Oahu wedding of Barack Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro, where Barack defines the right spouse as “’somebody who sees you as you deserve to be seen.’” Here would have been the perfect moment to give some context to Obama’s remark by investigating his previous girlfriends as a way of shedding some light on his courting of Michelle Robinson.
Kantor seems not to have interviewed any of Obama’s Harvard classmates who were romantically involved with him and/or who were on Harvard Law Review during his tenure as editor-in-chief. One wag, the spouse of another law review editor, calls this “the time of auditions for the role of Mrs. Obama.” The phrasing of this eyewitness account reveals, among other things, that Barack Obama’s protestation that he was reluctant to enter politics, a protestation woven sans context throughout the Kantor narrative, is not the whole truth.
After research, context is everything. An insightful book on the occupants of the White House would be a weaving of many different contexts and the complicated ways in which they interact with the specifics of the Obamas’ lives. The two instances where the book fitfully comes alive Kantor does precisely this. She describes, briefly, the weirdness of the White House architecturally and therefore the logistical discomforts for anybody living there—but—believe me, as someone who has wandered the corridors—she could have gone into much more vivid detail.
Also briefly, Kantor touches on the one uniqueness of the Obama White House experience: they are its first African-American First Family. The observations and feelings Kantor chronicles, via the Obamas’ best friends the Whitakers and Nesbitts, are riveting. Again, Kantor could have, and should have, pursued here in much greater depth. I can think of a few pool reports, such as the Oval Office gathering and party to honor Obama’s hanging on its wall a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation—easy source material for a reporter, but accounts unknown to most Americans—that would have enriched Kantor’s narrative.
Otherwise, however, the Kantor version of Obama White House life and marriage is without best context. The structure for her narrative is the political drama unfolding, largely on Capitol Hill, at the same time. Not only is this a recounting of the known (we all are well aware of what happened in Washington over the last three years) and therefore boring, but the unknowns Kantor recounts (the White House infighting) have recently been chronicled much more incisively by Ron Suskind in Confidence Men. Using political wins and losses as the book’s structure has the effect, moreover, of skewing the narrative so that Michelle Obama emerges as the crux of various legislative battles. In Kantor’s recounting of the passing of health insurance reform, for example, Michelle is a key player. Nancy Pelosi is not even mentioned.
Kantor does not even begin to set Michelle Obama and her marriage and her White House sojourn in the context for which she will be remembered: her place in that long line of First Ladies who have gone before her.
How is Michelle Obama’s life in the White House like and not like the tenures of previous First Ladies? Are the discomforts experienced by the Obamas, repeated to Kantor in some detail by Obama intimates, more or less, or typical, for First Families?
“Without the effective and intelligent aid they [First Ladies] rendered, no administration would have been satisfactory; and though the political historian may ignore such service, the right-thinking, honorable men or women of this country have a higher appreciation of the services rendered by these ladies, who were the power behind the throne, equal in social influence to the throne itself, and a historical work bearing upon their lives is a valuable contribution to the nation’s official history.”
The use of the adjective “honorable” is a giveaway that the observation I have quoted above is old. Otherwise the conceit is one that seems to us to express a recent historical development: First Ladies now can, if they so choose, exert great influence on an administration. What I have excerpted, however, was written in 1880. This is part of Laura Holloway’s preface to her Ladies of the White House (Martha Washington through Lucretia Rudolph Garfield).
Reading Kantor’s book, you might think that Michelle Obama’s First Lady role is unprecedented, a successful working out of what Hillary Clinton aimed for but failed to achieve: prompter of social change. As Holloway’s book makes clear, however, we Americans have always seen our First Ladies in this role. We have always wanted her to be what chroniclers used to call “a moral, civilizing influence” on public affairs. And this is exactly the role that Michelle Obama has played in her husband’s life and in his White House.
Moreover, Michelle is playing the role in a more traditional way than some of her recent forebears—not only Hillary Clinton (politically ambitious), but also Barbara Bush (outspoken) and Nancy Reagan (managing; edgier First Lady cause—taking on drug use). Equally, if not more importantly, for the average American spectator, Michelle Obama is the first First Lady since Nancy Reagan and before her Jackie Kennedy to be interested in fashion.
Not only does Kantor fail to place Michelle Obama in the context of previous First Ladies. Kantor fails to call Michelle on her own ignorance of First Lady history. At one point in her book, Kantor mentions that Michelle had no interest in researching what previous inhabitants of the White House had done. Kantor writes: “The new first lady did not identify much with those who had filled the role before her, and she showed limited interest in studying their examples.”
There have been consequences to Michelle’s choice—huge consequences if this book gains traction among political Independents—because Michelle often comes across as overly whiny and complaining about White House life. Get a grip, Michelle! I want to say to her after a few Kantor chapters. Like Mary Todd Lincoln and Jackie Kennedy, have you lost a child while living in the White House? When you look at the White House’s most famous portrait of George Washington, hanging now in the East Room, don’t you put all in perspective by remembering Dorothy P. Madison?
Here is Dolley, as we know her, writing to her sister in August, 1814:
“Three o’clock.—Will you believe it, my sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust come to bid me fly; but I wait for him. . . . At this late hour a wagon has been procured; I have had it filled with the plate and most valuable portable articles belonging to the house; whether it will reach its destination, the Bank of Maryland, or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine. Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out; it is done—and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York for safekeeping. And now, my dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!”
Canniness, savvy, intelligence, instinct, experience—who knows now?—gave Mrs. Madison a sense of place. Yes, her husband was president—but General Washington in importance and priority above all. Michelle Obama has yet to acquire that sense of place. One way of looking at her White House vegetable garden is that it is an attempt on her part, on some level, to find that ground. But if there is one thing Kantor’s book reveals it is that Michelle Obama has yet to put her own White House experience, however burdensome, in perspective. After all, she has yet to flee the British.
Ideally, a living historical personage at some point becomes fully aware of the larger context in which he or she is privileged to play a part. A problem for early in medias res books like Kantor’s is that sometimes, as with Michelle Obama, the subject is still on that journey to sense of place. But this is no excuse, really, for Kantor’s own failure to “place” Michelle Obama. Against the historical unfolding that her husband’s female supporters of 2008 hoped for, Michelle is first and foremost that traditional First Lady I described earlier.
However, Kantor—and here is her argument’s structural weakness—cannot relinquish a personal, generational affinity for the fashionable liberal narrative “marriage of equals.” Therefore, she does not examine the harder, in many ways sadder, truth that all First Ladies, even a Michelle, subsume their desires, their choices, their lives to power. Furthermore, and here is the modern twist on the old story, the Michelle we see is not a real person. The Obamas of the White House are not a real couple.
This is the political irony of the times. We live in an information-saturated culture; we are bombarded by media. Despite this reality—and in part because of it—people who become public figures learn, are helped, are coached to present simulacrums of themselves. The Michelle Obama of today is the pruned personal story, the honed and refined personality, the airbrushed image Team Obama presents to us.
Apparently with the blessing of the White House, friends and former staffers spoke with Kantor. (She did not interview either Obama for her book.) Team Obama was right to trust these people to present the Obamas and their life in a positive light. What no one seemed to anticipate (and indeed this is curious for a communications team—where is Robert Gibbs, Enforcer when you need him?) is this: an account can sound one way coming straight from the observer’s mouth and sound very differently in juxtaposition with other accounts.
Therefore, the (likely) wry and slightly confiding recounting of this or that His and Her Obama foible, (likely) proffered to attest to their humanity and to fill out their personalities, becomes in the aggregate, in Kantor’s retelling, an overwhelming impression of Obamic arrogance and self-pity.
“The Obamas came to the depressing realization that the simple act of going home had now become, as one staff member put it, ‘an ordeal.’”
“When she inherited the list of annual Washington-spouse events from Laura Bush’s office, she [Michelle] asked her staff if she could skip all of them, including the Congressional Club luncheon.”
“Now, as far as she [Michelle] could tell, she was stuck in a position with little definition and no clear goals. Whatever little structure the role [First Lady] carried was dictated by a series of mandatory events [like the Congressional Club luncheon].”
“The longest-running headache was over redecoration.”
“The president’s dawning sense of political powerlessness, the first lady’s sense of personal powerlessness: the two were not entirely separate.”
“She wasn’t doing one little thing here, another event there.” Not unless she got a new dress out of it. (Here is another Kantor takeaway that is not going to help the First Lady’s image.)
For Pete’s sake, Obamas! I kept asking rhetorically. How is it that any average American knows what to expect from life in the White House fishbowl and yet you two somehow did not?
Obama friends and former staffers gave Kantor impressions—impressions that were intended, surely, to add up to a sympathetic portrait—of Obama life in the White House. Seldom in her book does Kantor question these accounts or try to put them into the context of what other White House families may have felt and done during their own days of adjustment. As a writer, I usually have some sense of another writer’s intention and strategy. With Jodi Kantor, however, I have no sense that she realizes what an overwhelmingly negative impression overall of the Obamas she is creating—a picture I believe to be false, by the way. She is too intent on the “marriage of equals” meme—as if Michelle’s ability to hold her own weight (or not) with Barack has the rest of the country waiting, with bated breath, to see how that relationship works out.
For Kantor, using these accounts about Obama White House life, without examining them, without holding them up to the light, this way and that, substitutes for deconstructing the presidential personae. In this way, her book manages to compound misimpression. The Obamas is an oxymoronic execution: the Kantor narrative preserves the airbrushed Obama personae perfected in 2008 by Team Obama while at the same time presenting the First Couple in a negative and false light.
As the cover-up of the lavish Alice in Wonderland Halloween party at the White House in 2009—the take-away from Kantor’s book that has received the most press—shows us, Team Obama continues to try to be Master of the Universe of Image Control. To be fair, any modern White House communications team would do the same. As is often the case with take-aways and scoops, the meaning of the revelation about the Halloween party has eluded the more perfervid members of the fourth estate.
It’s not that the White House press are biased in favor of Obama, and therefore the Obama White House can count on “curtains” over certain stories. On the contrary. Nothing could be further from the truth. The relationship between the press and this particular White House is poisonous—both because the Man at the Top respects only press elites like Peter Baker of the Times (when most of the corps are working class proles) and because the Obama White House is so stingy with morsels for feeding the news beast.
This is where the withholding of details about the White House Halloween party in 2009—namely, that Tim Burton turned the State Dining Room into Alice’s Wonderland and that Johnny Depp lent his services as Mad Hatter—is relevant. I know one White House reporter was stonewalled when she asked, at the time, who was performing at the Halloween party. She was still simmering mad about the information black-out when we met up a month later. This is really her story to tell, if she so chooses, so I don’t want to say more than that. Except this. The White House counts on the rapid passing of news. Halloween, even at the White House, is soon stale fodder, and overburdened reporters quickly have to move on.
The nature of the quotidian press is one reason a White House book, any White House book, which permits time for investigation and reflection, is so important. And in the current press vs. White House environment the telling detail that manages somehow to escape the attention of White House Politburo Central is necessary for the kind of book Kantor tried to write. The garish and vulgar Halloween-as-Wonderland transformation of the State Dining Room (the original Washington portrait room, no less!) is one of the few instances where she provides a counter-narrative. She should have found more—not only evidence of the re-crafting of the Michelle persona like the September 2007 appearance in Vogue but also the quadrennial (and ever-failing) attempts by White House newbies to buck Tradition and what the specific instances here tell us about the current occupants of the People’s House. I am thinking in particular of Desiree Rogers’s (and Michelle Obama’s?) early attempt to do away with the White House Christmas crèche. Rogers was such an important East Wing personage for awhile, and yet Kantor hardly mentions her.
Where is the reportorial hustle and investigative chutzpah that a contemporary account such as Kantor’s should have? For contrast, please read Marian Burros on “What Michelle Ate–and Where She Ate It,” the one really good piece—revealing in so many ways—written about Michelle Obama recently.
Curiosity and skepticism are any reporter’s best gifts. But Kantor hardly brings hers to bear. Therefore, she is seldom able to turn the pablum Obama friends, family and staffers have provided her into a complicated, deeper, richer, and finally true, narrative. The irony, as I said earlier, is that the Obamas are the poorer for it.
Finally, The Obamas should be a lesson to all friends and family of presidents. Never speak to reporters. Remember what Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon said when asked about Mary and Abe. Six words. “All that I know ennobles both.”
January 11, 2012