I’ve covered Michelle Obama for six years for the NY Times and written a book about her, and one of my earliest and most revealing clues about what she’s really like came when I interviewed her brother, Craig Robinson, in early 2007. This was a month after Barack Obama entered the race, before Michelle Obama had ever been attacked, before the PR folks and minders set in and those close to the Obamas grew less candid. Robinson described his sister, whom he was plainly crazy about, as warm, big-hearted and hilarious, but also forceful and highly opinionated—a Harvard-trained lawyer who could bore into you with her arguments and judgments.
“Everyone in the family is afraid of her,” he told me with a smile. When I asked him if Barack Obama used a nicotine patch to quit smoking, he cracked up. “Michelle Obama!” he said. “That’s one hell of a patch right there!”
When I interviewed Mrs. Obama a month or so later in Iowa, she was still pretty frank and mischievous. The whole family was walking through the Iowa state fair, a visit that produced cute pictures (they’re recycled to this day) but was pretty awful in real life: it was about 104 degrees, the Obamas were surrounded by a huge scrum of cameras, and forget the baby animals in the petting zoo—Malia and Sasha were the cute little creatures everyone was trying to see and touch. Mrs. Obama leaned over and whispered into my ear, deadpan: “This is not quality time.” She was blunt and funny with reporters back then: two years earlier, when her husband had been sworn in as a U.S. senator, she said to my former colleague Jeff Zeleny: “Maybe one day, he will do something to warrant all this attention.”
This is not the Michelle Obama we see or hear as first lady: we get a blander, more toned-down version of the real person, with rarely a glimpse of the strong opinions or naughty humor. Michelle Obama giving a speech these days is like an Olympic gymnast doing a floor routine: she’s practiced in advance, she executes with precision but no spontaneity, and the results are generally very impressive. This is part of the contradiction of the job of first lady: no president makes it to the White House without a canny, sharp wife, but once they arrive, the women are forced to recast themselves as helpmeets, disguising some of the qualities that made them such effective partners in the first place. (One Obama friend once told me that the secret to their marriage is that “those two never let each other get away with anything.”) Don’t get me wrong, the “mom in chief” persona is authentic, it’s just edited—it’s not the whole Michelle Obama.
The rest of Michelle Obama is still there, behind the scenes. In my book I explain why she was such a devastating internal critic of the early Obama White House—she saw, before nearly anyone else, that some very important things were going wrong. More recently, during the 2012 race, Democrats who know her were startled at the way she tore into Mitt Romney in private. Sometimes I hear about the jokes she makes about politics, but no one will ever tell them on the record—which kills me, because her jokes are not just entertaining but revealing.
Michelle Obama and her risk-averse strategy are huge successes: she’s one of the most popular political figures in the country, and as she’s frequently told aides, she never wants to attract negative attention that could hurt her husband’s initiatives. But I wonder if we will see a looser, more relaxed Michelle Obama after she leaves the White House, because in writing my articles and my book, I’ve consistently found that the real person is even more interesting (and magnetic, in a way) than the one we see on TV.
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