New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor released a new book yesterday about the Obamas titled, appropriately, The Obamas. It’s clear from promotional materials and Kantor’s own interviews that what’s different about this book is its positioning of first lady Michelle Obama as the pivotal character in the unfolding drama of this presidency. In doing so, The Obamas takes a hard look at the adaptations and transitions required when a partnership of equals suddenly becomes a scrutinized hierarchy. Kantor also offers a glimpse into the tensions of a culture that expects our women to achieve as highly as our men but our first ladies to take a back seat to their presidents. The result is a sympathetic portrait of both Obamas that could help to humanize an administration criticized as being aloof and inaccessible.
Political book sales rise and fall on the same sensational rhythms as our political media, so it’s not surprising that the marketing buzz leads with a handful of dramatic anecdotes about friction between the new first couple—especially Michelle—and their staff. Even Kantor’s own chosen excerpt in the Times hypes the most incendiary and oft-repeated story: one where press secretary Robert Gibbs blows up after being admonished by Valerie Jarrett for being slow to respond to a leaked conversation in the French press in which Michelle Obama confides to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House is “hell.”
The result is preliminary reporting full of predictable media Sturm und Drang about unrest and hurt feelings in the East and West wings. In reaction mode, the White House press shop sent Politico’s Mike Allen the requisite push-back memo listing nit-picky inaccuracies in an attempt to undermine the core charge. The list includes quibbles about a particular outfit choice by Michelle Obama and the nationality of a family visiting the White House. (If you enjoy media one-upmanship, here’s Ben Smith from his new perch at Buzzfeed finding the inaccuracies in the White House list of inaccuracies.)
Still, by centralizing the marriage as core to the narrative of the Obama presidency, Kantor is on to something important. Alongside policy concerns, people are hungry to understand the character of the people in charge of our country. Voters don’t expect calmness to prevail in the pressure cooker of politics, and it’s not news to anyone that staffers sometimes lose their tempers or use foul language in the West Wing. But in voters’ never-ending quest to discern the substance and values in a political world littered with gossip and posturing, insight into family relationships provides a critical indicator of integrity, of authenticity, of that intangible quality of character that matters to three of four voters.
The way a candidate approaches marriage serves as one window into the equation of shared values. It’s no accident that GOP opponents have focused as much time attacking Newt Gingrich for his string of divorces and for his decision to leave his second wife while she was hospitalized for cancer as they have on his toxic political record as Speaker of the House. Most Americans cannot picture themselves doing anything similar. Nor is it surprising that Americans have been fascinated by the union between Michele Bachmann and her enigmatic husband, Marcus. From her pronouncement of her own submissiveness in their marriage to his decision to spend the day before the Iowa caucus shopping for dog glasses, the bizarre story of their marriage added to a series of stumbles that ultimately sank her.