Married to the Candidate

Reviewed by Amy Wilentz
Sunday, October 5, 2008


A Biography

By Liza Mundy

Simon & Schuster. 217 pp. $25

Barack Obama and Sarah Palin belong to the first generation of political candidates, now in their 40s, who came of age after the modern feminist movement and, also, after two-earner families had become the norm. Greater equality within marriage has meant that in U.S. elections the little woman (or in the case of Bill Clinton and Todd Palin, the big man) accompanying the candidate must be regarded not just as a sidekick in red silk or a nice sports jacket, waving faintly from an airplane gangway, but as a full-blown person with opinions and a history of his or her own. Who in a marriage today would argue that the character of the person with whom a candidate has chosen to spend a lifetime (at least in theory) has little or no bearing on his or her character?

Liza Mundy's sane and realistic biography of Michelle Obama implicitly acknowledges the new, more serious status of a presidential spouse. Although the book includes stories about who picks up his dirty socks (he does) and who has the paramount role in raising their daughters (she does), the book also takes seriously Michelle Obama's political opinions and the attempts (by her and her husband's campaign) to tweak her personality for public consumption. Of course, this book is no masterful enquiry into the life of a weighty historical figure. Nor is it an irresistible, salacious, up-close look at a cultural celebrity.

It's an odd beast, neither tabloid nor tome, less a biography than a clip-job that incorporates interviews and profiles by many other journalists, along with interviews that Mundy did in Chicago -- one or two in 2007, and another batch this spring and summer. The interviews Mundy had with both Obamas are less enlightening than other profiles she cites, although she tapped into a vein of gold when she talked to Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama's older brother ("Very few of my sister's boyfriends made it to the meet-the-family stage," Robinson says, with typical insight. Barack did, fast.) Even though this is a quickie book meant to capitalize on the public's current interest in Michelle Obama, it also manages, quietly and implicitly, to discount the paranoid fulminations that she has often inspired, especially among right-wing commentators.

Mundy takes a medium-close look at the world that created Michelle Obama: the South Side of Chicago. The writer, a long-time reporter for The Washington Post, does a nice job portraying Obama's father, Fraser Robinson. Born in Cook County and a child of the Great Migration from the South to Chicago, he was a laborer for the city's water department who eventually became a neighborhood organizer for the Democratic machine. Mundy points out that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 six months after Michelle was born, placing her, from the start, at a hopeful juncture in the history of civil rights.

Michelle Obama's marriage and family life are extraordinarily ordinary, like some throwback to the 1950s ideal of "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Donna Reed Show." Indeed, in this season of strange bedfellows and troubled teens, the Obamas are almost bizarre in their family conservatism. This has shielded Michelle Obama from the feminist/family-values mudslinging that has characterized this campaign cycle.

Instead, she's had to dodge a number of race-based arrows. It's this assault that has made her an interesting figure in the campaign. According to right-wing commentators, Michelle had a problem that -- even if you wanted to -- you couldn't easily attribute to her husband: old-fashioned black radicalism. Because Barack Obama is a kind of hothouse exotic (half-black Kenyan, half-white Kansan, a Hawaiian who lived in Indonesia . . . ), pundits who didn't know how to characterize him turned to her and made her into a Black Power sistuh, with her metaphorical fist raised in the air while her actual fist is bumping. They raised the question: Is she too black for America? They are asking, with (I think) all its racist overtones: Should this woman sleep where Nancy Reagan slept? Pat Nixon?

Michelle Obama was the one who brought Barack Obama into the church of the left-wing firebrand Jeremiah Wright, her critics allege. She wasn't a real patriot, they say, because she admitted that she was never proud of America until people began to rally around her husband's campaign for president.

Mundy takes sharp issue with all this. The woman she sympathetically portrays is a solid citizen of the black working and middle class, highly educated and motivated. Michelle Robinson (her maiden name) attended a rigorous high school, Princeton University and Harvard Law School. On graduation, she joined a high-powered Chicago law firm, where she met her future husband.

During her college years she spent time at what was then called the Third World Center at Princeton -- a gathering place for African American students who were not yet really welcome in other college organizations -- and was a quiet, almost invisible presence on campus.

Right-wing pundits argue that her senior thesis, "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community," advocated racial separatism. But Mundy, also a Princeton graduate, disagrees. The goal of the thesis was to survey black alumni to understand which race -- black or white -- they identified with at different points in their lives. Mundy is level-headed: "It's hard to know what [Obama] does conclude," she writes, "because parts of the thesis are dense and turgid." (I've read it, by the way, and Mundy is right.) The author also understands the conditions under which senior theses are concocted: "That awkward summary that you wrote in desperation in your carrel the night before it was due," Mundy writes, "the tentatively baked idea inserted at the offhand recommendation of your adviser, all of it now quoted by political opponents who want to defeat your husband! Who would have thought?"

With characteristic empathy, Mundy writes that Michelle Obama's thesis "sometimes seems, rather simply, the work of a young woman who badly missed her parents." As she wrote in that thesis, "I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus, as if I really don't belong." At overwhelmingly white Princeton, she seems for the first time to have felt self-conscious about being black. And frightened about losing touch with that part of her identity. About being seduced away.

The book eventually shows Michelle Obama as a successful professional woman who has been trying, over time, to make sure that, no matter her standing in the larger society, she maintains her roots in the black community. According to Mundy, she has been torn between her desire to lead a secure life filled with material well-being and an obligation she feels to be a part of the African American continuum. There were moments, Mundy writes, when Michelle Obama did not want her husband to give up the legal profession, take huge chunks of time away from his family and run for office. But, eventually, he tore the woman he calls "The Boss" from her moorings and swept her along on the current of his deep and abiding ambition. ยท

Amy Wilentz is the author of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger" and other books.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company