'Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady' excerpt: The mom-in-chief effect

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

In the months before the inauguration, Michelle Obama began describing her job as first lady as that of "mom in chief," a definition that indicated she would direct most of her energy at ensuring daughters Sasha and Malia settle happily into their new life in the White House and, over the next four years, have a full complement of soccer games, sleepovers and Miley Cyrus concerts.

Activist feminists, political rabble-rousers and media busybodies read that description as a gentle letdown -- that this Harvard-trained lawyer, former city government bureaucrat and hospital executive would not be transforming her East Wing office into an adjunct of the West. She would not try to influence policy. She would not be controversial. She would not be Hillary Clinton. If anything, she would be more like Laura Bush.

But it turns out that Obama's definition of mom in chief was broader, more complicated and more nuanced than most had assumed. In her first year, she sketched out a job description that had nurturing at its core. She would turn parental mantras such as eat-your-vegetables and go-out-and-play into policy initiatives on healthy eating and exercise. At her behest, mentoring young Washington area students became part of the daily responsibilities of senior White House staff. Obama would offer tough love to students in some of the capital's most underserved neighborhoods, empathizing with their modest circumstances but still putting the responsibility for success in their hands.

She began simply enough with the White House Kitchen Garden. It was started with the help of fifth-graders from the District's Bancroft Elementary School, in March 2009. It was a symbolic gesture and one that made for pleasant, controversy-free photographs. Sweet-faced children helped the first lady -- dressed in a black tunic and matching knee-high boots -- till a patch of earth on the South Lawn. It was hard to argue against children and organic vegetables -- although some people complained that after the cameras disappeared, the first lady's staff was doing most of the weeding and watering.

In many ways, the images of the first lady harvesting sweet potatoes and pushing a wheelbarrow heaped with lettuce replaced a host of stereotypes that had dogged her with one of her own choosing. Instead of the "angry black woman" finding fault with America, she appeared as a Whole Foods version of Mother Earth. She shed the hyper-glamorous image that had been foisted upon her by the fashion industry and that she had encouraged by posing for a host of glossy magazine covers. She may not have had dirt under her manicured fingernails, but she at least got a little mud on her knees.

The abundance that the garden produced -- more than 740 pounds of vegetables and herbs -- has been used to feed everyone from the first family and White House guests to the homeless who come to the meals program at D.C.'s Miriam's Kitchen for sustenance. And the garden has resonated internationally, with folks from London to Moscow curious about how it was created, how the plants are faring and the impact it might have on broader agricultural objectives such as sustainable farming and organic production.

The garden was the beginning of the first lady's wide-ranging program to curb childhood obesity, to change the unhealthy eating habits of a nation and to connect all of that to the notion that universal health care is the next step in the civil rights movement. It would lead to health fairs, including one in which Obama would spin a hula-hoop around her waist for 142 revolutions. There would be a White House Halloween party at which the first lady -- dressed as a kitty cat -- handed out dried fruit as well as cookies and M&Ms. And she would join forces with Big Bird of "Sesame Street" to take the cause of good nutrition straight to kids in their homes.

The garden would also further a dialogue about personal responsibility that had begun a month earlier in Washington and which Obama later took on the road to Denver. In March, for Women's History Month, Obama gathered 21 accomplished female actors, scientists, entrepreneurs and athletes at the White House and had them fan out to local schools to talk to students about how they could achieve beyond their wildest dreams. Obama visited Anacostia High School, in one of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods, where she shared her life story with students. She told them that she was not exceptional. She didn't start with any high-powered connections. No secret formulas for success.

"We didn't have a lot of money. I lived in the same house my mother lives in now. . . . I went to public schools," she said. "The fact is, I had somebody around me who helped me understand hard work. I had parents who told me, 'Don't worry about what other people say about you.' I worked really hard. I did focus on school. I wanted an A. I wanted to be smart. Kids would say: 'You talk funny.' 'You talk like a white girl.' I didn't know what that meant."

Her comments resonated much further than that single classroom. They would be mentioned again in June by Jasmine Williams when the first lady delivered the graduation address at Washington Mathematics Science Technology School, the public charter high school where Williams was a senior.

Williams had pleaded with Obama to attend her commencement exercises. And in her letter, Williams referred to Obama as "first lady Michelle" -- a phrase that was a mixture of respect and informality. Williams and the school's mostly African American and Latino students said they found a kinship in the stories Obama had repeated about being a black girl from a working-class family in Chicago who wasn't expected to achieve a fraction of what she has.

For Williams, the most memorable moment since Obama became first lady was when Obama spoke to those students in Anacostia. "She told them how a lot of people told her she spoke like a white girl." Williams said she, too, refuses to buy into the idea that black students are incapable of eloquence, of debate-quality erudition, of confident personal expression.

As Williams and the other graduating seniors stepped on stage, one by one, to receive their diplomas, Obama, smiling brightly, embraced each student for a commemorative photograph that would no doubt find its way onto a mantel or a boast wall. As one young woman paused to have her picture taken, she took the opportunity to throw her hand up with fingers raised in a sign of victory or peace or just plain tough-girl cool. The student was smirking rather than smiling. Her head was tossed back and her torso tilted to the side in a manner that was all bravado and superiority.

The first lady seemed to recognize the damage all that adolescent bluster could do. So with her left arm still loosely encircling the student's shoulders, she used her right hand to gently pull the girl's hand down, drawing it in toward the child's heart, all the while hugging her even tighter. In a matter of seconds, the girl's body language lost its tense swagger. Her smirk turned into a wide-eyed grin.

With this mom in chief's protective, admonishing and encouraging gesture, a young woman transformed -- at least for a moment. A student who had been putting on defensive airs became a graduate with an open smile -- one that spoke of endless possibility rather than inevitable limits.

Excerpted from "Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady." The photo book can be ordered by calling 800-222-4657 or by visiting http://www.triumphbooks.com.

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