Reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” as a Motherhood Memoir

In some ways, Obama’s desires for a stable home and family are quite conventional, and she uses the conventionally feminine, domestic metaphor of knitting to describe them. “We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and forever form of us,” she writes of the first months of her marriage to Barack. It isn’t easy: in the Robinson-Obama union, the South Side power-walker meets the Hawaii-born ambler; the meticulous planner and striver with an “instinctive love of a crowd” and a desire for family must adapt to the messy, cerebral dreamer who loves solitude and books at least as much as he loves people. Later, the woman who loathes politics must throw her life into her husband’s pursuit of the Presidency.

Things are complicated long before the campaign, as children both complete and unsettle the Obamas’ carefully cultivated “us.” Once Obama gets pregnant, through I.V.F., her resentment at Barack’s distance from the pain of miscarriage and needles gives way to feelings of maternal pride. Upon Malia’s arrival, she writes, “motherhood became my motivator”—yet, three years (and almost twenty pages) later, she is most galvanized by her new full-time job, at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Although she considers staying home when Sasha is born, she instead takes the job, which “[gets her] out of bed in the morning,” though Barack’s comparative absence, as a commuting state and U.S. senator, gets her home in time for dinner. Then, just as Sasha is about to start elementary school and Obama is “on the brink of . . . [firing] up my ambition again and [considering] a new set of goals,” it is decided that Barack should run for President.

Michelle is still driven, but now by a desire not to fail Barack’s growing base of supporters. In an effort to “earn” public approval, she talks a lot about her kids while campaigning—a safe subject for a black woman who was framed in negative contemporary press accounts as an unpatriotic shrew. As the Obamas near the Iowa primaries, Michelle’s growing commitment to Barack’s cause is reflected in her language. Her pronouns shift from “him” to “we”—“Our hopes were pinned on Iowa. We had to win it or otherwise stand down”—and she adopts Barack’s own sermonic listing mode, describing meetings with voters “in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs . . . in bookstores, union halls, a home for aging military veterans, and, as the weather warmed up, on front porches and in public parks.” Her rhetoric itself knits her and Barack into a “we.”

The book as a whole, however, represents a different moment, and announces her ambition to tell her story in her own way. A long memoir by any measure, “Becoming” not only matches the length of Barack’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” but it also shows Michelle to be a better storyteller than her husband—funnier, and able to generate a surprising degree of suspense about events whose outcomes are a given (the results of Barack’s first run for President, for instance). Having devoted herself to strategically remaking the office of First Lady, through such initiatives as the White House garden and Let Girls Learn, she now reflects on what she has done and who else she might want to become.

Of course, the choices she makes throughout—to focus more and less on work, more and less on family—are a function of privilege. It is a privilege to decide how much or whether to work, and a privilege to have children, whether through I.V.F. or otherwise. The ability to steer one’s own ship also relies on the sheer luck of evading any number of American disasters: layoffs, mass shootings, prison, domestic violence, lack of health care. Then there are the disasters perpetrated by the U.S. surveillance state, which can undo black women, such as Sandra Bland, or their children, such as Kalief Browder. Under these conditions of hypervisibility, no amount of strategic maneuvering can guarantee one’s safety. And, in light of this, the Obamas’ faith in the American system, and in electoral politics, can seem woefully insufficient.

It comes as something of a relief, then, that, even as Michelle seeks to bind her own story to that of her husband and, through him, to that of the nation, the story of her mother, Marian Robinson, hints at an exit. Robinson is a willfully marginal figure in the text, as she was in the White House—famously reluctant to move in, and evasive of its basic security protocols. She gave everything to her kids (“We were their investment,” Michelle writes of her parents’ devotion to their two children) and stood by her husband, Fraser Robinson III, while multiple sclerosis drained him of strength. And yet, it turns out, she harbored fantasies of leaving. It is here that Obama’s portrait of her mother grows most vivid: “Much later, my mother would tell me that every year when spring came and the air warmed up in Chicago, she entertained thoughts about leaving my father. I don’t know if these thoughts were actually serious or not. . . . But for her it was an active fantasy, something that felt healthy and maybe even energizing to ponder, almost as ritual.” Obama sees this ritual as an internal renewal of vows for Marian, akin to how doubts about God might be said to bolster one’s faith. But the fantasy also represents a wholly other possibility: not a knitting-together but an unfurling, a quiet dream of escape.

The Proper Response to Roseanne—and to Trump

This was not the first time that Barr has trafficked in social-media racism or directed a simian comparison at an African-American closely connected to the Obama Administration. She has also directed anti-Semitic barbs at George Soros and promoted conspiracy theories pushed by the far left and the far right.

.. Donald Trump, who congratulated Roseanne for her high ratings, said nothing about the egregious racism that led to the show’s cancellation. He did, however, deploy his own hallucinatory sense of victimization. Why, he asked, had ABC not apologized for the “HORRIBLE” things it has said about him? That statement functioned on two levels: first, in implying that the network had tolerated equivalent offenses when directed at him, he deflected the idea that Roseanne had done anything beyond bounds.

.. The second level of Trump’s remark was that, in pointing to his own wounds, he resorted to the aged, reactionary cliché that the real racists are not bigoted whites but, rather, black people who point out said bigotry.

.. She had initially told her more than eight hundred thousand followers not to defend her, but they seem to have persuaded her after all that she had been wronged. “You guys,” she told them, “make me feel like fighting back.”

.. Bee apologized, conceding that her joke had “crossed a line.” Her apology, though, served to highlight the chasm between her contrition and the complete absence of the concept in Trump’s public behavior.

.. Has his antagonism toward norms freed his opponents to flout those same rules, or is it more important than ever that they be upheld?

.. whether Al Franken should have been pushed to resign, given that Trump himself has been accused of far worse behavior

.. Michelle Obama famously noted that “when they go low, we go high,”

.. The question, among hundreds that arose in response to the 2016 election, is, How does that work out in real life?

.. Emily Nussbaum has pointed out, Trump’s insult-comic persona allowed him to portray the groups and the individuals whom he was attacking as dour, humorless marks, who were so fixated on his demise that they treated his jokes as policy statements.

.. The flip side of this has been Trump’s own gossamer-skinned inclinations, the way that he consistently complains about “unfairness” in his Twitter rhetoric. To the outsider, he appears as the classic bully, capable of dishing it out, incapable of taking it.

.. To the truest of his believers, however, he is cast in heroic terms, pointing out his wounds to show how deeply he has suffered on their behalf—a vulgar Jesus showing off his stigmata at the golf club.

.. It has become common to cast Trump as hostile toward democracy, but his hostilities, like his appetites, are far more basic. They are not aimed at undermining democracy but the norms of decency and accountability that make democracy possible.

.. That Roseanne Barr seems to have decided that maybe she was wronged only affirms the wisdom of ABC’s decision. The threat is not that Trumpism will destroy our sense of decency but rather that it may goad Americans into doing it for him.

The Quiet Radicalism of Melania Trump

On the first anniversary of his inauguration, President Trump spent the day blasting Democrats for the government shutdown, suggesting that women marching in protest of his presidency were somehow celebrating it, and embroiled in allegations that he paid off a porn star to keep her quiet about their relationship. Melania Trump, meanwhile, commemorated the anniversary by tweeting a single photo of herself on Inauguration Day on the arm of a Marine. Her husband was nowhere in sight, and she did not mention his name. A few days later — on what happened to be the Trumps’ 13th wedding anniversary — she canceled her plans to accompany Mr. Trump to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

She may not be progressive. She may not be political. And yet Mrs. Trump may end up doing more than any of her predecessors to upend our expectations of the slavish devotion a first lady must display toward her husband.

.. With the exception of the Clintons, there has not been a more complicated first couple in modern history: Mrs. Trump is the third wife of a man who once told the radio host Howard Stern he would “give her a week” to lose the baby weight after their son, Barron, was born.

.. First ladies are expected to accept their husband’s infidelities and cruelty and to remain their strongest champions, no matter what the circumstances

.. They are expected to be adoring.

.. The day after President Clinton testified before a grand jury and came clean to the country, Mrs. Clinton marched across the South Lawn together with Bill, their daughter, Chelsea, standing between them, holding both of her parents’ hands, as they headed for Marine One to embark on their annual summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. It was the photo-op the president needed.

.. Mrs. Obama was also the first first lady to challenge people to accept a woman who refused to play the role of the saccharine, adoring spouse. “I can’t do that,” she said in 2007 Vanity Fair interview. “That’s not me. I love my husband. I think he’s one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, and he knows that. But he’s not perfect, and I don’t want the world to want him to be perfect.”

.. This quiet rebellion started with her decision not to move into the White House until five months after her husband took office. It gathered force when she swatted her husband’s hand away on an airport tarmac in Israel last year. By the time the Trumps leave the White House, Mrs. Trump may have done more to change our notions about this archaic position, which has no job description and no pay, and comes with impossible expectations, than most of her predecessors.

Would it have been beneficial to Donald Trump for his wife to stand beside him in Davos and show a united front, as we have come to expect from first ladies? Absolutely. Does she care? Probably not.

Glenn Beck: ‘Obama Made Me a Better Man’

One recent morning, after the release of Donald Trump’s Tic Tac tape and his subsequent mansplanation about locker-room talk, Glenn Beck clicked on a video of Michelle Obama campaigning for Hillary Clinton in a New Hampshire gymnasium. The First Lady ripped into Trump’s comments, calling them “disgraceful” and “intolerable,” and adding, “It doesn’t matter what party you belong to—Democrat, Republican, Independent—no woman deserves to be treated this way.” Beck was mesmerized. On his radio program that day, he heralded Obama’s remarks as “the most effective political speech I have heard since Ronald Reagan.”

“Those words hit me where I live,” Beck said the other day. He was speedwalking up Eighth Avenue with his wife, son, and daughter, all in from Toronto. “If you’re a decent human being, those words were dead on.”

.. That was the old Beck, he insists: “I did a lot of freaking out about Barack Obama.” But, he said, “Obama made me a better man.” He regrets calling the President a racist and counts himself a Black Lives Matter supporter. “There are things unique to the African-American experience that I cannot relate to,” he said. “I had to listen to them.”

 

The Closer: Michelle Obama

Dismissed early on by critics, the first lady has
evolved into a powerful presence on the campaign trail.

A Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer who was forced to give up her career as a hospital executive with a $250,000-plus salary when Mr. Obama won the presidency

.. Mrs. Obama cultivated an unpretentious image by dispensing hugs rather than handshakes and kicking off her shoes to dance with local children on official trips abroad.

.. Inside the White House, the image is different: Mrs. Obama has come to be adored but feared in the East Wing as a tough and exacting boss who has little patience for mistakes, improvisation and wasted time.

.. The discipline extends to her daughters, who have been required to play a sport of their mother’s choosing in addition to one of their own and are barred from television or computer entertainment on school nights.

.. “She’s gained confidence,” said Melissa Winter, her deputy chief of staff, who joined Mrs. Obama’s team in 2007. “I think she ultimately enjoys it more than she thought she might.”

.. “Michelle once explained to me, ‘I try to organize my life not to have a lot of mess around, and politics is just a big mess,’”

.. Mr. Obama’s political advisers have long regarded his wife as a potent weapon. Their nickname for her in his 2008 campaign was “the closer.”

.. the ratio of voters who registered or signed up to volunteer or otherwise help the campaign after she made an appeal — was exceptionally high.

In part, that is because Mrs. Obama makes a point of telling voters what she expects them to do, like a mother ordering her children to do their homework.

.. The campaign hired Stephanie Cutter, an operative adept at handling political crises, to advise Mrs. Obama on her stump speech, her campaign itinerary and her media appearances.

.. Hers is about a husband who is brilliant but takes himself too seriously and frequently needs an ego-shattering reality check.

.. Mrs. Obama, by confining herself to popular initiatives as first lady, has built a reservoir of trust and popularity that puts her on the level of a Barbara Bush or Laura Bush, rather than Nancy Reagan or Mrs. Clinton, who were seen as more divisive

.. speculation has started that she may one day seek office herself. Those close to her regard the prospect as absurd.

“I am certain she does not wish to be in politics herself,” Ms. Jarrett said. “There are very few things I’m as certain of in life.”

Michelle Schools Donald Trump

Hillary is in an awkward spot on the subject of licentious behavior by men. But Michelle Obama stepped in as the avenging angel Anita Hill never had.

.. Trump doesn’t get the contradiction of bringing Bill’s accusers to the second debate and saying Hillary should be blamed for “viciously” trying to destroy their credibility, even as he viciously tries to destroy the credibility of his own accusers.

.. Trump did not seem aware, when he had his lawyer write to The Times threatening to sue over a story about two women accusing him of assault, that he had pre-confessed. As the estimable Times lawyer David McCraw wrote back: “Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.”

Pence: ‘I don’t understand the basis’ of Michelle Obama’s claims

“I have a lot of respect for the first lady and the job she has done for the American people over the last seven and a half years. But I don’t understand the basis of her claim,” Pence said.

You don’t believe his language was sexually predatory?” O’Donnell followed up.

“Well, no. I already spoke about my concerns about the language he used in that 11-year-old video. But what he has made it clear is that was talk, regrettable talk on his part,” Pence replied. “But that there were no actions and that he has categorically denied these latest unsubstantiated allegations.”

.. The Indiana governor would not say whether or not he had a moral red line which, if crossed by Trump, would lead Pence to drop off the GOP ticket.
.. “Frankly I think before the day is out the allegations will be questioned,” Pence said, prompting Rose to ask “what evidence is coming out?”

“Well, just stay tuned. I know that there is more information that is going to be coming out that will back his claim that this is all categorically false,” Pence said.