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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.

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"Michelle had some smattering of public interest" experience, says Goldstein, who is now at the firm of Freeborn & Peters in Chicago, "and so we said, 'That's it: Public television, you're in on it.' "

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The firm's task was to manage the trademark protection and distribution of Barney plush toys and other merchandise, Goldstein says, and to negotiate with public television stations that wanted to broadcast the show. "She had very little experience in that area," recalls Goldstein, "but she latched onto it and did a very good job with it."

But Michelle could also frustrate her supervisors. Quincy White, the partner who helped recruit Michelle and who headed the marketing group, remembers finding her a challenge to manage. White, who is now retired from the firm, says he gave her the most interesting work he could find, in part because he wanted to see her advance, but also because she seemed perennially dissatisfied.

She was, White recalls, "quite possibly the most ambitious associate that I've ever seen." She wanted significant responsibility right away and was not afraid to object if she wasn't getting what she felt she deserved, he says.

At big firms, much of the work that falls to young associates involves detail and tedium. There were all sorts of arcane but important rules about what could and could not be said or done in product advertisements, and in the marketing group, all the associates, not just the new ones, reviewed scripts for TV commercials to make sure they conformed. As far as associate work goes, it could have been worse -- "Advertising is a little sexier than spending a full year reading depositions in an antitrust law suit or reviewing documents for a big merger," says White -- but it was monotonous and relatively low-level.

Too monotonous for Michelle, who, White says, complained that the work he gave her was unsatisfactory. He says he gave her the Coors beer ads, which he considered one of the more glamorous assignments they had. Even then, he says, "she at one point went over my head and complained [to human resources] that I wasn't giving her enough interesting stuff, and the person came down to my office and said, 'Basically she's complaining that she's being treated like she's a second-year associate,' and we agreed that she was a second-year associate. I had eight or nine other associates, and I couldn't start treating one of them a lot better."

White says he talked to Michelle about her expectations, but the problem could not be resolved because the work was what it was. He is not sure any work he had would have satisfied her. "I couldn't give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world."

"Not many people went over my head," says White. It was an unusual move for a young associate to make, and he believes it was consistent with her personality. She "wanted something that pushed her harder {lcub}hellip{rcub} Waiting five to seven years to make partner was a good career move for me but not for [her]. There are too many other opportunities out there {lcub}hellip{rcub} that mature faster than that."

Abner Mikva, a former congressman and federal judge who is close to the Obamas and was an early mentor to Barack, finds that account of Michelle's 20-something impatience amusing. "It doesn't surprise me at all," he says. Michelle is "clearly somebody who likes to make decisions and likes to be involved in exciting and important stuff. I can imagine writing memos for other lawyers -- I don't think that would have been her favorite dish of tea."

In that sense, she had much in common with Barack Obama, whose political ambition was already very apparent to those who knew him at Harvard. They were both driven, both eager to have an impact. And they wanted to do it right away.

In interviews and speeches, Michelle frequently talks about her early impressions of Barack. When she first met him, she told her local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, "he had no money; he was really broke. He wasn't ever going to try to impress me with things. His wardrobe was kind of cruddy . . . His first car had so much rust that there was a rusted hole in the passenger door. You could see the ground when you were driving. He loved that car. It would shake ferociously when it would start up. I thought, 'This brother is not interested in ever making a dime.' "

On one early date, he took her to a Chicago church, where he was meeting with a group of people he had worked with as a community organizer before he started law school. "The people gathered there together that day were ordinary folks doing the best they could to build a good life," Michelle recalled this summer in her speech to the Democratic National Convention. "They were parents trying to get by paycheck to paycheck; grandparents trying to get it together on a fixed income; men frustrated that they couldn't support their families after jobs had disappeared.


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