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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
"And Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about the world as it is, and the world as it should be. And he said that, all too often, we accept the distance between the two, and we settle for the world as it is, even when it doesn't reflect our values and aspirations."
Barack's idealism and his desire to help poor African Americans swept Michelle off her feet. She took him to meet her family. Her older brother, Craig Robinson, has talked many times about Michelle's impossibly high standards when it came to men and the obstacles those standards created for would-be suitors: "She would meet guys and go out on a couple of dates, and that would be it."
So when Barack came over for dinner, the whole family felt sorry for him, assuming he wouldn't be around for long. "He was very, very low-key," Craig, the head basketball coach at Oregon State University and a former star player at Princeton, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I loved the way he talked about his family because it was the way we talked about our family. I was thinking: 'Nice guy. Too bad he won't last.' "
Not long afterward, Michelle asked Craig to take Barack out on the basketball court to test his character. He obliged her, and emerged from that game with a positive report: Barack was self-confident but not a ball hog or a hotshot.
At Sidley Austin, it was clear to Michelle's colleagues that the couple were sharing their aspirations. Michelle confided to Mary Carragher that Barack was planning to write a book, a project that he would not embark on for several years. Even then, it was the opinion of some at the firm that Barack was presidential timber. Andrew Goldstein remembers conversations around the water cooler in which people would tick off Barack's accomplishments, predicting that a résumé like his could only be leading toward one place: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. " 'This guy's going to be the first African American president,' " he recalls one colleague declaring.
Michelle has always insisted that she was unaware, early on, of Barack's political ambitions. "We didn't talk about politics specifically," she told me when I interviewed her in the summer of 2007 for a story about her husband. But Obama wasn't keeping his ambitions secret. Michelle's brother, also speaking to me in 2007, recounted one of the first times Michelle brought Barack to a party that included the extended family, during which Craig pulled Barack aside to quiz him on his prospects and clue him in to family members' personalities and eccentricities.
When Craig asked about his career plans, Barack replied, "I think I'd like to teach at some point in time, and maybe even run for public office." Craig assumed Barack wanted to run for a post like city alderman, but Barack let him know that his sights were set higher. "He said no, at some point he'd like to run for the U.S. Senate," Craig recalled. "And then he said, 'Possibly even run for president at some point.' And I was like, 'Okay, that's great. But don't say that to my Aunt Gracie.' I was protecting him from saying something that might embarrass him." The Robinsons tended to be cynical about politics and politicians.
When I related this anecdote to Michelle, she laughed as though she had not heard it before. "He probably should have said: Don't tell Michelle!" she cracked, meaning that she shared her family's antipathy toward politics and implying that she didn't realize Barack had serious political aspirations.
Craig has his doubts about that. "She knew what she was getting into," he told Vanity Fair. The surprise, if there was one, he said, was how good a politician Barack would turn out to be.
After Barack went back to Harvard, the couple had a long-distance romance. In interviews, Michelle is fond of recounting how, during this period, she began to pressure Barack to get married, and how Barack put her off, arguing that marriage was a meaningless institution and that the only thing that mattered was how they felt about each other. Michelle, whose parents had been married for some 30 years, wasn't buying it.
Then, one night in 1991, he took her to Gordon, an expensive Chicago restaurant, and she started to press him again. He went into his usual tirade against marriage, a dissertation that went on until they ordered dessert. When it came, the plate had a box on it, and in the box was an engagement ring.
"'That kind of shuts you up, doesn't it?'" Michelle remembers Barack telling her. She acknowledged to a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times that she doesn't remember what the dessert was, or whether she ate it. "I was so shocked and a little embarrassed because he did sort of shut me up."
They married in 1992 at Trinity United Church of Christ, in a ceremony officiated by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom Barack had gotten to know during his work as a community organizer and whose fiery sermons would become so controversial during Obama's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination that the couple would have to cut ties with him. Michelle wore an off-the-shoulder gown. They had the reception at the South Shore Cultural Center, a former country club that had once excluded blacks and Jews. They honeymooned on the West Coast and moved into a condo in Hyde Park, one of Chicago's most integrated and politically progressive communities.
The year before they married, Michelle left Sidley Austin, and with it the practice of corporate law. Newton Minow remembers how Sidley offered Barack a job upon his graduation from Harvard and how Obama broke the news that he wanted to go into politics and would not be taking a job with the firm. Minow, who had served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy, replied that public service was an admirable path and that the firm would do all it could to help advance his political career.
"Well, I don't think you're going to want to help me," Barack replied, telling him to sit down because he had even more bad news. "I thought, 'What the hell is this?' " says Minow, who sat down. Whereupon Barack said, "I'm taking Michelle with me." Minow began to sputter at Obama, "You no-good worthless rotten . . ." until Barack said, "Hold it, we're getting married."
In fact, there was no need for Michelle to leave Sidley Austin just because she was marrying Barack. He was coming back to Chicago after Harvard, and she easily could have stayed with the firm. "As far as the firm was concerned . . . we considered it a real loss," says Minow. "We thought she was going to eventually become a partner and have a big role there."
But Michelle was ready to revisit the choice she'd made when she graduated from Harvard. At the time, she was still reeling from the death of her father in 1991. Fraser Robinson had died while getting ready to go to work, felled by what Barack, in his book "The Audacity of Hope," describes as complications from a kidney operation. This was an event of enormous emotional and psychological magnitude for Michelle and the rest of her family. At the Democratic National Convention, she described her father as "our rock. Although he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his early 30s, he was our provider. He was our champion, our hero. But as he got sicker, it got harder for him to walk. It took him longer to get dressed in the morning.
"But if he was in pain, he never let on. He never stopped smiling and laughing, even while struggling to button his shirt, even while using two canes to get himself across the room to give my mom a kiss. He just woke up a little earlier, and he worked a little harder."
His death made Michelle aware of how short life can be and prompted her to reflect, she has said in interviews. "If what you're doing doesn't bring you joy every single day, what's the point?"
Her father's death wasn't the only one she was grieving. In 1990, one of Michelle's closest friends from Princeton, Suzanne Alele, had died from cancer when she was only in her 20s. Alele, a computer specialist at the Federal Reserve, had always followed her heart, doing what felt right rather than what was expected of her. She was described in her alumni obituary as a "free spirit" who was much loved by her classmates.
Michelle resolved to live her own life in that vein. "I wanted to have a career motivated by passion and not just money," she would tell the New York Times years later.
That's what Barack was doing. He, too, had struggled with spending time in corporate law, even just a summer, and ultimately rejected private practice and other conventional paths. To Michelle's amazement, Barack wasn't interested in parlaying his presidency of the Harvard Law Review into a clerkship for a U.S. Supreme Court justice. "Never did it cross his mind," Michelle told me in 2007. "Here I am, knowing the power of his position: 'You're not going to clerk for them? You're kidding me!' "
Instead, Barack took a less exalted job at a Chicago civil rights law firm, but first spent six months working on a voter registration drive, Project Vote, that targeted low-income African Americans. "We had many debates about how to best effect change," Michelle later told the Daily Princetonian. "We both wanted to affect the community on a larger scale than either of us could individually, and we wanted to do it outside of big corporations."
In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Michelle also expressed a lingering sense of guilt about enjoying so much material success as a big-firm lawyer while others who shared her origins and upbringing were not doing as well. She remembers asking herself, "Can I go to the family reunion in my Benz and be comfortable, while my cousins are struggling to keep a roof over their heads?"
Moreover, she wasn't enthralled with the work at Sidley Austin and apparently didn't think many of her colleagues were, either. "I didn't see a whole lot of people who were just thrilled to be there," she told Newsweek earlier this year. "I met people who thought this was a good life. But were people waking up just bounding out of bed to get to work? No."
Her brother would have the same epiphany while working on Wall Street. He had earned an MBA from the University of Chicago and gone to work first for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and then as a partner in a boutique investment firm. For a while, he enjoyed his wealth, then realized that the job wasn't making him happy.
"I'm so embarrassed to admit it," Craig told a New York Times sports reporter in 2007. "I had a Porsche 944 Turbo. I had a BMW station wagon. Who gets a BMW station wagon? It's the dumbest car in the world. Why would you buy a $75,000 station wagon?" Concluding that "I've got all this stuff, and it hasn't made my life any better," Craig, in his late 30s, left investment banking for a job he loves: coaching basketball.
During her last year at Sidley Austin, Michelle began meeting with general counsels for universities, trying to find an area of the law that might be more satisfying. In 1991, she wrote to Valerie Jarrett, deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Jarrett, now one of Barack Obama's most important campaign aides, was instantly impressed with Michelle. "She was so confident and committed and extremely open," Jarrett would later tell Newsweek. She offered her a job in the mayor's office. But before Michelle would accept, she asked that Jarrett have dinner with her and Barack.
Barack was worried, according to his biographer, David Mendell, that Michelle might be too straightforward and outspoken to survive in a political setting. He fretted, too, that if she was going to enter the realm of Chicago politics, she needed a mentor, someone to look out for her.
"My fiance wants to know who is going to be looking out for me and making sure that I thrive," Jarrett recalled Michelle saying. After the meal, Jarrett told the Chicago Tribune, she asked, "Well, did I pass the test?" Barack smiled and said she did.
When Michelle was hired by the Daley administration, she was an assistant to the mayor, making about $60,000 a year. But Jarrett was promoted to head the Department of Planning and Development, and took Michelle with her. Michelle's new job was "economic development coordinator," which city records describe as "developing strategies and negotiating business agreements to promote and stimulate economic growth within the City of Chicago."
After three years of toiling on behalf of Barney and Coors beer, Michelle was working to bring new jobs and vitality to Chicago's neighborhoods. It was a turning point in her career and in the way she would later frame her life story. Michelle didn't just leave the world of corporate law; she would go on to publicly reject it.
"We don't need a world full of corporate attorneys and hedge-fund managers," she said earlier this year as she campaigned in South Carolina.
She and Barack both make a point of talking about how they left corporate America (After graduating from Columbia University, Barack spent one year as a researcher for a Manhattan financial firm before becoming a community organizer) and devoted themselves to public service. "We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we're asking young people to do," Michelle said at a campaign event in Ohio this past winter. "Don't go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we're encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did . . . then your salaries respond." Which is true, though she fails to mention that her own salary never fell that low and that, by 2006, she would be a highly paid administrator at the University of Chicago Hospitals, with a husband writing best-selling books.
For the most part, the lawyers Michelle once worked with at Sidley Austin don't take offense at Michelle's dismissive words about corporate law or her description of their work as lucrative but uninspiring.
"I do understand," says Mary Hutchings Reed, who relished getting up every morning and winning a place for women in the corridors of legal power. Even so, Reed allows, "we're sitting here doing advertising." You can tell yourself that you're working for the protection of the American consumer, she says, but "working at a large law firm like this, sometimes looking for meaning, you can't look for meaning in your work."
"At the beginning, it's so fun and interesting and new, and then after a few years you realize that it's pretty much all the same stuff," adds Mary Carragher. She points out that many young lawyers try big-firm work and decide that it's not for them. "It's not surprising that she would go the big-firm route for a while. When you're at a top school and you're a top candidate like that, you're getting recruited by every top law firm in the city. It takes a little while to say, 'Does this really fit for me?' "
After Michelle left the firm, Carragher and Reed mostly lost touch with her. Carragher ran into her on Michigan Avenue a couple of years later, when Michelle was executive director of the nonprofit Public Allies, which prepares young people for jobs in public service. Michelle gave Carragher her card and seemed very happy.
Carragher ran into her again two years ago in Chicago at a charity fashion show for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. By then, Michelle was earning close to $300,000 as vice president of community and external affairs at University of Chicago Hospitals. And she was the wife of the U.S. senator who had dazzled the country with his eloquence at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and was being talked about as a presidential candidate.
Carragher had her mother and her 11-year-old daughter with her.
"I feel like I was 11 years old when I met you!" joked Michelle, marveling at how young and inexperienced she'd been at Sidley Austin.
When Carragher introduced Michelle to her mother, Michelle told her, "Mary was my mentor and taught me so many things." Whereupon Carragher's mother -- who doesn't hear well and apparently thought Michelle simply said the two of them had worked together -- replied, "Oh yes, that's what Mary told me!" Carragher says she was mortified, but Michelle laughed.
"What a life you're having," Carragher said to her. And Michelle, the woman who could become the country's first African American first lady, replied, "I know."
This article has been adapted from "Michelle: A Biography," which is being published this week by Simon & Schuster. The book's author, Liza Mundy, is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.