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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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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. 

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