Peter Slevin, Michelle Obama: A Life
In Michelle Obama: A Life, Peter Slevin, a former Washington Post correspondent presently teaching at Northwestern University, explores the improbable story of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, now Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (a position known affectionately in government memos as “FLOTUS”). Slevin’s sympathetic yet probing biography shows how Michelle’s life was and still is shaped by the blue collar, working class environment of Chicago’s South Side, where she was born and raised. Michelle’s life in many ways is a microcosm of 20th century African-American experience. Michelle’s ancestors were slaves, and her grandparents were part of the “Great Migration” of the first half of the 20th century that sent millions of African-Americans from the rigidly segregated south to northern urban centers in search of a better life. Michelle was born in 1964, during the high point of the American civil rights movement, and is thus part of the generation that grew up after that movement had widened the opportunities available to African Americans.
The first half of the book treats Michelle’s early life as a girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago and her experiences as an African-American at two of America’s ultra-elite institutions, Princeton University and Harvard Law School. The centerpiece of this half is the loving environment that Michelle’s parents, Fraser Robinson III and his wife Marian Shields Robinson, created for Michelle and her older brother Craig, born two years earlier in 1962. The Robinson family emphasized the primacy of education as the key to a better future, along with hard work and discipline, dedication to family, regular church attendance, and community service.
Michelle’s post-Harvard professional and personal lives form the book’s second half. Early in her professional career, Michelle met a young man from Hawaii with an exotic background and equally exotic name, Barack Hussein Obama. Slevin provides an endearing account of their courtship and marriage (their initial date is also the subject of a recent movie “Southside With You”). Once Barack enters the scene, however, the story becomes as much about his entry and dizzying rise in politics as it is about Michelle, and thus likely to be familiar to many readers.
But in this half of the book, we also learn about Michelle’s career in Chicago; how she balanced her professional obligations with her parental responsibilities; her misgivings about the political course Barack seemed intent upon pursuing; her at first reluctant, then full throated support for Barack’s long-shot bid for the presidency; and how she elected to utilize the platform which the White House provided to her as the FLOTUS. Throughout, we see how Michelle retained the values of her South Side upbringing.
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Slevin provides an incisive description of 20th century Chicago, beginning in the 1920s, when Michelle’s grandparents migrated from the rural south. He emphasizes the barriers that African Americans experienced, limiting where they could live and work, their educational opportunities, and more. Michelle’s father Fraser, after serving in the U.S. army, worked in a Chicago water filtration plant up to his death in 1991 from multiple sclerosis at age 55. Marian, still living (‘the First Grandmother”), was mainly a “stay-at-home Mom.” In a city that “recognized them first and foremost as black,” Fraser and Marian refused to utilize the oppressive shackles of racism as an excuse for themselves or their children. The Robinson parents “saw it as their mission to provide strength, wisdom, and a measure of insulation to Michelle and Craig” (p.26). Their message to their children was that no matter what obstacles they faced because of their race or their working class roots, “life’s possibilities were unbounded. Fulfillment of those possibilities was up to them. No excuses” (p.47).
The South Side neighborhood where Michelle and Craig were raised, although part of Chicago’s rigidly segregated housing patterns, offered a stable and secure environment, with well-kept if modest homes and strong neighborhood schools. The neighborhood and the Robinson household provided Michelle and Craig with what Craig later termed the “Shangri-La of upbringings” (p.33). Fraser and Marian both regretted deeply that they were not college graduates. The couple consequently placed an unusually high premium on education for their children, adopting a savvy approach which parents today would be wise to emulate.
Learning to read and write for the two Robinson children was a means toward the even more important goal of learning to think. Fraser and Marian advised their children to “use their heads, yet not to be afraid to make mistakes – in each case learning from what goes wrong” (p.46). We told them, Marian recounted, “Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow even us to say just anything to you” (p.47). Fraser and Marian granted their children freedom to explore, test ideas and make their own decisions, but always within a framework that emphasized “hard work, honesty, and self-discipline. There were obligations and occasional punishment. But the goal was free thinking” (p.46).
Both Robinson children were good students, but with diametrically opposite study methods. Michelle was methodical and obsessive, putting in long hours, while Craig largely coasted to good grades. Michelle went to Princeton in part because Craig was already a student there, but she did so with misgivings and concerns that she might not be up to its high standards. Prior to Princeton, Craig and Michelle had had little exposure to whites. If they experienced animosity in their early years, Slevin writes, it was “likely from African American kids who heard their good grammar, saw their classroom diligence, and accused them of ‘trying to sound white’” (p.49). At Princeton, however, a school which “telegraphed privilege” (p.71), Michelle began a serious contemplation of what it meant to be an African-American in a society where whites held most of the levers of power.
As an undergraduate between 1982 and 1986, Michelle came to see a separate black culture existing apart from white culture. Black culture had its own music, language, and history which, as she wrote in a college term paper, should be attributed to the “injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experience of any other race of people through this country’s history” (p.91). Michelle observed that black public officials must persuade the white community that they are “above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just Black people” (p.91-92). Slevin notes that Michelle’s description “strikingly foreshadowed a challenge that she and her husband would face twenty two years later as they aimed for the White House” (p.91). Michelle’s college experience was a vindication of the framework Fraser and Marian had created that allowed Michelle to flourish. At Princeton, Michelle learned that the girl from blue collar Chicago could “play in the big leagues” (p.94), as Slevin puts it.
In the fall of 1986, Michelle entered Harvard Law School, another “lofty perch, every bit as privileged as Princeton, but certainly more competitive once classes began” (p.95). In law school, she was active in an effort to bring more African American professors to a faculty that was made up almost exclusively of white males. She worked for the Legal Aid Society, providing services to low income individuals. When she graduated from law school in 1989, she returned to Chicago – it doesn’t seem that she ever considered other locations. But, notwithstanding her activist leanings as a student, she chose to work as an associate in one of Chicago’s most prestigious corporate law firms, Sidley and Austin.
Although located only a few miles from the South Side neighborhood where Michelle had grown up, Sidley and Austin was a world apart, another bastion of privilege, with some of America’s best known and most powerful businesses as its clients. The firm offered Michelle the opportunity to sharpen her legal skills, particularly in intellectual property protection and, at least equally importantly, pay off some of her student loans. But, like many idealistic young law graduates, she did not find work in a corporate law firm satisfying and left after two years.
Michelle landed a job with the City of Chicago as an assistant to Valerie Jarret, then the City of Chicago’s Commissioner for Planning and Economic Development, who later became a valued White House advisor to President Obama. Michelle’s position was more operational than legal, serving as a “trouble shooter” with a discretionary budget that could be utilized to advance city programs at the neighborhood level on subjects as varied as business development, infant mortality, mobile immunization, and after school programs. But working for the City of Chicago was nothing if not political, and Michelle left after 18 months to take a position in 1993 at the University of Chicago, located on Chicago’s South Side, not far from where she grew up.
Although still another of America’s most prestigious educational institutions, the University of Chicago had always seemed like hostile territory to Michelle, incongrous with its surrounding low and middle-income neighborhoods. But Michelle landed a position with a university program, Public Alliance, designed to improve the University’s relationship with the surrounding communities. Notwithstanding her lack of warm feelings for the university, the position was an excellent fit. It afforded Michelle the opportunity to try her hand at bridging some of the gaps between the university and its less privileged neighbors.
After nine years with Public Allies, Michelle took a position in 2002 with the University of Chicago Hospital, again involved in public outreach, focused on the way the hospital could better serve the medical needs of the surrounding community. This position, Slevin notes, brought home to Michelle the massive inequalities within the American health care system, divided between the haves with affordable insurance and the have nots without it. Michelle stayed in this position until early 2008, when she left to work on her husband’s long shot bid for the presidency. In her positions with the city and the university, Michelle developed a demanding leadership style for her staffs that she brought to the White House: result-oriented, given to micro-management, and sometimes “blistering” (p.330) to staff members whose performance fell short in her eyes.
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While working at Sidley and Austin, Michelle interviewed the young man from Hawaii, then in his first year at Harvard Law School, for a summer associate position. Michelle in Slevin’s account found the young man “very charming” and “handsome,” and sensed that, as she stated subsequently, he “liked my dry sense of humor and my sarcasm” (p.121). But if there was mutual attraction, it was the attraction of opposites. Barack Obama was still trying to figure out where his roots lay. Michelle Robinson, quite obviously, never had to address that question. Slevin notes that the contrast could “hardly have been greater” between Barack’s “untethered life and the world of the Robinson and Shields clans, so numerous and so firmly anchored in Chicago. He felt embraced and it surprised him” (p.128; Barack’s untethered life figures prominently in Janny Scott’s biography of Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, reviewed here in July 2012). For Barack, meeting the Robinson family for the first time was, as he later wrote, like “dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver” (p.127). The couple married in 1992.
Barack served three 2-year terms in the Illinois Senate, from 1997 to 2004. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives, losing in a landslide. He had his breakthrough moment in 2004, when John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential candidate, invited him to deliver a now famous keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention. Later that year, he won a vacant seat in the United States Senate by a landslide when his Republican opponent had to drop out due to a sex scandal. In early 2007, he decided to run for the presidency.
Michelle’s mistrust of politics was “deeply rooted and would linger long into Barack’s political career” (p.161), Slevin notes. Her distrust was at the root of discernible frictions within their marriage, especially after their daughters were born — Malia in 1998 and Sasha in 2001. Barack’s political campaigning and professional obligations kept him away from home much of the time, to Michelle’s dismay. Michelle felt that she had accomplished more professionally than Barack, and was also saddled with parental duties in his absence. “It sometimes bothered her that Barack’s career always took priority over hers. Like many professional women of her age and station, Michelle was struggling with balance and a partner who was less involved – and less evolved – than she had expected” (p.180-81).
Michelle was, to put it mildly, skeptical when her husband told her in 2006 that he was considering running for the presidency. She worried about further losing her own identity, giving up her career for four years, maybe eight, and living with the real possibility that her husband could be assassinated. Yet, once it became apparent that Barack was serious about such a run and had reached the “no turning back” point, Michelle was all in. She became a passionate, fully committed member of Barack’s election team, a strategic partner who was “not shy about speaking up when she believed the Obama campaign was falling short” (p.219).
With Barack’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Michelle became what Slevin terms the “unlikeliest first lady in modern history” (p.4). The projects and messages she chose to advance as FLOTUS “reflected a hard-won determination to help working class and the disadvantaged, to unstack the deck. She was more urban and more mindful of inequality than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt” (p.5). Michelle reached out to children in the less favored communities in Washington, mostly African American, and thereafter to poor children around the world. She also concentrated on issues of obesity, physical fitness and nutrition, famously launching a White House organic vegetable garden. She developed programs to support the wives of American military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, women struggling to “keep a toehold in the middle class” (p.293).
In Barack’s second term, she adopted a new mission, called Reach Higher, which aimed to push disadvantaged teenagers toward college. Throughout her time as FLOTUS, Michelle tried valiantly to provide her two daughters with as close to a normal childhood as life in the White House bubble might permit. Slevin’s account stops just prior to the 2014 Congressional elections, when the Republicans gained control of the United States Senate, after gaining control of the House of Representatives in the prior mid-term elections in 2010.
Slevin does not overlook the incessant Republican and conservative critics of Michelle. She appeared to many whites in the 2008 campaign as an “angry black woman,” which Slevin dismisses as a “simplistic and pernicious stereotype” (p.236). Right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh began calling her “Moochelle,” much to the delight of his listening audience. The moniker conjured images of a fat cow or a leech – synonymous with the term “moocher” which Ayn Rand used in her novels to describe those who “supposedly lived off the hard work of the producers” (p.316) — all the while slyly associating Michelle with “big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole” (p.315). Vitriol such as this, Slevin cautiously concludes, “could be traced to racism and sexism or, at a charitable minimum, a lack of familiarity with a black woman as accomplished and outspoken as Michelle” (p.286). In addition, criticism emerged from the political left, which “viewed Michelle positively but asked why, given her education, her experience, and her extraordinary platform, she did not speak or act more directly on a host of progressive issues, whether abortion rights, gender inequity, or the structural obstacles facing the urban poor” (p.286).
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Slevin’s book is not hagiography. As a conscientious biographer whose credibility is directly connected to his objectivity, Slevin undoubtedly looked long and hard for the Michelle’s weak points and less endearing qualities. He did not come up with much, unless you consider being a strong, focused woman a negative quality. There is no real dark side to Michelle Obama in Slevin’s account, no apparent skeletons in any of her closets. Rather, the unlikely FLOTUS depicted here continues to reflect the values she acquired while growing up in Fraser and Marian Robinson’s remarkable South Side household.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
September 17, 2016