Michelle Obama: I'm Still Me
When you're trying to schedule an interview with Michelle Obama, one of the first things you notice is the time zone she navigates.
Regardless of where you are calling from, you will heed Chicago's Central Daylight Time, which probably is best understood as Malia-and-Sasha Time. They are the young daughters of Barack and Michelle Obama. Every interview, every campaign event for their mother is weighed by this test: How will it affect the daily lives of 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha?
Michelle's mother, Marian Robinson, helps with child care, but Michelle joins them most days, and the goal on every day is to get home sooner than later. As her communications director, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, stressed, "Michelle wants to be home when they get home from camp."
It is a willful attempt at normalcy in an all-too-abnormal life these days, but she insists that her daughters will not suffer the skyrocket highs and deep-valley lows of her husband's presidential race. Even as she rides the wave in her own travels across the country to raise money and reach out to women and working-class voters in Ohio, there's a part of Michelle Obama that wants to believe that her family's life hasn't changed. Not too much, anyway.
"We've always been the kind of people who go to the soccer games, shop at Target, go for bike rides and make sure the girls get to the sleepovers they've been invited to," she said in an interview Wednesday. "We still do that, but we usually have a lot of people watching now."
I wanted to talk with Michelle Obama because she is, indeed, auditioning for first lady, and a lot of voters don't know much about her beyond manufactured controversies.
When she said that Americans' enthusiasm for change made her feel, for the first time, really proud of her country, her comments were distorted by some conservatives, who accused her of being unpatriotic. The night her husband wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president, she gave him an affectionate fist bump on stage. Some pundits and bloggers called that a terrorist fist jab, but that charge quickly lost steam after President Bush started fist bumping, too.
There's another reason I wanted to talk to Michelle Obama, and it's personal. Like her, I am the wife of a U.S. senator. In many ways, she and I lead dramatically different lives, but both of us are mothers and career women who know what it feels like to put our own lives on hold to support politically ambitious husbands. We've lost count of the times we've been introduced as "his lovely wife," and we know there are always some campaign veterans who consider women like us to be either props or problems in their husbands' races.
So we had plenty to talk about.
(I have made the same request to interview Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, and I hope our conversation will appear in this same spot soon.)
Like most mothers, Michelle Obama relishes the daily mess of life as a parent. She also struggles with the maternal guilt so typical of working mothers.
"My children force me to keep my feet on the ground," she said. "No matter what happens on any given day, I am Malia and Sasha's mom, and I will struggle with that balance all of my life. My first priority is to make sure the girls are OK. How is school going, how do they feel on any given day, what activities do they have going? That consumes me."
She has taken her concerns on the road and now is holding roundtable discussions with women across the country.
"The outreach is about acknowledging that we are all women. You know what it's like on the campaign trail. I can be a lot more effective talking about issues that are relevant to me. … I feel guilty working and juggling my responsibilities as a parent. If I'm still struggling with this, there have to be other women who do, too."
She especially is driven to winning over those women who supported Hillary Clinton and have yet to embrace her husband's candidacy.
"For me, it's not personal. The way I see it? There are a lot of people like me, like how I am about my husband, my candidate. They invested their hearts and souls into Hillary Clinton, and many of them did this for years.
Another divide Michelle Obama hopes to bridge is the one that looms between her husband and many working-class voters who live in states such as Ohio. She is Princeton- and Harvard-educated, but she is quick to point out that she did not grow up in a privileged home.
"I am a working-class kid," she said. "I wear so many different hats in my life. The story I come out of is the story of most Americans' lives. The stuff we talked about around the table is the same. When you see your parents who don't have much getting out of bed and sucking it up every day, you learn a lot about values."
Anyone who has endured a high-stakes political race knows that campaigning requires a willingness to suffer a seemingly endless series of small humiliations. All that begging for campaign contributions, posing for photo ops and talking about me, me, me as the press corps yawns.
When you are the political spouse, who is still usually a wife, you also can feel reduced to a life of serial irrelevance. The day before we spoke, for example, Vanity Fair named her to its best-dressed list, dubbing her "our commander in sheath." Because, you know, clothes matter when it comes to helping your husband lead the Free World.
The only time clothes came up in our conversation was when she mentioned with a laugh that she's trying to figure out what her daughters should wear at the convention. As for the media coverage, she tries to ignore it.
"I need stability and evenness, and not paying attention to media coverage helps. It's usually either really, really good or really, really bad, which doesn't reflect what people are thinking."
Sometimes, though, she can't ignore it, such as when The New Yorker ignited a firestorm with its recent cover depicting Barack Obama as a Muslim and her as an Afro-wearing, fist-bumping terrorist.
"My first reaction to that was: 'Oh, my goodness. This is awful.' Fortunately, our girls are young enough where they don't read The New Yorker."
It's not always possible to insulate her daughters from controversy, though.
"They do pick up on things. Malia asked Barack a question about my patriotism. I was in another room, but I heard her ask him: 'Some people are saying Mommy doesn't like her country. What's that about?'"
She sighed when asked how that made her feel.
"My view, as a mom, is there isn't a right moment for this kind of thing. When it comes up is when we talk about it."
No regrets, though, that her husband decided to run.
"When Barack was first thinking about it, a part of me was asking, 'How hard will it be for me?' But the other part of me was asking, 'How can I not support this man?' I could have held him back. If I had asked him not to run, absolutely, he would not have done it."
She said that, so far, the grind of campaigning and constant separations from her husband have not changed her.
"The Michelle Obama I was last year is the same Michelle Obama I am this year. Different circumstances, same Michelle."
Her daughters, however, are ever-evolving. The day after Barack became the presumptive nominee, Malia provided a recent glimpse into just how much she is absorbing.
Michelle Obama had taken a 1 a.m. flight so that she would be home when they awakened. Part of their morning routine is "cuddle time" with one or both parents. That morning, they crawled into bed with their mother, and she tried to explain to them what had happened the night before.
"I told them, 'Dad had a big night, and it appears he's going to be the Democratic nominee for president.'"
They were still sleepy — and rather underwhelmed.
"They basically said, 'Oh, good, Daddy won.'"
Mom tried again.
"This is really a big deal. There's never been an African-American nominee for president. Do you guys realize the significance of this?"
Malia nodded. "Well, African-Americans used to be slaves and we couldn't vote and we didn't have many rights, so of course this is a big deal."
Her mother smiled.
Then Malia added, "Just like it would also be a really big deal if Hillary Clinton had won because there has never been a woman nominee for president, and women used to not be able to vote and didn't have many rights, either."
"You're absolutely right."
Michelle Obama never told Hillary Clinton that story.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House: "Life Happens" and "… and His Lovely Wife." To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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