Reporting political profiles is like giving birth: You forget how painful it is until you go through it again. And the minute you do, you think, “Somebody make it stop now.” The begging for access, the plaintive calls to sources, the “no comments,” the lunches with people who manage not to say anything, and did I mention the begging for access? As a feature writer, I thought I’d achieved nadirs of debasement doing profiles of Hillary Clinton (who never talked to me) and Al Gore (who finally did). But now I realize I never knew what reporting pain was until I set out to write a journalistic biography of Michelle Obama.
How hard was it? How uncooperative was the Obama campaign? I am so glad you asked! Here’s an example: Back in June, the New York Times ran a front-page piece about Michelle Obama. A few months earlier, she had made her now-famous comment about how this election was the first time in her adult life that she’d been really proud of her country and become the target of a vast Internet conspiracy to portray her as anti-patriotic and full of racial animus. The Times piece was about the campaign’s efforts to soften her image, and in it, Michelle expressed astonishment at the vitriol directed her way, venturing that anyone who spent time with her would know that’s not what she is about. “I will walk anyone through my life,” she declared.
As it happened, that very day I was in Chicago trying to get people to walk me through what they knew of her life, and the campaign was making it extremely difficult. Among the contacts I tried to make was Michelle’s first cousin once removed Capers Funnye Jr., whose mother was the sister of Michelle’s paternal grandfather. Funnye is a friendly man with his own story, a convert to Judaism who became a rabbi. I’d called earlier to ask him about the Robinson family history, and when he didn’t call back, I’d driven to his Chicago synagogue. He opened the door and, when I told him who I was, looked regretful. He loves to talk, but he’d checked with the campaign, and they had asked him not to give an extended interview.
Around the same time, I called a pastor on Chicago’s South Side who knew Michelle. “I was instructed by the campaign to let them know when you called me,” he said, explaining that he received an advance message asking him not to discuss Michelle with any book author because they were “not ready for people who knew Michelle to talk about her.”
Why should you care about one writer’s shaggy-dog story? In one sense, none of this is tragic; every reporter knows that being denied access to the usual contacts means you dig harder and turn up new voices. But you should care if you are expecting an Obama presidency to achieve new levels of transparency. Obama, if elected, may well bring many changes to Washington, but unusually open access to the media—and, by extension, the public—is not necessarily going to be one of them.
It’s true that in this presidential campaign, it is the McCain-Palin camp that has been most vigorous in fomenting disdain of the press, denying access to reporters and encouraging the notion that the media is a “filter” that distorts the truth rather than a collection of individuals trying to ferret it out. But the Obama campaign is not above thwarting scrutiny. In June, the campaign told reporters Obama was going to Chicago when he was really meeting elsewhere with Hillary Clinton. Off flew the campaign plane, with the press corps in it, prompting a letter of protest from bureau chiefs. It seems to me that the Obama campaign also hopes voters will eschew the media middle man and get their information “directly” from the campaign Web site. Or from Obama’s own books. Go ahead if you want to. Just keep in mind that Obama misremembers the year when he met Michelle and the date of her father’s death. There is some virtue, it could be argued, in seeking other sources.
Campaigns are, of course, entitled to deny access to the principals; they do have to choose whom to favor. And I understand that the campaign in general and Michelle in particular have been buffeted by malicious rumors. But there is something, I don’t know, unsporting in the willingness to silence outside sources who are eager to talk. And something counterproductive, one would think, in a crouch this defensive: The people being discouraged were those most likely to say nice things. And in any case, here’s the bottom line: You don’t get to tell the Times how you are willing to walk anyone through your life if, in fact, you aren’t.
To begin at the beginning: In 2007, I wrote an analysis of Barack Obama’s political rise for the Washington Post.During that reporting, I interviewed Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, at a time when they were not being closely controlled. Both sessions were rich in material that could be useful in painting a portrait of her. I’ve always been interested in public women who are polarizing, and—whatever people might say about the relevance of spouses—felt that a woman who is one of her husband’s closest advisers merits examination. When a Simon & Schuster editor called to ask if I’d be interested in writing a campaign bio of Michelle, I said yes.
I also was moved by the American narrative she embodies. She is the descendant of slaves in South Carolina. Her grandfather moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. Her childhood neighborhood was transformed by white flight; one of her first experiences as a young girl would have been watching white people move away as her own family advanced. She attended Princeton during the height of the debate over affirmative action; I’d been there at roughly the same time. So, I e-mailed the officials I’d dealt with for my earlier profile and told them I hoped they would cooperate. After a couple of exchanges, her communications director, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, called to say the campaign would not.
At first, I thought that this was just part of the familiar birthing hell. Campaigns often say they will not cooperate, so you have to keep going back, writing e-mails and buttonholing. I’d been through this with the profile on Barack: The campaign had promised an interview with him and then backed away, and not until I tracked him down after a Senate hearing and reminded him of the promise did they end up giving me 20 minutes.
This time, I went to hear Michelle speak in Chicago and sought out Lelyveld. I tried to persuade her of my intent to write a fair, straightforward book, arguing that this was the perfect opportunity for the campaign to present an accurate picture of Michelle straight-up. Lelyveld replied that they were very busy and said they didn’t think there was enough time to do a good book before the election. I asked her not to shut down access to sources I called.
Because that’s how political reporting works: When you call sources who are close to the subject, the drill is that they check to see if it’s OK to talk. Almost immediately, evidence suggested the answer they were getting was “no.” I e-mailed an administrator for a group Michelle is on the board of, who responded to say: “I am in London. … Do you want to wait until I get back to Chicago or talk on the phone from here?” I e-mailed back to say either was fine. I got back a message markedly different in tone from the first. “I think I will need to wait on this,” it said. “When I get back, I am leaving town again and have much work to do in between.” My further e-mails to her went unanswered.
And that, pretty much, is how it went. I tracked down a cousin in Florida who would be glad to talk until, suddenly, he wouldn’t. I e-mailed Craig Robinson, head basketball coach at Oregon State. He responded promptly, saying, “I’m happy to help out.” Lelyveld put the kibosh on an interview.
Over the summer, the campaign brought on a number of Washington hands. Each time, I contacted the staffer, hoping that at some point one veteran would say: Um, why aren’t we cooperating? No such luck. Usually, there was no reply.
Eventually, I convinced myself that I had to get through to Michelle. So, I went to see her speak in Pontiac, Mich., at a groovy downtown music venue called the Crofoot. Before I went, I wrote a letter to Michelle, including articles I’d written, which, I hoped, would show her I was a fair reporter with experience, among other things, in writing about race. After the speech, hemmed in by audience members who wanted to shake her hand, I had to clamber over chairs to deliver the envelope to an official. A couple of days later, leaving my house on an errand, I had the wild notion that Michelle would respond. So, I instructed my children to be very, very polite if she called.
“Mom,” said my 10-year-old son, looking at me gravely, “Michelle Obama is not going to call.”
It got worse, at least from my point of view. Thanks to Google alert, I learned that before the event in Pontiac, the campaign had called the editor of a local women’s publication, offering Michelle for an interview. The editor wrote a piece that said talking to her was just like talking to her girlfriend.
Because the Obama campaign does give access to Michelle Obama. They give access to celebrity magazines like Us Weekly and People, which tilt toward that coveted female audience; to publications that do the same thing on a local scale; and to TV shows like The View and Access Hollywood. Why not me, too? Maybe somebody in the campaign disliked me. But it seems likely that at this juncture the campaign prefers to keep at arm’s length reporters working in an extended print medium, in which lots of ancillary characters will be interviewed whose comments cannot be controlled. It also may be that Michelle Obama plans to write her own book someday and wants the field clear.
Right about now, I imagine, my poor book editor is clutching her hair, thinking: Dear God, how did I end up with an author who is driving down her own Amazon numbers? So, let me hasten to say that when the going gets tough, the tough cry and gnash their teeth and rend their garments and then go out and start obtaining yearbooks. I called high-school and college and law-school classmates; neighbors; lawyers; people who worked with Michelle Obama at the nonprofit she directed, Public Allies. If you place enough phone calls, some people who knew your subject well at one point, and who are not closely in touch now, will call back. And some people who have been instructed not to talk will, anyway, because they want publicity, because they like her and want to say why, or because they consider it a public service.
So, in the end, I talked to enough people to write a biography I found interesting and enjoyed doing. And because the campaign did not cough up the same 12 people they usually make available, there are new voices in it. The point, however, is that the campaign made writing a book about Michelle Obama harder, I would argue, than it should have. In an Obama administration, we the press will have our work cut out for us.