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Upstairs at the White House

Who knows what the first marriage is really like?

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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We have good news for all you skeptics who’ve been wondering whether you should trust the gossipy stories in the new book The Obamas: You can stop worrying. The author of the book, which was published to much hoo-ha this month, is a journalist named Jodi Kantor, and here’s what I read about her just the other day: “Ms. Kantor, who covered the Obamas for the New York Times during the 2008 presidential campaign, and is currently a Washington correspondent for the paper, has earned the voice of authority.”

Photo of Michelle and Barack Obama

Angry? Cold? Naaah...

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I read this in the New York Times. The reviewer didn’t go on to explain what exactly Jodi Kantor did to earn her authority, other than to work for the New York Times

I can hear the skeptics already—should we really trust the word of the New York Times about the trustworthiness of the New York Times? Perhaps the skeptics get hung up on the circular reasoning, not realizing that it is this circularity that perpetuates the grand reputation of the Times and its many writers and reporters: Why can you trust the New York Times? Because it employs authoritative reporters like Jodi Kantor. How do we know Jodi Kantor is authoritative? Because otherwise she wouldn’t work for the New York Times

Now, even I will admit that the circularity gets stretched to the breaking point sometimes. You hand a skeptic a column by Maureen Dowd. He says: Why in the name of all that’s holy do I have to read Maureen Dowd? Answer: Because she’s a columnist for the New York Times. But why do I have to read a columnist for the New York Times? Because the Times is a great paper. But how is it a great paper? It employs columnists like Maureen Dowd. 

You see? This is surely the only way someone can talk himself into reading a column by Maureen Dowd. It might puzzle you, but it’s enough to satisfy us Times readers. You skeptic, you.

The Obamas themselves evidently want us to doubt The Obamas and its author. When the first gossipy stories leaked out—most of them about Mrs. Obama’s rocky relationship with her husband’s staff—White House spokesmen dismissed them as “exaggerated” or “hyped” or even “old news” that had been hyped and exaggerated. Mrs. Obama’s only public comment came in a TV chat with a friendly interviewer (CBS’s Gayle King, who is Oprah’s best friend—talk about trust!) that she hadn’t read the book and wouldn’t, because it portrayed her as the stereotype of “an angry black woman.” 

The response to Mrs. Obama’s charge, among Jodi Kantor and her many friends in the press, has been incredulity. “Someone should tell the Obamas that this book makes them look really good,” one of them wrote. Conservative commentators even wondered whether the Obamas’ loud objection wasn’t a clever public relations carom shot: Their criticism guaranteed lots of attention to a book that the First Couple know is quite flattering. (The Obamas are very smart, as the book makes clear, but not that smart.)

Many readers will side with Mrs. Obama in her complaint. Anyone who could come away from The Obamas insisting it makes them “look really good” must be suffering a case of Obamalove at 2008 levels. Jodi Kantor shows symptoms of a bad case of the disease herself, though it appears to be waning. Whatever the stereotype of an “angry black woman” is—do black women get angry in a different way from other people?—Mrs. Obama comes off as a bossy, short-tempered, high-handed ingrate, even as Jodi Kantor strives mightily to put a positive gloss on the material she’s gathered in her exhaustive reporting. 

“Michelle Obama had never been easy to impress” is a typical example of the author’s gift for delicate phrasing. Mrs. Obama is “more charming and more cutting” than her husband. “Her very direct way is very direct and it can rub some people the wrong way at times.” The first lady resents the attention lavished on her husband: “I’ve had to come to the point of figuring out how to carve out what kind of life I want for myself beyond who Barack is and what he wants.” Her employees call her The Taskmaster—“affectionately,” Jodi Kantor hastens to add. (What a silly old Taskmaster you are!) “If you underperformed, ‘you met the wrath of Michelle.’ ” And on and on: “She was tough on everyone around her, with expectations others often found unrealistically high, and few compunctions about calling people out when she felt they had failed.” Rhymes with rich, as another first lady once put it.

And as for her husband, he comes off as one chilly flounder, remote and unforgiving, quick to take offense and reluctant to let go a grudge, with a self-regard and sense of entitlement that seem to have no dimension— beyond even the span reached by the egomaniacs who have preceded him. His only moments of self-doubt arise when he thinks he overestimated the maturity and wisdom of the public that elected him: “The Obamas, along with aides and friends, came to believe that the American public did not appreciate their exceptional leader.”

No one should doubt the love they have for one another, but put Mrs. Taskmaster alongside Mr. Freeze and it’s an odd couple indeed. Their courtship is hard to picture. “Systemic change,” the author writes, “was what they had always dreamed of, from the beginning of their relationship.” Come live with me and be my love / and we will effect systemic change. .  .  . 

As I say, it’s a measure of the hold that Obama worship still has over the president’s partisans and the establishmentarians of the mainstream press that they should consider The Obamas flattering. But it’s clear that Jodi Kantor intended it to be such, and so did the sources who dished to her. There are more than 200 of these, the author tells us, and they are as besotted by the first couple as any Times editorial writer. Jodi Kantor seems to have relied mostly on the 33 current and former aides who agreed to talk to her, along with the Obamas’ closest friends. The Obamas themselves declined to be interviewed for the book, but they authorized their friends to gabble freely.

But how freely? More to the point, how reliably? The Obamas is the “story of a marriage,” the author has said. One of the first truths any person should learn in life—really, somebody should write it on our birth certificates, or stamp it backwards on our foreheads in the maternity ward—is that you can never, ever know what goes on inside another person’s marriage and only mischief will result if you try. Jodi Kantor has bulldozed this advice, if she ever received it, with the encouragement of her sources. It seems not to have occurred to her that these staffers and friends might not know as much as they think they do, or as they would like a New York Times reporter to think they do. The White House easily inflates the self-importance of the people who work there and of the presidential pals who come and go through its gates, and tales of intrigue and conflict and confided intimacies tend to grow taller in the retelling. 

Oblivious, the author exaggerates the reliability of the information she’s acquired. “How can anybody know how I feel inside?” Mrs. Obama said to Gayle King. Jodi Kantor’s answer is: Staffers know! The author believes she is indemnified from any skepticism about her reporting by the phrase “aides say” or “friends say.” Consider this typical passage, about the president’s day-to-day involvement in the grubbiness of politics: “.  .  . [but] he spent his nights with Michelle, who talked about moral imperatives, aides said, who reminded him again and again that they were there to do good, to avoid being distracted by political noise, to be bold.”

How do the aides know? Mrs. Obama might have hinted at it in conversation with one or two of them, or told them directly, though this is unlikely, and isn’t a guarantee against spin in any case. Or the aides might have just surmised it; being her aides, they are likely to conceive of Mrs. Obama as a moral beacon to her beleaguered husband. Whatever. We haven’t been brought any closer to knowing what the Obamas say to each other in their private moments than we were before the aides started whispering to Jodi Kantor. The very thing that the author believes gives her book authority—the talkiness of aides and friends whom the Obamas have allowed to be interviewed—is in fact its greatest weakness.

Of course, none of these issues of spin and truth-telling approaches the final question that occurs to a reader as he closes the book: Why should we care? “Barack and Michelle Obama have been married to each other since 1992,” the author writes, by way of an answer, “but for at least another year .  .  . they are married to us, too.” This isn’t true even in the figurative sense that the author intends. The Obamas are interesting because of the positions they have come to hold in the national life, but you could say the same thing about Mr. and Mrs. Van Buren and Millard and Abby Fillmore, and Americans then and now have been spared the inside scoop on their eating habits, sleeping arrangements, and pillow talk. 

Citizens already know everything about the Obamas that they need, or are entitled, to know. President Obama’s record is unavoidable. And however she behaves backstage, out front Mrs. Obama has proved herself an exemplary first lady, a cheerful, encouraging presence whose direct effect on American life has been minimal and entirely benign. And that should be enough for the rest of us, even if the New York Times and its reporters disagree, authoritatively.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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