By Michelle Obama
Crown, $32.50, 426 pages
We call them first ladies but, for the most part, they are second-hand celebrities. Famous for being somebody’s wife, usually trapped in a spotlight aimed at their husbands, and soon forgotten once they leave the White House, presidential wives, as a group, tend to fade fast from the public consciousness.
A handful of exceptions actually prove the rule. Dolley Madison made a social comeback as a witty, vivacious Washington hostess long after her husband, James, had left not only the White House but this earthly vale of tears. Eleanor Roosevelt, whose marriage had become an empty shell long before she entered the White House, was at least as prominent as a widowed, social activist ex-first lady as she had been during FDR’s long presidency. In a totally apolitical way, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the first TV-tabloid celebrity spouse, remained a figure of glamour and appeal for the rest of her life. As someone who knew her slightly, I can personally attest to that. She was a true charmer and a good mother.
And then there is Hillary Clinton, a sort of political Bride of Frankenstein, awkward, angry and still lurching and staggering her way in pursuit of thwarted ambition. Recent first ladies who receded gracefully and never lost the affection and respect of average Americans tend to be those who were happily married to their presidential spouses, understood that they were not unelected co-presidents, engaged in good works, and carried out the non-political duties of first lady sincerely and selflessly. Nancy Reagan, completely devoted to her husband in life, and keeper of his flame after death, comes to mind, as do both Barbara and Laura Bush.
It may surprise — and even annoy — some of my longtime readers when I suggest that Michelle Obama falls into the same category. In most respects, Mrs. Obama — not to mention her husband — and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both of them have said and done many things I disagree with. But their marriage has always struck me as a real one based on love rather than cynical career motives, and they seem to be genuinely good, deeply committed parents.
Much, if not most, of the credit for this should go to Michelle Obama. To me she has always seemed to be a more grounded, “real” figure than her husband, with a clearer sense of who she is and where she came from. Looking back toward the end of her memoir, she writes of her Chicago childhood that, “I grew up with a disabled [but hard-working] dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”
Politics aside, Michelle Obama tells it with candor, heart and a generous amount of humor. It all depends, as she said, on “which way you want to tell it” and which way the reader wants to take it. For me, one of the most poignant passages occurs early in the book, a literary snapshot inspired by a photographic one:
“There’s an early family photograph, a black and white of the four of us [father, mother, Michelle and her older brother, Craig] sitting on a couch, my mother smiling as she holds me on her lap, my father appearing serious and proud with Craig perched on his. We’re dressed for church or maybe a wedding. I’m about eight months old, a pudge-faced, no nonsense bruiser in diapers and an ironed white dress, looking ready to slide out of my mother’s clutches, staring down the camera as if I might eat it. Next to me is Craig, gentlemanly in a little bow tie and suit jacket, bearing an earnest expression. He’s two years old and already the portrait of brotherly vigilance and responsibility — his arm extended toward mine, his fingers wrapped protectively around my fat wrist.”
This quintessentially American family group, described with tenderness and self-deprecating humor, is a picture that transcends race, class or creed. It is sad to reflect that more and more young Americans today — and not just poor or black ones — are growing up without the nurturing family ties and values that helped Michelle Obama on her upward journey.
There is a lot in Michelle Obama’s political views that I don’t like. But the more I got to know her as I read “Becoming,” the more I found myself liking and respecting her as a person.
To borrow a phrase from Patrick Henry, if this be treason, make the most of it.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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