When Michelle Met Barack: How romance in the sedate corridors of a corporate law firm changed everything for the woman who might become the country's first African American first lady

Twenty years ago in Chicago, two bright young attorneys met and joined forces.
By Liza Mundy
Sunday, October 5, 2008

In the summer of 1989, Michelle Robinson told her mother she was going to concentrate on her law career and not worry about dating. She was 25 and had just finished her first year as an associate at Sidley & Austin, a corporate law firm in her home town of Chicago. Not long after, the firm assigned her to mentor a summer associate named Barack Obama.

Even then, there was a lot of buzz about this 27-year-old prodigy from Harvard Law School. Sidley didn't usually hire first-year law students as summer associates, so Barack's arrival was noteworthy. Martha Minow, a law professor at Harvard, told her father, Newton Minow, a high-ranking partner at Sidley, that Barack was possibly the most gifted student that she had ever taught. Michelle, who'd graduated from Harvard Law herself in 1988, felt annoyed by all the chattering. Why were people surprised that a black man might be articulate and capable?

Her own skepticism took a different form. His name struck her as odd, as did the fact that he had grown up in Hawaii. She assumed he would be "strange and overly intellectual" and that she would almost certainly dislike him.

"He sounded too good to be true," she told David Mendell, author of "Obama: From Promise to Power." "I had dated a lot of brothers who had this kind of reputation coming in, so I figured he was one of these smooth brothers who could talk straight and impress people. So we had lunch, and he had this bad sport jacket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and I thought: 'Oh, here you go. Here's this good-looking, smooth-talking guy. I've been down this road before.' "

The fact that she was Obama's mentor made her feel self-conscious. She often recounts how she resisted when Barack asked her out, saying in an interview that she felt it would be "tacky" if they started to date because they were "the only two black people" at the firm.

That, anyhow, is how the story goes: Barack and Michelle, whose last name, of course, is now Obama, both enjoy telling it. But like many personal stories that get repeated during political campaigns, it's been polished and simplified for public consumption.

As Newton Minow and others are quick to point out, Michelle and Barack were not the only black lawyers at the firm, now called Sidley Austin. Sidley made an effort to be socially progressive. The firm had a black partner, and more African American attorneys were being hired as associates every year. Even so, Minow recalls, there probably weren't more than a half-dozen, and it must have felt to Michelle as though she and Barack were under a microscope. Which, in a way, they were. Before Barack and Michelle became an official item, Minow and his wife, Jo, ran into them at the popcorn stand at a movie theater. Minow is not sure, but thinks it may have been their fabled first date to see the Spike Lee movie "Do the Right Thing." "I think they were a little embarrassed," Minow says with a laugh.

And the truth is, if Michelle resisted, it wasn't for long. Andrew Goldstein, a Sidley attorney who worked with Michelle, says he had the impression that Michelle was pursuing Barack as much as he was pursuing her, and with plenty of resources. She was tall, poised, very put-together, with an air of strength and a dazzling smile. "She is just as charismatic as he is," he says.

Another colleague, Mary Carragher, who at the time was a more senior associate assigned to work with Michelle, remembers how smitten Barack and Michelle seemed with each other. Sometimes, in the slow hours around 5:30 p.m., Carragher would go to Michelle's office to talk about a case or drop off some work, and, through the half-open door, she would see Barack, sitting on one corner of the desk. Michelle would be seated, the two of them rapt, oblivious, chatting.

"I could tell by the body language, he's just courting her," says Carragher, who would quietly depart without bothering them, thinking, 'You know what, I'm going back to my office.' "

But between Barack's visits, Michelle would confide in Carragher, sharing the tidbits she was gleaning about him. It was clear that she was now intrigued -- rather than put off -- by his unlikely origins and upbringing, which she would relay piece by piece as she learned about them. " 'I can't believe he's got a white grandmother from Kansas!' " Carragher recalls Michelle telling her.

"She had all these little facts about him," says Carragher. "She was just learning about him and getting to know him, and she seemed to be quite taken with him." His biracial heritage -- he was the son of a foreign student from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas -- was part of the appeal. "She was just sort of amazed by him."

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