WASHINGTON -- Jodi Kantor's recent book,"The Obamas," is a best-selling portrait of the president and first lady's lives in the White House, and one that made waves in Washington when it was published earlier this year.
Kantor, a New York Times political reporter, recently sat down with author and cultural critic Touré to discuss the first lady's evolving role, her contributions to President Barack Obama's political career, and her status as an icon within the black community.
"When I started reporting about them in 2007, they were regular Chicagoans," Kantor said, "but to become president and first lady, it's not something that happens in a flash on inauguration day. It's something that affects their entire lives."
Kantor explained that from the start, she made it clear to the White House that her book would approach the first lady "in a very serious light."
"Believe it or not, her work on childhood obesity is sometimes referred to as a 'pet project'," Kantor said, "which is a little bit demeaning given that she's trying to solve the problem of childhood obesity in America."
When Kantor began reporting "The Obamas," friends of the first lady's told her that while they still recognized the same "authentic" Michelle Obama they knew, "there was so much that had been edited out, [like] the Harvard-trained lawyer's ability to make an argument, the force of her advocacy, [and] the really thoughtful critique of politics."
Michelle Obama "is a perfectionist" who "has such high standards," said Kantor, noting that the first lady has brought those standards to bear on each of her husband's political campaigns, despite her initial opposition to his decisions to run.
"One of my favorite stories is from Obama's first campaign," said Kantor. "Michelle Obama was out there every day, collecting signatures and supervising the other people who did."
A former campaign manager told Kantor, "If you were supposed to get 300 signatures and you only got 299, you had to face the wrath of Michelle."
The perception of the first lady as angry became a source of conflict between Kantor and the White House when the book was published earlier this year. Specifically, the White House targeted alleged tensions between the first lady and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and a 2010 incident when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to the first lady's displeasure over his handling of a press issue with a profanity laden rant before staff.
Admitting she had not read the book, the first lady appeared on national television and pushed back against what she called attempts to portray her as "some angry black woman," a reference to Kantor's book.
"The Obamas" won praise from reviewers, however, and White House criticism soon faded.
Kantor and Touré also discussed the importance of the president and first lady's status as role models within the black community, and the effect that Michelle Obama had on black voters' support of her husband.
"Michelle Obama seems to me to be much closer to an archetype in the black community," said Touré. "which is part of the reason she's such a great grounding for him in representing himself to America."
Kantor recalled how the president's first state senate district, "spanned Michelle Obama's childhood neighborhood," and while campaigning, "all [Obama] would have to say was, 'I'm married to Michelle Robinson,' and people would get [him] completely."
"The Obamas" is currently available in bookstores. Touré's most recent book is "Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?," a collection of essays on black leadership.
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