Reprinted from my article in the Chicago Examiner:
A great deal of fuss and media hype preceded the release of a new book about President Barack Obama, The Obamas by Jodi Kantor. It was hyped to be a book that would give great insight into America's power couple, Michelle and Barack Obama. It was going to be a ground-breaking and an insightful look into the First Couple and the First Family.
It does none of those things. The Obamas is a cut or two above The National Enquirer, reporting on several shouting matches in the White House. Could this not have been accomplished with a lengthy article in perhaps the New Yorker magazine or New York Times magazine.
Is this just another Obama book? One of the more explosive parts of the book is the contention that the First Lady is an angry black woman. While the book never says she is an angry black woman. Kantor vehemently denies that she does. But Kantor does an effective job of conveying that false image, whether deliberate or not.
A part of that image is in this passage from the book that is also not accurate, misquoting Obama aide, confidant, and friend, Dan Shomon.
She particularly resented the way power in Illinois was locked up generation after generation by a small group of families, all white Irish Catholic — the Daleys of Chicago, the Hyneses and Madigans statewide. “Someone doesn’t have the right to be elected because of whose womb they came out of,” she would say a few years later to Dan Shomon, her husband’s political advisor. “You shouldn’t have a better chance if you’re a Kennedy than if you’re an Obama. Why is it that they have the right to this?"
The problem is that much of this quote is Kantor's injection of her own feelings about the First Lady, taking license to hang this on the First Lady. The Capitol Fax's Rich Miller contacted Dan Shomon and here is their exchange.
I’ve known Dan Shomon since he was a UPI reporter, so I asked him if Michelle Obama had ever said anything like “white, Irish Catholics,” or if those words were added by the author. Shomon’s response…I never said White Irish Catholics or specifically referenced the Daleys. Nor did Michelle Obama.
Michelle raised the concern, which a lot of Chicagoans shared, that it was much easier to run for office in Chicago if you were from a political family.
What about the Madigans, et al, I asked. Shomon’s response…Nope. It was a general comment.
In other words, a bunch of hype over nothing.
Anyone with an understanding of Chicago politics and the history surrounding the rise of Barack Obama knows that this is a "bunch of hype over nothing."
The idea that President Obama ran against and defeated the Daleys, the Madigans, the Hyneses, and the entire Illinois political power structure is what the 2004 United States Senate race was all about is old news and much-written about. This subject is much discussed in New Yorker editor David Reminck's brilliant work, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. Remnick writes extensively about the relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama. This book is a pick up from the first book written about the early years of President Barack Obama. That book is Obama: From Promise to Power by David Mendell. However, the Mendell book is not in the bibliography of Kantor's book and that is unfortunate. Carol Felsenthal wrote a cover story piece in Chicago magazine for the February of 2009 issue titled "The Making of a First Lady."
Conservative political columnist Kathleen Parker defended the First Lady against this undertone that Michelle Obama is an "angry, black woman."
WASHINGTON — I can't speak for Michelle Obama, but call me an angry white woman. If the first lady isn't angry, she certainly has every right to be.
Like every woman I know, black or white, I've watched Mrs. Obama with respect, admiration and arm-envy. Every woman. We talk about her unique role in American history, and we are proud and impressed. I've interviewed a former first lady's chief of staff, various Republican operatives, former staffers for previous presidents, and without exception, they all say the same thing: "I admire her so much."
Thus, the recent discussion about her manner and temperament, thanks to Jodi Kantor's new book, "The Obamas," is maddening. Yet again, the first lady is being characterized as the thing women can never be — angry. Heaven forbid she should butt heads with that pussycat Rahm Emanuel, as Kantor reports. Who doesn't butt heads with Emanuel? Head-butting is his default mode.
Rahm Emanuel can be ill-tempered at times?
No kidding. Tell me something I and the public don't know. It is well-documented that Rahm Emanuel advised President Obama to abandon health care reform. The source is none other than Rahm Emanuel, who will tell you that advised the President that pushing health care reform would place many Democrats in the House in jeopardy. President Obama acknowledged this but decided to fight anyway.
Does it detract from Emanuel's effectiveness, and more importantly, did it damage Emanuel's relationship with the First Couple. Apparently it has not. At least that is what Rahm Emanuel went out of his way to state.
One small piece of gossip that the book addresses is that Rahm Emanuel sought the President's formal endorsement for Mayor of Chicago. The book comes to no real conclusion on this issue and is a bit murky. The fact is Mayor Emanuel used his great sendoff as a television commercial with the implication that he was being endorsed.
But Kantor has now admitted to at least one weak spot in the text. On Thursday, she responded to Politico about one of the passages in "The Obamas," which says that Michelle Obama's efforts to help stump for her husband's health care plan were mostly thwarted by the West Wing team. Politico presented Kantor with a series of clippings from 2009, all of which were about Obama's public support for the plan -- including one from her own paper, the Times.
"As [former White House press secretary] Robert Gibbs told me on the record, the White House was concerned about putting the first lady in the line of fire," she told the site. "But given the NYT story you mentioned, I could have been more precise about the media coverage."
Kantor is also reportedly getting a grilling from some regular book-buyers. Capital New York tagged along to an event Kantor held at a New York City Barnes & Noble, and reported that she parried questions about her sourcing and about Michelle Obama's response to the book.
The White House is a special place in America, but it is not immune from the everyday internal politics that we all deal with at our real jobs.
Robert Gibbs also had run-ins with Michelle Obama, albeit not directly, but through Valerie Jarrett. Gibbs, as members of the White House press corps can attest, can be difficult to deal with. Gibbs earned this reputation when he was then-Senator Obama's chief spokesman starting in 2005. An incident spelled out in the book is that First Lady Michelle Obama felt that Gibbs didn't do enough to defend the First Lady when a book said she characterized living in the White House as "hell."
Jarrett announced that the first lady was dissatisfied with the White House's handling of the situation. All eyes turned to Gibbs. 'Don't go there, Robert, don't do it,' another aide remembered Rahm Emanuel saying. Years of tension between Gibbs, Jarrett and an absent Michelle Obama exploded. 'Fuck this, that's not right, I've been killing myself on this, where's this coming from?' Gibbs yelled. He calmed down and tried to probe, according to a half-dozen people who witnessed the exchange. 'What is it she has concerns about?' he asked Jarrett. Jarrett said something about the reply not being fast enough. Gibbs blew up again. 'Why is she talking to you about it? If she has a problem she should talk to me!' David Axelrod was trying to soothe Gibbs. It was the calm of Jarrett's tone that finally undid Gibbs, others said later. He looked so frustrated one colleague thought he was going to cry. 'You don't know what the fuck you're talking about,' he hurled back. 'The first lady would not believe you're speaking this way.' 'Then fuck her too!' He stormed out as the rest of the group sat stunned. Emanuel grew very still for once. "Everyone knows that Robert has done a really good job on this," Emanuel said.
There is no question that a First Lady in any White House is influential in how the White House is run and sometimes has an impact on policy.
What we do learn from the book is that First Lady Michelle Obama did not agree that health care reform should be abandoned and this caused some of the more noted blowups in the White House. How much the First Lady influenced President Obama to push forward with this is not clear from the book, but it is something that will be explored in other books by other authors. The suspicion is that she had enormous influence and this book introduces that idea.
If that is the case, then Michelle Obama is clearly one of us. One of many Americans hoping for change. Just another bystander, except the fact that the President of the United States is her husband and the father of her children. That alone gives us great hope.
Nancy Reagan and Rosalyn Carter come to mind.
Eleanor Roosevelt was another First Lady who influenced her husband during difficult and trying times. Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished much after President Franklin Roosevelt's death, including influencing a generation of women.
Hillary Clinton also showed to be a powerful and influential First Lady. And highly accomplished, having been elected to the United States Senate in New York. Made a great run for the White House and now is serving as President Obama's Secretary of State in which she receives high marks for accomplishments and for her dedication to the job.
There is no question that Michelle Obama is on that level of Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt with her keen intellect and her compassion for people.
It is on that level and plane that I expected from this book. The work Michelle Obama has chosen for herself as First Lady: The anti-obese program and the military wives program.
Does this book takes us further? Yes, it does take incremental steps. Not giant steps.
While it may very well be just another Obama book, but it is an Obama book that is worth placing on your bookshelf (buy it, read it, and then place on your shelf). It does break some new ground. Maybe not much, but more than enough to make it a worthwhile read. Especially for our political junkies and Obama book fans.
On the positive side, it is Kantor's book that motivated First Lady Michelle Obama to start a twitter page, @MichelleObama with 375,000 followers and climbing in a short period of time. I suspect we will see more of The First Lady, not less. The book struck a nerve and I have no doubt that Michelle Obama will take the job of being the First Lady to the next level.
John is the author of an award-winning book, the 2010 Winner of the USA National Best Book award for African-American studies, published by The Elevator Group Mr. and Mrs. Grassroots: How Barack Obama, Two Bookstore Owners, and 300 Volunteers did it. Also available an eBook on Amazon. John is also a member of the Society of Midland Authors and is a book reviewer of political books for the New York Journal of Books