The just-released, best-selling book “The Obamas” written by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor is getting a lot of push back from the White House in connection with her reporting of Mrs. Obama’s interactions with the President’s staff and her portrayal of the ups and downs of the Obama family’s adjustments to White House life. Michelle Obama has been quite vocal about the fact that she is not too happy with how she is portrayed, saying that she’s not “an angry black woman.”
After reading the book, I’m surprised that the White House isn’t embracing this account, especially with regard to the portrayal of Mrs. Obama. No, she’s not what we might call a traditional First Lady — it’s clear that she feels confident enough in herself as an educated, professional woman that she can express her views and concerns to her staff, as well as to the President’s. I don’t see that as a bad thing.
Jodi Kantor’s account is an in-depth look at the Obama family’s White House evolution and the growing pains that all First Families surely must go through. Kantor’s book paints a picture of a family with a shared sense of mission coming to terms with the public dissection of what were once a private conversations and moments. And no, Mrs. Obama does not come across as a wallflower or timid presidential spouse. She is clearly someone comfortable with talking about how certain issues and decisions impact the goals that the Obamas have for their tenure in Washington. For anyone to suggest that this is a new thing in the world of First Ladies is either uninformed or just plain disingenuous.
Kantor had unprecedented access to the East Wing of the White House and Mrs. Obama’s staff. In addition to many interviews she conducted “on background” — meaning she could quote what people said, but not identify them by name — as well as the on the record conversations she had with some of Mrs. Obama’s closest confidantes, it’s hard to criticize her reporting, even though it seems like the White House is trying.
So what does the author make of all this attention – good and bad – for a book she’s worked on for years? I caught up with Kantor, who also happens to be a busy mom of a six-year-old daughter, to get her thoughts on White House marriages, the notoriety she’s received for the book, and who she was really writing it for.
Q: Why do you think we’re fascinated with the marriages of First Couples?
A: I think we’re interested in seeing transitions from a private marriage to what [inevitably] becomes something of a super-marriage. Conversations First Couples had before arriving at the White House were interactions that always remained private. Once a couple moves into the White House, all those personal, private debates become public.
Q: What made you want to write this book?
A: I was inspired to write “The Obamas” partly because many women [who were Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008] came up to me while I was covering that that campaign and said there just weren’t enough stories about women and politics that speak to us [as women.] Some of my friends have often wondered why certain stories about family life in the White House don’t make headlines. I was also inspired by the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, “No Ordinary Time” that portrayed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt as true political partners. I liked that “No Ordinary Time” gave equal time to each of their stories.
I also wanted to write a book that showed how White House families evolve and change over time. That’s difficult to do in day-to-day news coverage. But I thought it would be interesting to write a book that would illustrate how a first couple changes and transforms, showing the readers that the people they meet at the beginning of the book aren’t the same at the end. Both of the Obamas learned how to cope with certain frustrations and difficulties [of White House life]. I think those lessons of growth are very powerful.
Q: Do you think people would respond differently to some of the stories about Michelle Obama if they were about a “First Husband?”
A: First Ladyhood won’t change until we elect our first woman president. Once we have a First ‘Gent’ – a role that will come with no preconceived expectations – it will be easier for subsequent First Ladies to change what that role can be. The first First Lady we have after the first woman president will be a lucky woman!
Q: How do you feel about the criticism the book is receiving for what some see as a portrayal of Michelle Obama as an “angry black woman?”
A: I’m surprised that some people perceive an “angry back woman” undercurrent in the book. I was very careful to write the book in a way that I thought moved beyond stereotypes, which I’ve tried to do my other writing about the Obamas.
Q: When I read and heard some of the book’s reviews, I wondered why there was little about parenting in the White House. Then as I read your book, it became clear that you do address that throughout, including a whole chapter dedicated to that topic!
A: Yes, I really wanted to address that part of the Obamas’ lives and [as a mother myself] write the book for an audience that I really wanted to speak to – women and mothers. But I also wanted to write about how parenting [in a fishbowl] has impacted the lives of all their family. For example, I shared what I thought was a [relatable] parenting story in the book about the time the President was speaking about education initiatives and announced nationally that he had been disappointed that Malia had received a score of only 73 on a test. She got really mad at her dad and he apologized to her later for that.
Kantor and I agreed we could have talked for hours on the parenting aspects of the Obamas’ story, as well as what women would really like to see from other women in politics. Fingers crossed we get to have that conversation soon.
A version of this post was originally written for iVillage.com, where I’ll be working on 2012 election coverage this year!