The Magazine

A Kinder, Gentler Mrs. Obama

She's more 'Oprah' than 'The View.'

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By CHARLOTTE HAYS
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Instead of raising the question as to why college costs astronomically more than it once did (some have suggested government aid might, ironically, be a root cause), Obama invokes the specter of former senator and McCain adviser Phil Gramm, without quite naming him. She says some people believe that the "challenges people face are not real" and "then we start to blame ourselves." The Obama campaign doesn't want you to ever blame yourself.

"It's important for people to know this isn't in your head--it's real," Obama says, before asking Rosaline Perry, the final speaker, who has education loans from her son and a mother with Alzheimer's, to "take it away, Roz." Like the other panelists, Perry has had a tough time. But how is Barack Obama going to make "all these aides and nurses just walking around" her mother's nursing home more attentive to Roz Perry's mother?

We are definitely in the realm of Michelle-as-Oprah. It is a kinder, gentler version of the Michelle who was once known for conducting an entirely different kind of workshop--tough "diversity training" sessions in Chicago back in the early 1990s. Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy describes these sessions in her new book, Michelle: A Biography (Simon & Schuster)--an enormously valuable source for the context of Michelle's life. "Michelle was tough, tough in a good sense," Julian Posada, her deputy when she was director of Public Allies, a nonprofit that trained young people to work with other nonprofits, is quoted as saying. "She was very good about being meticulous about the details: Are you on message? Are we meeting people's expectations?"

On most days, allies were put in unlikely groupings and sent on scavenger hunts, according to Mundy. Diversity training was on Fridays, when everybody came into the office to participate. "You'd take people through, what are your biases, people would learn how other people were feeling about stuff," said Posada. There was "lots of squishy stuff" (Oprah foreshadowed?), but there were also "incredibly powerful growth opportunities for individuals."

Mundy calls Obama a "forceful coach." "The most powerful thing she ever taught me was to be constantly aware of my privilege," said Beth Hester, who is white. "Michelle reminded me that it's too easy to go and sit with your own. She can invite you, in kind of an aggressive way, to be all that you can be."

Frankly, I think the women in Richmond got off light. But I have a suspicion that even if Obama had wanted to beat them with a wet noodle they would have been thrilled. Her beauty, combined with the undeniably historic nature of her husband's campaign, enchanted everyone, including this hardened correspondent.

I caught the train back to Washington with a middle-aged African-American woman, obviously affluent, from Baltimore. She had come down in the morning just to see Obama. "My husband was a history buff," she confided. "I wish he'd lived to see this."

Charlotte Hays is a Washington writer and editor.