The occasion was the opening evening of Leading Women Defined, a private gathering of supremely accomplished black women organized by Debra Lee and BET aimed at networking and uplift. The former first lady has made a number of appearances since last spring — mostly to audiences on the lucrative convention speaking circuit, with attendees numbering in the thousands. This was a far more intimate crowd, perhaps a hundred women. And as Obama spoke, they responded with knowing nods and understanding smiles and the occasional exhortation of support.
What was on her mind, Jarrett wanted to know, when the president and Mrs. Obama welcomed their successors to the White House? Well, for one thing, there was the sweet chaos of the morning, with the friends of Sasha and Malia who had slept over one final time and had to be shooed out of the building amid tears and hugs as the new first couple made their way toward the North Portico. There also had been tears as the Obamas said goodbye to the staff, and Mrs. Obama didn’t want to look as if she was crying when she greeted the Trumps, because that would give the media the wrong idea.
And then, of course, “she gave me the box.” That would be the large Tiffany box that Melania Trump presented to Mrs. Obama — a moment that defied protocol and left Mrs. Obama spinning in circles trying to figure out where to put it because all the staff had disappeared. “It was a lovely, beautiful, thoughtful frame,” Mrs. Obama said. “It was just a bit of a surprise.”
What was Mrs. Obama thinking as she and president Obama waved farewell from Marine One? “Bye, Felicia!” she joked. And she laughed.
During the wide-ranging conversation, Mrs. Obama, wearing the Gucci map-print dress that was such a hit when she wore it on “Ellen” in 2016, looked back on her 2008 campaign learning curve and how she came to realize that her enthusiasm and passion could easily be turned into angry, scolding sound bites. “I couldn’t count on my husband’s campaign to protect me; I had to protect myself,” she said. “They were using me like I was a candidate and supporting me like I was a spouse.”
“I had to learn how to deliver a message,” she added, noting that often meant not being so passionate and speaking with an ever-present smile. And here the audience murmured understandingly, because they all knew what it means to be called angry when really you’re just emphatic.
Her campaign experiences helped push her away from the pundits and the political conversation. Instead, she turned her attention to television shows such as “The View” and “Ellen” and their middle-of-the-road audiences. “You will never see me on ‘Face the Nation.’ ” Mrs. Obama said. “I will never do a Sunday show.”
Once in the East Wing, she spent a year sussing out the lay of the land, strategizing and readying herself to roll out her “Let’s Move” healthy living initiative. She also grappled with the public’s expectations and with her new role as “the spouse.” With two Ivy League degrees and a résumé that included executive positions in hospital and city management, she was dismayed that people seemed to question whether she could handle being first lady. “You’re shocked that I could do this job?” she said with a wry chuckle.
Her advice to other spouses in her position, should they choose to take it: “Take some time to know what you care about and what you can do in the realm of the administration,” she said. “You have to know what the goals of the administration are.” For her husband’s administration, health care was a priority, so Mrs. Obama focused on helping children get healthy.
“The garden was a subversive act,” she said. “It was the carrot. You can’t go in with guns blazing until people trust you.” And there could be no reprimanding. No finger-wagging. Because she knew that her finger-wagging, a black woman’s finger-wagging, would be both amplified and resented.
So she gave herself a bit of advice: Put down your finger and pick up the garden hoe. “What’s more innocent than a garden?” Mrs. Obama said.
She spent a lot of time visiting D.C. public schools during her White House tenure, then followed up by inviting the students she had met to the White House. “The second touch or third touch is when they start believing it’s real,” she said. It’s when kids start to believe that what you’ve said matters and that they, in fact, matter.
Recently, her days have been taken up with her memoir, which will be published in the fall. “Becoming” aims to explore how her ordinary childhood prepared her to do extraordinary things — the power of the ordinary. It’s about her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson, about growing into her role as first lady and continuing to evolve — and about refusing to place herself last, which is not just an act of self-love but is also a public, civic, political obligation.
“If we can’t advocate for ourselves,” she said, “how do we pick a president who will advocate for us?” And, no, she didn’t mention any names.