Review: Vivien Horler
Becoming, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)
There’s a joke that has Barack Obama telling his wife: “I may not be the perfect husband, but you did get to be the wife of the president of the United States.”
“Oh,” replies Michelle, “that was always a given.”
But that’s not how Michelle Obama comes across in this highly readable and absorbing autobiography. She is a self-confessed control freak, often irritable with her husband, and likes everything planned, sorted and organised. But she also tries to live out the motto: “When they go low, we go high”, and it shows.
As an ambitious high school pupil in Chicago’s working class South Side, Michelle told the school counsellor she wanted to go to Princeton, one of the US’s top universities. The counsellor replied: “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.”
A fuming Michelle determined to prove the woman wrong. She duly got into Princeton, and celebrated with her family. She never went back to tell the counsellor she was Princeton material after all. “It would have done nothing for either of us. And in the end, I hadn’t needed to show her anything. I was only showing myself.”
At college Michelle, tidy and fastidious, shared a room with a chronically messy woman who scattered clothes and papers everywhere. “Years later I’d fall in love with a guy who, like Suzanne, stored his belongings in heaps and felt no compunction, really ever, to fold his clothes. But I was able to coexist with it, thanks to Suzanne… This is what a control freak learns inside the compressed otherworld of college, maybe above all else: There are simply other ways of being.”
Be nice if someone could tell that to Barack Obama’s successor.
The book is full of fascinating detail – about the Obamas’ love story, about the rigors of being part of a presidential campaign (Michelle was never keen for Barack to become a politician or presidential candidate), the IVF-aided conception of their daughters, and glimpses into the couple’s relationship. When she’s angry, she says, she wants to explode; when Barack gets angry he just becomes “irritatingly more articulate”.
Barack, it emerges, was deeply in love with Michelle, but didn’t see the point of marriage. They would hotly debate this, two lawyers marshalling their arguments. One evening over a celebratory dinner to mark Barack’s passing of his bar exam, he brought up the issue again.
Then the waiter brought dessert, and on the plate was a small velvet box containing a diamond ring. Michelle stared, dumbfounded. “Well,” said Barack lightly, “that should shut you up.”
Among the most interesting parts of the book are the way the family’s lives changed when Barack was elected president, and learning to live as Potus and Flotus in the White House. The windows were always kept closed for security reasons. It could take 10 minutes to get out of the house. They could not open their apartment door and sit on the Trueman balcony without alerting the Secret Service. When Barack accompanied Michelle to a PTA meeting, there were snipers on the school roof.
While the presidential family lived rent-free in the White House with their utilities and staff paid for, they had to cover all other living expense. Itemised bills arrived each month for every food item and roll of loo paper. When Barack remarked he liked the taste of some exotic fruit at breakfast, the kitchen staff took note and it would appear on the table regularly. “Only later, inspecting the bill, would we realise that some of these items were being flown in at great expense from overseas.”
As the president’s wife, Michelle, the daughter of a black working class family, did all she can to help others who had not had the loving support she did. “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others… Let’s invite one another in.”
Eventually Barack’s second term ended, and the family had to hand over to the Trumps.
At Trump’s inauguration she was struck by the lack of diversity among the invited guests, overwhelmingly white and male. She mused that someone from Barack’s administration might have said that “the optics” were bad, that what the public saw didn’t reflect the president’s reality or ideals. “But in this case maybe it did. Realising it, I made my own optic adjustment: I stopped even trying to smile.”
I enjoyed this book very much.