I remember coming home and telling you about the one conversation I had with Michelle Obama, for a story I wrote about her husband the senator in 2006. She talked in the blunt way she used to be able to before he became a presidential candidate. She said she couldn’t stand Washington, couldn’t think of a single good thing to say about it, which is why she had decided to stay back in Chicago with their daughters. But she really believed in Barack and because of that was willing—though hardly eager—to make major personal sacrifices for the sake of his political career.
That interview, and a longer one I had with him for the same story, left me with an inkling about their marriage. Not an understanding of it—just a sense of how rich a subject it might be. Both Obamas are deep, layered, hard-to-read people. As personalities, they have some appealing qualities in common. They’re driven, but unusually observant and reflective for driven people. The most reluctant of political couples, they’re allergic to performance and fakery. Their relationship is obviously authentic—and clearly has its share of tensions and difficulties.
In The Obamas (Little, Brown), Jodi Kantor, whom I need to acknowledge is a friend and former colleague of mine at Slate, has done a first-rate job reporting on the Obamas in tandem. Her book gives you a better sense of their life inside the White House than any of the other insider accounts I’ve read. Unlike, say, Ron Suskind’s book, it’s also reliable—no one has challenged any of her details or anecdotes. What The Obamas doesn’t do, to my disappointment, is advance our understanding of their relationship. I wanted a portrait of the Obama marriage, and Kantor doesn’t give us one.
Doing that might be an impossible task—states of mind are not something you can readily report on, New York Times-style. Maybe we have to leave this sort of mystery to novelists like Curtis Sittenfeld, who imagined what might be going on behind Laura Bush’s frozen smile in American Wife. But I have to think a more worldly and psychologically astute journalist—a Joan Didion, a Marjorie Williams, a Katie Roiphe—could have moved this inquiry into more fruitful, if inevitably speculative territory. This book left me craving insight into what makes this particular marriage work.
Because the Obama marriage really does seem to work, don’t you agree? It might even be considered a great marriage, which does right by their children, creates a warm circle of friendship around it, and brings out the best in both partners over time. Of course, you never do know about other couples. They might split up next week. But I’ll confess to a rooting interest here. We’re a two-career, professional couple who got married at around the same time and at about the same age the Obamas did. Lily and Nate are nearly the same ages as Sasha and Malia. As wildly different as our lives are, I do identify with their partnership, and his father-ship. I love that the president insists on having dinner in most nights, coaches basketball, and makes time to read to his girls.
One other point. I can’t understand why the White House is complaining about this book. Someone should tell the Obamas that it makes them look really good. Or perhaps you had a different reaction?