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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.

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