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Washington Post Magazine: On Michelle Obama

Chronicling the Obamas
Chronicling the Obamas

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Liza Mundy
Washington Post Magazine Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008; 12:00 PM

As an attorney at a Chicago law firm, Michelle Robinson was racing up the ladder. A charismatic law student named Barack Obama took her off in a new direction.

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Washington Post Magazine staff writer Liza Mundy was online Monday, October 6 to discuss her article"When Michelle Met Barack," which was adapted from her new book Michelle: A Biography. The biography was reviewed in Book World.

Mundy is also the author of Everything Conceivable, a book about assisted reproduction.

A transcript follows.

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Liza Mundy: Hello to everyone who read the magazine story and is here now for the chat. There are a number of questions in the queue so I'll get started answering them and start posting in just a few minutes. Liza Mundy

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Maryland: You wrote that Michelle will not talk to you about the book, yet you stated you two talked???

Liza Mundy: Thanks for letting me clear that up; sorry if it wasn't clear in the piece.

In the summer of 2007, over a year ago, I wrote an analysis of Obama's political rise in Illinois, which ran in the magazine. For that piece, I interviewed Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Michelle's brother Craig Robinson, and of course lots of others.

However, by the time I got started working on a book about Michelle Obama, earlier this year, the campaign had become much less willing to make her accessible. In part this may be because she is deluged now by interview requests, but in part it's because she has become fairly controversial and they are very protective of her public image. She was not willing to be interviewed for the book, and the campaign did not cooperate with it. More than that, they discouraged people from being interviewed, who otherwise would have been willing to talk. Other reporters have told me they, too, have difficulty getting people to talk about her. People are being very careful.

That's a long answer to your question.

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Alexandria, Va.: What did you learn about Michelle and Barack's child raising philosophy? How do they view the possibility of Malia and Sasha spending so many of their formative years in the White House?

Liza Mundy: When Barack and Michelle were planning their family life, they agreed that they would aspire to a dinner-together-every-night kind of life for their kids. This has not materialized, of course, because of Barack Obama's incredibly demanding political schedule, his almost unimaginably swift ascent and the fact that he is the kind of person who always tends to burn the candle at both ends. So the majority of the child-rearing has fallen to Michelle, who dialed back her own work responsibilities, and talks about this disparity openly in her speeches. It's her view that in most households, it's the woman who has to make time in her work day and stay home when the toilet overflows. My own sense is that this is certainly the case in their household. She also makes clear in her speeches that Barack Obama's prolonged absences from the household are something that is constantly on her mind and she is always watching the children to gauge the effect. So far it's never been enough to make her say no to a race. But she has had to work overtime, personally, and enlist her mom, to make sure they are fully tended to.

In terms of the White House, of course they have worked hard to shield the girls from public scrutiny, and I assume that if in the White House, they would do much the same thing. I personally think it would be interesting to see whether, if he is elected, the Obamas consider putting their children in D.C. public schools. Once upon a time, presidents with young children tended to agonize over this question. Michelle Obama often describes herself as the proud product of neighborhood public schools, so it will be interesting to see if the issue comes up at all.

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VA: Did Michelle Obama ever travel overseas? Cindy McCain traveled a lot on behalf of landmine victims and children with disabilities overseas.

Liza Mundy: Well, she and Barack have been to Africa on extended trips at least twice, and they apparently spent some weeks in Bali not long after they were married, when he was writing his first book. And of course they go to Hawaii every Christmas--not sure if that qualifies as "overseas"--to visit Barack's grandmother. But she has not done much solo travel abroad that I know of. Maybe she will travel more abroad later in life, or maybe she's not all that interested in foreign travel. Either way, her husband's political schedule, her own campaigning duties and the exigencies of parenting young children don't seem to have permitted that kind of extended tour.

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MD: There was an article in the Post about how Michelle's hospital employer ignored low-income residents. Did your book mention some negative examples?

washingtonpost.com: Grassley Seeks Information About Hospital With Ties to the Obamas (Washington Post, Sept. 3)

Liza Mundy: My impression is that what the hospital tried to do is to encourage patients not to seek their primary care in emergency rooms, and instead to enlist in local health clinics so their care could be more focused and steady and less episodic. If I am correct, similar initiatives have been tried here in the District. I don't mean to defend the University of Chicago Hospitals, because I haven't extensively reported this topic, and certainly nonprofit hospitals do have a mandate to treat the poor. It also seems perfectly legitimate to look into the high salaries nonprofits pay administrators, which I think Grassley is also doing. But it seems to me that simply trying to get people out of the emergency room, and into more steady care, does not amount to neglecting them.

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Ellicott City, MD: You've got to be kidding!!!! I didn't think it was possible, but the Washington Post has sunk to a new low in showing a total lack of unbiasedness in their news reporting. Wow.

Liza Mundy: If you'd like to point out specific instances of bias I'd be glad to respond to them. Otherwise this seems a kind of generalized criticism that it's hard to respond to. Certainly, going into this book I was simply curious about Michelle Obama's life story, and in providing readers with a more in-depth and comprehensive look at where she's been and who she is.

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Los Angeles, CA: When Michelle Obama stated that Barack won her over when he bought her ice cream: seriously, is this a dark secret women have been hiding from men for ages? You really look for in men that we buy you ice cream?

Liza Mundy: Yes. This is a known fact.

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Burbank, CA.: The film at the Democratic National Convention almost got a bit creepy at the part where it mentioned Barack and Michelle meeting. It almost made Barack Obama sound like a guy stalking his boss. What if the story was how Michelle didn't want to date a male superior and how he wore her down and won her love?

Liza Mundy: You know, this is an interesting point. Obviously, when they tell the story of his "persistence" it sounds pretty charming and innocuous. And, as I say in the piece, one sense that her skepticism didn't last very long against his charm offensive. But yes, if she'd kept resisting and he'd kept persisting then at a certain point it would have become problematic. I also wonder if, in today's more protocol-conscious workplace, any of this would be permissible, any more. Probably, nowadays, once they'd made that Baskin-Robbins visit, she would have to get herself reassigned.

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Kansas City, Mo.: If Michelle Obama didn't talk with you, how did you manage to write a book about her?

Liza Mundy: I interviewed friends, colleagues, neighbors, high school classmates, college classmates, law school classmates, fellow board members, relatives, professors, mentors, and anybody and everybody else I could track down or think of. Together with a dogged research assistant I FOIA'ed famiy records to put together a family tree. Plenty of people write unauthorized biographies. It's harder, but it's certainly not impossible, and in some ways it's liberating, because you have to push harder to find people who are outside the tight circle of those who always get interviewed. You have to find new voices.

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Anonymous: As an African American woman (48) who also graduated from Harvard, I have tremendous respect for Michelle and her husband. To be the first true cohort of such persons actually integrating those schools and law firms was no small feat. It is at best challenging and often isolating. You do not have the family ties to these institutions or supports others might have in your midst, yet you persevere and attempt to do what is right. On that note, I have to say, I enjoyed the piece but was very discouraged to see the horrific racist comments penned on the commentary in both your article and the photos. How widespread is that reaction? Are we dealing with a few vitriolic jerks or is all this going to end being one big disappointing Bradley effect come Election Night?

And PS: I want to add that McCain did receive a rather generous positive spread on the front page of your paper and two full inside "A" section pages on the same day. I wish others would be more balanced in their hostile knee jerk reactions.

washingtonpost.com: In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped (Washington Post, Oct. 5)

Liza Mundy: Thank you for your comments. Your points are all very well taken. I am sorry about the commentary--I have not yet looked at the commentary attached to the online version of the piece. I assume that's what you are talking about. If there is racist commentary up there the paper needs to exert some control as a moderator and take it down. I will talk to my editors. It's my experience that the online commentary attached to articles tends to be the most vitriolic sort of response, because it's so easy to push that "respond" button. I don't think it's representative. That said, I did get one racially offensive email in my own inbox. I didn't open it; the subject line was enough.

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VA: I am a supporter of Obama but I, too, believe the effects of the U Chicago hospitals in shifting low-income people out of their emergency rooms needs far closer scrutiny. I would also suggest that Michelle Obama's ample salary increases need to be put into perspective with a general comparison to the many attorneys who leave large law firms for the non-profit sector. No, she is not an heiress like Cindy McCain; the Obamas and the McCains have drastically different financial "cushions" but I do not think Michelle Obama's pathway has involved extraordinary economic sacrifice in terms of the range of compensation for attorneys practising public interest law.

Liza Mundy: Your points are very well taken. I make this point in the piece but even more so in the book--Michelle Obama's financial sacrifice, in terms of giving up super-high-paying work, has not been that great. No question, she did not come to adulthood with anything resembling a financial cushion, and her husband's political career did, at one time, put them in debt. But there's no question that she was enviably well paid at University of Chicago Hospitals, rivaling a corporate salary; on top of that, she asked for and got lots of flex time for parenting. Your point is also well taken about the hospital turning people away from emergency rooms; the question of course is how it's done, and to what extent the hospital is participating in that more coherent clinic care that people are being encouraged to seek out. Because of course it should be participating in their continued care and not simply getting them out of the ER.

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Ellicott City?: I agree that there is nothing biased in the Post's presentation of Michelle Obama's story. On the same weekend, the Post ran a lengthy piece of Sen. McCain's Vietnam experiences. Would the same writer see that as evidence of "being in the tank?" Or is that "fair and balanced" journalism?

washingtonpost.com: In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped (Washington Post, Oct. 5)

Liza Mundy: I'll post your point for others to read and comment upon; it doesn't seem to need my commentary.

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Ashburn, VA: The Post is biased. Shouldn't there be a nicey nice interview with Cindy McCain too? Thirty days before the election we get this interview on Michelle.

Nothing is mentioned in this article about Michelle's association with Ayres and Dorn.

Where are Michelle's writings scorning America, calling whites racial?

Where are all the questionable things about Michelle? I can almost bet if the article was written about Cindy McCain, everything dirty would have been written about her and John.

Liza Mundy: And I'll publish this one too, though I don't think I'll belabor the point, just say again that I tried to be straightforward and unbiased. Some of the issues you raise, such as her much-scrutinized Princeton thesis, are in my book, if you want to take a look.

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Deja, VU: Another Hillary! Oh joy, we all saw how well that turned out! Seriously, why doesn't this woman just run for office herself???

Liza Mundy: In what sense do you think Michelle Obama is like Hillary Clinton? I am curious. Is it because she's outspoken and somewhat controversial and has a professional job, or is there something more specific? I tend to resist the idea that all outspoken female partners are automatically to be placed in one general category. The chief similarity I see, beyond the ones above, is that Michelle Obama tends to share her husband's social vision and political goals. But I can see lots and lots of differences.

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DC: Where does Ms. Obama find her pretty dresses? Also, she wears a lot of flats. Is this because she's so tall? How tall is she? How tall is Sen. Obama?

Liza Mundy: Don't quote me, but I think she's 5'11 and he is something like 6' 1" or 6'2". I'm sure there is an official source for this. And yes, I do think that's why she wears flats. When you ask friends, neighbors, etc etc for their impressions of her, one of the first words they say is "tall." It must get somewhat tiresome for her. As for clothes; she has a Chicago designer she likes to work with, but she has also, increasingly, been getting more off-the-rack stuff, like her famous black-and-white dress on The View, which the campaign tends to publicize, the better to connect with voters.

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Silver Spring: I'm not sure I understand the need for an article on Michelle Obama. She's not running for President and is only in the spotlight for the simple fact that she married well. This is the second People, er Post magazine article you've written that has centered on Obama or his family. Nothing else to write about? What's left to fit into the Post magazine. Obama's friends, his pets? I can understand a Sunday Magazine article but the fact that you wrote a book on Michelle Obama, someone who's frankly achieved litte but is famous for who she married tells me that too many books are being written.

Liza Mundy: Thanks. I think there are a lot of people who are interested in Michelle Obama, a newcomer to public life and potential future First Lady. More than her own personality, she is important because she embodies a classic American narrative, one shared by so man others. Her ancestral heritage includes slavery in the South, and her grandfather traveled out of South Carolina with the Great Migration, along with millions of other Americans, to look for work in the urban Midwest. Her own childhood was spent in a neighborhood defined by black advancement and white flight to the suburbs. She attended Princeton at the height of an acrimonious debate over affirmative action. Her life story is one of making her way onto contested terrain, in post-Civil-Rights-Act America. I think it's interesting and important.

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D.C.: A lot of religious conservatives who like to call themselves Christian are quite notorious for their double standards.

They demand equal positive press time for Cindy McCain - yet they've derided Michelle Obama as a Baby Mamma - even though she is a happily married professional who had all of her kids in wedlock - in the meantime, they have not pointed their same vitriol or even criticism to conservatives such as Cindy McCain who won her current husband by cheating with him while he was married - and they've not referred to Palin's pregnant daughter as a "baby mamma".

Conservatives just really want caricatures to prevail about Black American women such as Michelle Obama rather than the truth. Any positive coverage of people like Obama is surely a threat to this false angelic image that neoconservatives love to have of themselves.

Liza Mundy: Well, the debate has heated up, now as we're getting to the end of our time period! I'll post a couple of comments but I won't take a lot of time responding.

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DC: The thing that I admire about Michelle is that she is Barack's first and only wife. The fact that Cindy does work in the 3rd world, does not mask the fact that her husband if elected - would adopt many policies that are harmful to blacks in this country.

I think it's abhorrent to attempt to mask an abandonment of domestic social responsibility here in the US - with dogoodism in the 3rd world.

Liza Mundy: Just posting. (I have to say something at the end here, or it won't post.)

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Fairfax, VA: Thank you for your fantastic article on Michelle Obama. I think she is the type of woman that many young girls of any race can aspire to be: Strong, giving, intelligent, loving, fashionable, no-nonsense, charismatic, and inspiring. I find it so inspiring that she gave up a lucrative career to instead help her community and give back. And the fact that there really isn't any drama behind her courtship with Barack Obama makes it that much sweeter. Plenty of people meet at work, aren't so sure of each other, but eventually realize they've found their soulmate. The love between them is evident anytime they're near each other. Thanks again and I'll be sure to check out your book.

Liza Mundy: Ditto.

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Washington, DC: I can tell you Obama offers just so much hope to all of us - in terms of leading this country. I'm just so inspired by this love story. I have the same last name as Mrs. Obama - I went to a top law school and I'm in intellectual property. Her story is just so inspiring to me - I think that the Obama romance and marriage is an example of good family values and will do wonders in this nation for all families, but most importantly, black American families.

Liza Mundy: Ditto. (This was a very early response and I meant to post it earlier.)

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TX: I really enjoyed your profile and also watched a 20/20 special on both Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain that aired Friday.

I really don't mean get get partisan here, bear with me. It's hard for me to understand how Sarah Palin tries to portray herself as connecting with "real" Americans. Then you have someone like Mrs.Obama who truly worked her way up from nothing to EARNING her way to Ivy League schools, prestigious well-paying jobs, but never forgetting about her roots.

If that's not all-American than what is? Oh I forget... killing moose, going to hockey games and calling yourself Joe Sixpack.

Anyway, there are so many Michelle Obamas out there. Women of color trying to be the first in their families to "make it."

By telling her story, you are telling a lot of American women's stories out there.

Liza Mundy: This is probably the last one I'll post since we are over time. Thank you, everyone, for writing in and for reading the story, those who did. It's certainly interesting to be participating in the reporting coverage of this election.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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