Photo Credit: Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images; Amazon
Think you’ve heard all you need to know about the new book The Obamas?Think again. This best-seller is being portrayed in many reviews as a critical look at the current First Family in general and about First Lady Michelle Obama in particular. After reading the book, I see Jodi Kantor’s account more as an in-depth look at the Obama family’s White House evolution and the growing pains that all First Families must surely go through. Kantor’s book paints a picture of a family with a shared sense of mission coming to terms with the public dissection of what were once private conversations and moments.
Some commentators have called Michelle Obama an “angry black woman” in connection with a variety of conversations recounted in the book, including some with the President’s advisers. Mrs. Obama has been vocal in saying she doesn’t appreciate being talked about in those terms. But nowhere in Kantor’s book does she refer to Mrs. Obama as an “angry black woman.” Yes, Michelle Obama is a woman who’s used to speaking her mind and sharing her views freely. And that comes across in Kantor’s account. But in “The Obamas,” I’d say she’s portrayed as a strong, independent woman, not afraid to speak her mind when necessary, but who had to learn how to pick her White House battles and navigate the unfamiliar world of administration politics.
So what does the author make of all this attention -- good and bad -- for a book she’s worked on for years? I caught up with Kantor, a New York Times correspondent who also happens to be a busy mom of a six-year-old daughter, to get her thoughts on White House marriages, the notoriety she’s received for the book, and who she was really writing it for.
Q: Why do you think we’re fascinated with the marriages of First Couples?
A: I think we’re interested in seeing transitions from a private marriage to what [inevitably] becomes something of a super-marriage. Conversations First Couples had before arriving at the White House were interactions that always remained private. Once a couple moves into the White House, all those personal, private debates become public.
Q: What made you want to write this book?
A: I was inspired to write “The Obamas” partly because many women [who were Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008] came up to me while I was covering that campaign and said there just weren’t enough stories about women and politics that speak to us [as women.] Some of my friends have often wondered why certain stories about family life in the White House don’t make headlines. I was also inspired by the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, No Ordinary Time that portrayed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt as true political partners. I liked that No Ordinary Time gave equal time to each of their stories.
I also wanted to write a book that showed how White House families evolve and change over time. That’s difficult to do in day-to-day news coverage. But I thought it would be interesting to write a book that would illustrate how a first couple changes and transforms, showing the readers that the people they meet at the beginning of the book aren’t the same at the end. Both of the Obamas learned how to cope with certain frustrations and difficulties [of White House life]. I think those lessons of growth are very powerful.
Q: Do you think people would respond differently to some of the stories about Michelle Obama if they were about a “First Husband?”
A: First Ladyhood won’t change until we elect our first woman president. Once we have a First ‘Gent’ -- a role that will come with no preconceived expectations –-- it will be easier for subsequent First Ladies to change what that role can be. The first First Lady we have after the first woman president will be a lucky woman!
Q: How do you feel about the criticism the book is receiving for what some see as a portrayal of Michelle Obama as an “angry black woman?”
A: I’m surprised that some people perceive an “angry back woman” undercurrent in the book. I was very careful to write the book in a way that I thought moved beyond stereotypes, which I’ve tried to do in my other writing about the Obamas.
Q: When I read and heard some of the book’s reviews, I wondered why there was little about parenting in the White House. Then as I read your book, it became clear that you do address that throughout, including a whole chapter dedicated to that topic!
A: Yes, I really wanted to address that part of the Obamas’ lives and [as a mother myself] write the book for an audience that I really wanted to speak to -- women and mothers. But I also wanted to write about how parenting [in a fishbowl] has impacted the lives of all their family. For example, I shared what I thought was a [relatable] parenting story in the book about the time the President was speaking about education initiatives and announced nationally that he had been disappointed that Malia had received a score of only 73 on a test. She got really mad at her dad and he apologized to her later for that.
I loved speaking with Kantor, and we both agreed we could probably talk for hours on the parenting aspects of the Obamas’ story. I wish we’d had more time to talk, because we had a really good conversation about what resonated for each of us when it came not only to her stories about the Obamas, but also about how women in the political spotlight are, or aren’t, portrayed.
If you had a few minutes with Jodi Kantor, what would you ask her about the book?
You can read more from iVillage contributor Joanne Bamberger at her blog, PunditMom. Joanne is also the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, which is on sale now at Amazon.com.