A Conversation with Liza Mundy
Q: What first compelled you to devote your time to researching and writing a thorough and balanced book about Michelle Obama?
A: I have written a number of profiles of high-profile political women who seem to have a polarizing effect on the public (do high profile-men ever have such a polarizing effect?) and Michelle Obama fits right into that tradition. I was also interested in her because I attended Princeton at roughly the same time she did and was familiar with the campus culture she encountered. And of course, she is representative of the struggles so many women of our generation face, trying to raise children and pursue careers and realize their own professional potential, often given the reality of husbands who are working harder than they are. But most of all, I felt it would be something of a public service to provide readers with a fuller sense of Michelle Obama's life and where she comes from, the landscapes and environments that have helped shape her personality and her worldview. She is, after all, a relative newcomer to public life, and many people feel a real, legitimate curiosity about her.
Q: Did Michelle Obama cooperate with you on this book?
A: She did not cooperate for the book. I interviewed her, her brother Craig, and Barack Obama back in the summer of 2007, when I was writing an analysis of Barack's political rise. During that interview she talked about her initial dislike of politics, and her reactions to his Senate race in 2004, and his decision in late 2006 to run for president. So that interview turned out to be highly relevant for the purposes of this book, as did my interview with Craig, who talked about their family and Barack Obama's introduction to it. However, by winter of 2008 the campaign had become wary of press coverage and very anxious to control her image. The bright side of this, however, is that it liberates the reporter from talking to the same twelve people who always get interviewed—certain friends and co-workers, mostly--and forces the reporter to dig harder and deeper and to find people who have never been interviewed before.
Q: We are fed a lot of conflicting images of Michelle. Who is she really? An elitist overachiever? A revolutionary who freely plays the race card? The compassionate "girlfriend" who turns up on the Oprah Winfrey Show?
A: She is a driven, ambitious person who shares her husband's vision of social change, and is willing to make considerable family sacrifices in order to see that vision realized. People aren't aware, I think, of how ambitious she is.
Q: As the descendent of slaves, what does Michelle Obama "bring to the table" that Barack cannot?
A: A classic American narrative. Her ancestors are from South Carolina, which was a major slave-owning state; her grandfather joined the Great Migration out of the post-agrarian South, traveling along with millions of others into an urban environment, in his case Chicago. Michelle herself lived through much of the racial turmoil of the post-Civil Rights era. It is a major American narrative that she embodies, and it's one that is not often seen in public life, as she points out.
Q: How did Michelle's father influence her life?
A: Her father was one of the profound moral influences on her life, a warm and steadying presence. He and her mother, Marian, understood the value of education and encouraged their children to push themselves. They also provided insulation and warm support for their children, Michelle and Craig, who grew up in a neighborhood defined by white flight. Some of their first experiences as children would have seeing white families move away and, presumably, wondering why that was happening. Their parents talked to them about this and urged them not to be discouraged by what they saw. Fraser Robinson was also said to have been a friendly person with a quick sense of humor, and Michelle clearly inherited the qualities.
Q: You write that "Critics read her Princeton thesis and argue that she's Angela Davis in designer sundresses," but you're read this controversial paper. What's the truth about its content?
A: I'd say that it's the work of a young woman who was struggling to understand how Princeton had changed her, and to resolve an inner conflict between her sense of commitment to the poorer African American community and her own desire to do well in life and enjoy some of the benefits she had now been exposed to. It's also the work, I think, of a young woman who missed her family. And who had experienced a bit of culture shock.
Q: Michelle went to a fully integrated public high school in Chicago with many white students, yet she claims that she did not feel the sting of racism until attending Princeton. In your own experience at the university, do you think that appraisal of Princeton is accurate?
A: Oh, I'm sure that Princeton was different from anything she had ever experienced before. While her public high school was integrated, African American students were in the majority at Whitney Young, held many leadership positions, and enjoyed strength in numbers. At her high school, the white students who were there had made the choice to attend a public school with a diverse student body and were presumably seeking out that kind of environment. Princeton would have been radically different. The divisions were as much class-based as race-based. It was a very clubby place.
Q: Was Michelle a beneficiary of Affirmative Action?
A: At Princeton—where many aspects of a person's background were considered during the admission process—nobody knew why they were admitted, so it's impossible to know. It was always a big secret, whether you got in because of pure academic merit, or because you were an athlete, or an alumni child, or what they called "geographic preference" (i.e, you came from a part of the country where the school didn't get lots of applicants) or some mysterious combination thereof. But it seems likely that Michelle did receive some racial preference. She has said that she was 32nd in her high school class. I happened to interview a white high school classmate of Michelle's who was 7th in their class, and she did not get into the Ivy League schools she applied to.
Q: Both Michelle and Barack went to Harvard Law School, where he was the first African American president of the Law Review but she devoted her energies to Legal Aid. What does this difference say about each of them?
A: That Barack is even more ambitious than she is! Actually, I think the distinction in how they spent their time at Harvard is telling. Barack was reaching for the stars, engaging in lofty intellectual debates and honing his political skills, and Michelle was down in the basement of Gannett House meeting with poor people about housing issues and child custody and other legal problems. Of course, Barack did spend three years as a community organizer, so he was familiar with the issues afflicting poor people. But I think you could argue that Michelle has always been more in touch with the nitty gritty reality of people's hard lives, and talks about hardship more in her speeches than he does.
Q: What are your thoughts on the claim by some people that Michelle is even smarter than Barack?
A: They are both brainy and highly competent. He seems more of an introvert, a reader and a policy wonk; she seems more of a connector and an extrovert. I think she is a more vivid speaker than he is, more of a raconteur, and has more of a theatrical streak.
Q: Why do you think some of the same members of the press and public who have become fascinated by Sarah Palin—a strong, opinionated, accomplished working mother—have criticized Michele Obama, equally strong, opinionated and accomplished?
A: Well, reaction to Sarah Palin changes day by day, so it's hard to generalize. What I do think it's fair to say is that because of her race, Michelle faces higher standards for her personal behavior and that of her children than either Cindy McCain or Sarah Palin. I think that if Michelle at any point had succumbed to an addiction to painkillers, or stolen drugs from a charity, or if the Obamas had a pregnant unwed teenaged daughter, this would play into stereotypes about African Americans, and she would not easily be forgiven. By some, at least.
Q: A central focus of your book is the marriage of Michelle and Barack Obama, which has faced the usual obstacles of living life in the public eye. What keeps the marriage together?
A: At a certain point in their marriage, Michelle made peace with the fact that Barack was the sort of person who was always going to be burning the candle at three or four ends, and she was always going to be the person with responsibility for the household and the children, in addition to her own professional workload and the contribution she was obliged to make to his political career. She constructed her own support group of friends and relatives and figured out how to make their life work. I think they also are united by their shared commitment to social change; they both have good senses of humor, and a lot of stamina. Also, Barack has the kind of personality that enables him to live with a woman who is very strong-willed and assertive. He refers to her as "the Boss."
Q: Michelle is often very forthright about the sacrifices she has made for the marriage, and even entertains crowds with stories of Barack's less-than-domestic skills. Do you think her frankness about these private matters is a good or bad thing?
A: I think it plays differently with different people. I have an editor at the Washington Post, a woman, who thinks it's endearing and hilarious when Michelle skewers Barack for domestic haplessness. She finds it a nice alternative to the Adoring Gaze of a more conventional political wife. But I think it doesn't play well with some people, which is why she has dialed back on it. It's true that in her conversations with women about work-family balance, she still shares her view that the bulk of domestic work falls to women; but in public, you don't hear her skewering him the way she used to. Gone is all talk about socks that don't make the hamper.
Q: If Barack Obama is our next president, what role do you foresee Michelle playing as First Lady?
A: I think she'd be an influential one, both in private—during discussions about affirmative action or inner cities or health care—and in public. I think she would go around the country, as she's doing now, talking to people about health care and work-family balance and the issues afflicting military families, and she would bring it back to the White House and it would go into the policy discussion. I think she'd also enjoy the fashion part of the job, and the social part. She likes being a style-setter.
Q: Ultimately, do you think Michelle will hurt or help Barack's presidential bid?
A: Well, the campaign is certainly hoping that she will bring in more women, especially Hillary Clinton supporters who are still on the fence. Every week she meets with a new audience to talk about women's issues. She also tells her own family story constantly, in an effort to appeal to working-class Americans. Of course, there are still some voters who are put off by her comments about America, and others who are attracted to her outspokenness, her style and her life story. It's such a close election—I do think that voters' reactions to her will make some difference to the outcome.