The Book Club

Deborah Needleman on Jodi Kantor’s Obama Book

The Obamas: They’re just like us!

Barack and Michelle Obama
Barack and Michelle Obama

Getty Images

Hi Sweetie,

Much to discuss. First, the anecdote you describe is thematically very much the idea at the heart of the book. Jodi refers to a time during Obama’s campaign for the Senate when Michelle told a reporter, “It might not be so bad if he lost.” It’s the kind of thing a political wife doesn’t say, but a real wife thinks: He’d be home more, and we could be a real family, and we wouldn’t be open for political judgment or out hawking our wares for the public. The book traces the evolution of that basic tension between her great belief in his abilities and willingness to make personal sacrifices and her disdain for politics and Washington. Over time you see how she comes to understand her role in Washington and the absolute futility of trying to resist it, and starts to try to work within that world. I can totally relate. Thank god you’ve never tried to go into politics, because I would have precisely the struggles she does, except I’d suck at being a political wife. (Until maybe I got used to it, and then I’d kick into high gear, and try to rock it, as she does.)

Reading the book, I kept being reminded of those Us Weekly headlines plastered over photo spreads of celebrities drinking Starbucks in their sweats: “They’re Just Like Us!” I don’t even mean you and me so much as any normal couple. And by normal, I mean people for whom being thrust into the political arena—with all its limitations, symbolism, rules, expectations, and utter absurdities—would be sheer hell. My three favorite words in the book are “Shoot. Me. Now.”—the text of a message Barack sent while listening to a boring speech (by Biden!) when he was in the Senate. It reveals him to be funny and real: a human trapped in the world of politics.

The balance the Obamas struggle with before and during the White House years seems to be how much good can be done and at what personal cost. (And obviously his threshold is higher than hers.) Yes, they are wildly driven, but they do seem like a real live couple; they truly love one another, and together make each other better people. The book shows the White House to be an unsuitable habitat for real humans, especially ones who like hanging out with each other.

The book reports, from those close to the Obamas, how that essential tension in their relationship has manifested itself inside the White House with staffers in the West and East Wings, and in Michelle’s choices since becoming first lady. But, in terms of a portrait of a marriage, I agree this is not one, and probably could never be one. In the words of the great Charlie Rich song, “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors.” Even if the Obamas had talked to Kantor for more than 40 minutes, she would still be left trying to read between their lines for unspoken anger, sadness, pride, loneliness, frustration, or who the hell knows what. I disagree with detractors who say what Jodi has done by writing this book without having talked to the Obamas for years is unfair, because she does very little overreaching. She is a Times reporter, not a psychological deep-sea diver like a Janet Malcolm or a Joan Didion.

I do think it’s cuckoo that the administration has responded negatively to the book and that it’s now being called controversial. (Although very nice for sales, I’m sure.) The book reveals them, as you say, to be complicated, real, and loving. (Loving is kind of a creepy word, isn’t it?) I think it is a very flattering book, but an editor in my office today joked she was worried Michelle would be mad at her if she saw her reading it.

And in closing, just for fun, here are some other lyrics from that sexy Charlie Rich song: Think about the Michelle Obama who has transformed herself into a great political asset and the Michelle Obama who is a lady who loves her man.

My baby makes me proud
Lord, don’t she make me proud
She never makes a scene
By hanging all over me in a crowd
’Cause people like to talk
Lord, don’t they love to talk
But when they turn out the lights
I know she’ll be leaving with me

And when we get behind closed doors
Then she lets her hair hang down
And she makes me glad that I’m a man
Oh, no-one knows what goes on behind closed doors

Your own wife, Deborah