Amy Wilentz is a longtime contributing editor at The Nation and the former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker. She’s best known for her work on Haiti, including the award-winning book Farewell, Fred Voodoo. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: The Obamas got a $65 million advance for a book by each of them. Now hers is out and she’s doing a book tour. In LA, her event was not at a bookstore, but rather at the Forum in Inglewood, where the Lakers used to play. It has 17,000 seats and was sold out for her event. She has similar venues in other cities. It’s not your typical author appearance.
Amy Wilentz: I heard that some of the seats were going for $3,000.
JW: We’re interested in what the book has to say about politics, because hers were maybe more complicated than she let on. In her story about growing up, it’s important to her that she’s from Chicago’s South Side—a legendary black neighborhood in America, second only to Harlem. In high school she was best friends with Jesse Jackson’s daughter, and around their house a lot as Jesse was preparing to run for president. What does Michelle have to say about that?
AW: She says it was kind of exciting to see famous “movement” people there—her quotation marks—but mostly it stood in the way of her and her friend Santita Jackson getting to where they wanted to go. That’s because they were relying on the grownups to drive them, and the grownups would have to stop off at a meeting, or to pick up food for a political rally, when she “needed rather desperately to get to the Water Tower Place before the K-Swiss Sneaker Sale ended.” She’s portraying herself as a teenage all-American girl. And yet her father was a precinct captain who was involved in Democratic politics on the South Side. She has to have known more than just when the K-Swiss Sneaker Sale was on.
JW: She went to Princeton in 1981 because her older brother Craig Robinson was already there as a basketball star. At Princeton she said she lived mostly in a black-student world, hanging around at the Third World Center. In that chapter she says nothing about ideas, books, or arguments, even though she minored in African American Studies.
AW: She had to have been thinking and growing politically while she was there. But she doesn’t mention reading Malcolm X, or Frantz Fanon, or any of the grand figures from African-American writing. However, her senior honors thesis, which I read—a long time ago—is really interesting. At its heart it’s about people like Michelle Obama: about what happens to African-American kids who go to an Ivy League school, who get all this elite training. What happens afterwards to their relationship to the community? Do they “give back,” as we now say? Or do they go on to elite places like the law firm Sidley Austin, which is what she did, and become machers in the white world? Her conclusion did not bode well for the black community: she found that many, many black Princeton grads basically abandoned the community.
JW: Probably her most famous statement in the 2008 campaign came after Obama won the Wisconsin primary, when she said, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.” We think we know what she meant: a black man could run for president; that was a huge thing in American history. It was a classic political gaffe, one of those times when somebody says something true that you’re not supposed to say. It got her in a lot of trouble. What does she say about this in the book?
AW: She says she was misunderstood. She says she meant, “I felt a pride in seeing so many Americans making phone calls for the campaign…gaining confidence about their power inside our democracy.” But she never really addresses why the statement she made would be so incendiary to so many. Afterwards, she says, she went to Barack and asked what she should do. And then, it seems like 20 minutes later, she had a team—a personal aide, a scheduler, a media consultant, and an airplane, with hair and makeup on the plane. That’s what fixed Michelle Obama. Her media consultant told her to talk about “the things I most enjoy talking about.”
JW: And what did that turn out to be?
AW: That turned out to be “my love for my husband and my kids, my connection with working mothers, and my proud Chicago roots.” Concern yourself with women’s things, she was told, with your husband and your children, and stop talking about politics. She went on The View after that, sat around with the usual suspects, and in the book describes “talking about attacks against me, yes, but also laughing about the girls, and the fist bumps, and the nuisance of panty hose.” I’m sorry, but it hurts to read that. Then she says “women were suddenly scrambling to buy” the black and white dress she had worn on the show. Her conclusion? “I was having an impact.”
JW: In the 2016 campaign she was back on the road campaigning—now, for Hillary and against Trump. A lot of us think her greatest moment came in the speech she gave right after Trump’s Access Hollywood pussy-grabbing tape, where she said, “I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally. The shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our ambitions and intellect, the belief that you can do anything you want to a woman: it is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts.” After that speech, The New York Times called her “The most outspoken first lady in modern history.” What does she say about this in the book?
AW: She described this very momentous event in one paragraph, as if she’s not so proud of it. She really should be proud of it. Not only was it a great speech, but perfectly delivered. The tremor in her voice was real; she really is concerned about how her girls are growing up in America.
JW: And finally comes the bad ending of the whole story: Obama is replaced in the White House by Donald Trump. They did everything they could on the campaign trail to prevent that, and they failed. We wonder: What does she think about this? Why does she think Trump got elected? Why did Hillary lose? Was there anything Obama could have done as president to have made the Democrats stronger in 2016? How does she explain Trump’s victory in the book?
AW: She says, “I am not a political person so I’m not going to attempt to offer an analysis.” That is just a giant cop-out. First of all, she is a political person. Second, of course she’s done an analysis of it. Why isn’t she offering that analysis? That’s really important for the American people to hear. But she and her editors have decided not to put that into print.
JW: I wonder if it’s possible that Michelle Obama actually is not a political person. Maybe the things she cares most about really are childhood obesity and healthy eating. We would like her to be more political, more of a progressive Democrat—but maybe she isn’t.
AW: But remember that, for her, those issues—childhood obesity and the “Let’s Move” idea—are political issues. It’s not like decorating the White House.
JW: We’re talking here as if, now that it’s over, she should tell us the real story of what she really thinks. But maybe it’s not over.
AW: That was my thought. This is a carefully scrubbed book. She’s left so much politics out. Who does that? Who leaves politics out of what they say? Politicians do. I concluded that she’s running for office and with this book she’s kind of clearing the stage. It’s true that, at the end, she says, “I have no intention of running for office. Ever.” But do I believe that? Not from reading this book.
JW: And she’s doing a book tour in 15,000-seat arenas.
AW: What else is the purpose of this book? Is it to tell Michelle Obama’s story? It’s to tell the story of becoming Michelle Obama—and onward.