From the book:
IntroductionA year before the 2008 presidential election, a headline on the Washington, D.C. news website Wonkette asked, “Can Michelle Obama Be First Lady No Matter What?” At the time, Barack Obama was just one of many Democrats hoping to win the party’s nomination. He was still introducing himself to the public. Hillary Clinton was expected to win the nomination easily. But Michelle already had her own fans. They had seen what other voters would soon learn: Michelle was every bit as refreshing as her husband. Possibly more so.
“There is no difference between the public Michelle and the private Michelle,” says a friend. As Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson, put it, “Nothing is fake.”
Here’s what’s real:
The first thing she told the White House housekeeping staff was, “My daughters are doing chores.”
In her opinion, no one’s mom and dad are better than her mom and dad. Maybe as good, but not better. Don’t even think about it.
Her older brother still calls her for advice.
She’s a hugger. A longtime friend says she connects with people one on one like nobody else. The most difficult kids melt when they talk with her. She’s still friends with at least one of the children she met while running a day care center in college twenty-five years ago.
As sweet as she is with kids, she’s that demanding of adults. When she was in elementary school, teachers who made promises they didn’t keep heard about it from Michelle.
She has a temper. Fortunately for people who’ve been on the receiving end, it disappears quickly.
That person you know from school who finished every assignment early? Michelle.
If there’s a piano nearby and you ask right, she might play you the “Linus and Lucy” song from the “Peanuts” television cartoons.
She’s more careful than Barack. Before he tried to convince voters that “Yes We Can,” he had to convince Michelle.
Before the biggest speech of Barack’s career, when he was unknown outside of his state and had been given the opportunity to open the 2004 Democratic National Convention, she calmed him down right before he went on stage by telling him, “Just don’t screw it up, buddy.”
She has made mistakes. A lot. Some of them more than once. She has an honors degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard, thanks to a lot of hard work, but at times she has wondered if she made the right choice to follow that path.
So where does it all come from?
Michelle is full of confidence and will take on any task, but she truly believes she’s ordinary. She thinks she is just a working mom who listened when her parents taught her to work hard. When she tells students they can be where she is, she means it. Sometimes Michelle gets annoyed when the press says she and Barack are special because they’ve accomplished so much. It can sound like the press is surprised Michelle and Barack could have gone to Princeton and Columbia and Harvard, or raised great kids. But that reaction is also part of Michelle’s personality. She knows a lot of people who are doing the same thing, and she thinks they should be noticed. She’s saying, Hey, look at my friend over here.
But of course Michelle and Barack aren’t ordinary in every way. What they’ve achieved is unique. Yes, Michelle is just a working mom who shops online to save time. She’s also the first White House resident to descend from slaves. That matters, and she knows it.
Michelle’s family story goes back to the rice plantations of South Carolina, which were notoriously deadly. It follows the path of America through the Civil War and freedom, the Jim Crow segregation laws, the Great Migration of African Americans to cities in the north, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the women’s movement. No other resident of the White House can say that, not even Barack. Barack’s family—both his parents and the grandparents who helped raise him—come from a different American tradition. Looking for a fresh start, more than once, they reinvented themselves with changes of careers and moves to new places. Barack’s Kenyan father came to America looking for new opportunities. His mother and grandparents followed the centuries-old pattern of moving west for a second or third chance. They moved from Kansas to Washington State and then to Hawaii, where Barack was born.
The fresh start America offers is special, and it’s always a thrill when a dream is fulfilled in an instant. But Michelle’s story, with its close ties to the country’s past, shows the virtue of keeping a dream alive for as long as it takes.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Chicago, 1968: Four-year-old Michelle LaVaughn Robinson is trying hard to make her mother, Marian, know she doesn’t want attention. She’s holding a book that her mother wants to use to teach her to read. Michelle doesn’t want help. She’s going to teach herself. Michelle’s brother, Craig, who is two years older, has been reading on his own since he was Michelle’s age. If he can do it, she can. She’ll show everyone.
It doesn’t happen that way in the end. Marian Robinson teaches Michelle to read. But the pattern is set. Michelle is going to work her way up to the standards she sees around her.
Keeping up with Craig is already a challenge. He’s about to skip the second grade. Eventually, as their mother put it, he’ll be able to “pass a test just by carrying a book under his arm.” Watching Craig makes Michelle want to be “as good or better.”
In time, Michelle’s instinct about reading like Craig will carry over into athletics, card games, checkers, Monopoly, and, naturally, school. But the two Robinson children are friendly rivals. They stay up in the night talking. They play together, and Craig looks out for Michelle. Years later, in a speech on national television, she will call him “my mentor, my protector, and my lifelong friend.”
At crucial moments in each of their lives, the other one will help with advice or an example to follow: a choice about colleges, for example, or advice about a frightening decision to leave a comfortable life for something more meaningful. “She might seem intimidating at first because she’s so smart,” Craig says, “but my sister is a very warm and sympathetic person. When the chips are down, she and my wife are the people I talk to.”
Michelle and Craig get along better than most siblings for a few simple reasons—to start, their parents won’t tolerate anything less, and they are both likable—as well as some reasons that aren’t so obvious. During the presidential campaign, Craig Robinson told reporters that to understand Michelle they needed to know about their father, Fraser Robinson III. He could have been speaking about himself too. Fraser Robinson’s life shaped his children’s personalities in ways that had a lot to do with Michelle’s progress to the White House.
Dreams of Her Father
It’s a cool October day in Chicago in the early 1970s. Michelle Robinson, still in grade school, is holding her father’s hand as he knocks on a neighbor’s door. While they wait, her father steadies himself with his cane. Fraser Robinson III is a big man, and strong—he was a talented boxer and swimmer—but he has multiple sclerosis. It appeared when he was thirty, just a year or so after Michelle was born. Over the course of many years, the disease will leave him unable to walk more than a short distance. He’ll trade in the cane for a pair of crutches, and sometimes use a motorized cart.
Michelle adores her father. She idolizes him. She also worries about him.
The neighbor answers the door and lets Michelle and her father inside. Fraser helps Michelle take off her scarf and gloves. They may be staying a while. But this isn’t a social visit. Fraser is here to work. He’s a precinct captain for the Democratic Party in Chicago, and an election is coming. This neighbor just moved. She isn’t registered to vote.
More than thirty years later, as Election Day 2008 came near, it was perfectly natural for Michelle, now Michelle Robinson Obama, to think about this moment with her father. About a week before the election, she shared his example to convince Americans to get to the polls. “Some of my earliest memories,” she told a radio audience, “are of tagging along with him as we’d walk door to door and help folks register to vote. We’d sit in neighbors’ kitchens for hours and listen to their opinions, their concerns, and the dreams they had for their children. And before we left those kitchens, my father would make sure that everyone could get to the voting booth on Election Day—because he knew that a single vote could help make their dreams a reality.”
Michelle’s father knew a single vote could help, but he was careful not to dream too much. He understood the reality of Chicago politics in the 1960s. He knew the Democratic political machine in Chicago wanted to give the residents of his neighborhood just enough attention to win their votes. Sometimes that attention amounted to nothing more than a holiday turkey. Residents had to push for services that wealthier neighborhoods received.
Fraser was an unlikely player in Chicago politics. To start, he didn’t like politicians. He didn’t trust them. He passed this feeling on to both Michelle and Craig. Michelle was unsure about Barack’s desire to run for office, she later said, “because [politics] seems like a dirty business, and Barack is such a nice guy. I thought, Eventually he’ll come to his senses.” For a long time, Barack referred to Michelle as a “reluctant participant” in his political career. “I generally have shielded her from most of my campaigns,” he said before the run for president.
For Fraser, politics came along with his job. He worked the afternoon-to-midnight shift at a city water filtration plant, where he steadily moved up from the boiler room to pump operator to manager. In other cities, the positions he held might have been open to anyone, but in Chicago nearly every city job was handed out as a political favor. Mayor Richard J. Daley, who would run the city for twenty-one years, from 1955 until his death in 1976, made sure that every favor granted led to something in return. For him, politics was not about big ideas. So Fraser Robinson, who worked for the city, put in his time for the Daley machine. The result, Craig Robinson later said, was that “we as a family were extremely cynical about politics and politicians.”
Fraser was focused on his family rather than his career. Anyone he met would hear about Michelle and Craig. He was so proud of them that even Marian, who shared his feelings, could be embarrassed. “People ask me about my kids now,” she said during Barack’s presidential campaign, “and I say I am very proud, but I had to stop talking about them for a long time because my husband bragged about them so much.”
Now it’s the children who brag about the parent, and with just as much reason. “My dad was our rock,” Michelle said in her speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, repeating something she had said many times during the campaign. “He was our champion, our hero.”
A longtime neighbor remembers Fraser “always had a smile on his face,” and was “always joking” despite his challenges. Michelle and Craig, however, knew the difficulties their father faced. Michelle explained, “Seeing a parent with a disability moving through the world and living life as if that disability didn’t matter, always made us think, What do we have to complain about? We wake up, we bound out of bed, we are healthy, we’re happy, and our father is struggling to get out of bed. But he never missed a day of work, never talked about being sick. So it made it hard to wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to go to school.’”
There are a few kinds of multiple sclerosis. Although one kind has periods in which the disease seems to go away, Fraser had a kind that did not. All types of multiple sclerosis become more severe as time passes. Michelle and Craig saw this happen to their father. They also saw his reaction. “As he got sicker,” Michelle told the convention, “it got harder for him to walk. It took him longer to get dressed in the morning. But if he was in pain, he never let on. He never stopped smiling and laughing, even while struggling to button his shirt, even while using two canes to get himself across the room to give my mom a kiss. He just woke up a little earlier and he worked a little harder.” The lesson from her father that Michelle stresses most often is, “He didn’t complain—ever. He put his energy into us.” But there were other more subtle lessons too.
“She Never Takes a Pass”
Michelle remembers watching her teenage brother practicing how he would rescue their father from their upstairs apartment in case of a fire. Craig’s worries didn’t end there. In case something happened to his right hand, he practiced writing with his left. He practiced walking around the house blindfolded, in case he lost his eyesight. He was “one of those people,” Michelle remembered, “who are always preparing for an impending disaster.”
Behind all these worries was Fraser’s illness. Multiple sclerosis is a mysterious disease: It can lead to a variety of symptoms. They may appear at any time.
The last thing their father wanted was for his children to feel responsible for him, but he didn’t have a choice. He and Marian taught Michelle and Craig about responsibility. He had to live with the consequences.
Michelle also learned from the uncertainty of her father’s illness. “When you have a parent with a disability,” Michelle explained to reporter Holly Yeager, “control and structure become critical habits, just to get through the day.” Even now, Michelle stays extraordinarily well organized. It has become second nature. It’s how she puts off worry, just like when the worry was her father. “She never takes a pass,” says her close friend and former boss Valerie Jarrett, who has become an adviser to Barack. “Even after Barack announced [his candidacy for the U.S. Senate], she’d come to every meeting overprepared. You never would have known what was going on in her life.”
Fraser’s illness led both Michelle and Craig to put a lot of pressure on themselves from an early age. Because of their father’s courage, Michelle said, “You never wanted to disappoint him.” It didn’t matter that Fraser wielded his moral authority with a light touch, mostly just giving his children a look that said what he was thinking. They knew. “If he was disappointed in you, it was the worst thing that could happen in your life,” Craig remembered.
That’s a lot for a kid to handle. It’s natural for kids to disappoint their parents sometimes. It’s part of learning and growing up. Michelle and her brother, however, didn’t grow up feeling they could make the same mistakes most other kids make. “We always felt we couldn’t let Dad down because he worked so hard for us,” Craig says. “My sister and I, if one of us ever got in trouble with my father, we’d both be crying. We’d both be like, ‘Oh, my god, Dad’s upset. How could we do this to him?’ ”
It wasn’t a question they had to ask themselves often. “I always say Michelle raised herself from about nine years old,” Marian Robinson says. “She had her head on straight very early.” In her own way, Michelle was doing what she saw as her part. Her father and mother had enough to worry about without worrying about her too.
“The Greatest Gift”
Despite Fraser’s illness, the mood at the Robinson home was light. Barack would later say the Robinsons were like the family on the Leave It to Beaver television show: a cheerful dad, a mom who made lunches and listened to the kids talk about school, and kids who never got into serious trouble.
As an adult, Michelle remembered her childhood just as her parents hoped. “It was the greatest gift a child could receive,” she said about the way Marian and Fraser raised her, “never doubting for a single minute that you’re loved and cherished and have a place in this world.”
Fraser and Marian put up a partition to turn their living room into two bedrooms, one each for Michelle and Craig. According to one of Michelle’s friends, the result was “the smallest room I had ever seen. It was like a closet.” But in true 1960s style, Michelle equipped it with a doll house and an Easy-Bake oven, and there was room to play with her African American Barbie, Christie, and Ken.
As for actual television, only one hour a night was allowed. But “somehow,” her brother said, “she has managed to commit to memory every single episode of The Brady Bunch.” Michelle and Craig both liked reading, and their mother kept them challenged with books that were ahead of what teachers expected them to read.
Downstairs in the two-story building was a separate apartment where one of Michelle’s great-aunts lived. She was a piano teacher. Michelle took lessons from her. If ever there was a clue that Fraser and Marian had drawn lucky cards with their children, it was this: Michelle practiced without being pushed.
The house was on a street that ran just one block, so it had very little traffic. There was a park at one end. That meant plenty of room to play outside. When they were young, both Michelle and Craig were athletic. But as her brother began to excel in organized sports, Michelle turned her focus elsewhere. There was only so much following she would do, especially given the difficulty of matching Craig. From an early age, he showed the promise that led him to play professional basketball.
Fraser and Marian made it a point to let Michelle and Craig speak their minds, and to question authority. Marian remembered, “We told them, ‘Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow us to just say anything to you. Ask us why.’ ” They did. A lot.
In Michelle’s case, it’s just as well that they didn’t try to stop her. That probably would have been impossible. As soon as she could speak, she said what was on her mind, especially if she thought something was wrong. Her mother liked that. Marian didn’t have that freedom when she was growing up. “I always resented it when I couldn’t say what I felt,” she remembered about her childhood. “I always felt like, ‘What was wrong with me saying what I feel?’ ”
Michelle’s elementary school, Bryn Mawr (now known as Bouchet Math and Science Academy), was around the corner from her house. By the time she enrolled in first grade, some of the teachers knew from Craig’s example what they’d get from Michelle: a curious and demanding mind. However, it took Michelle a while to understand that Marian’s relaxed attitude about kids speaking their minds wasn’t shared by every teacher. If Michelle saw something she didn’t think was right, she said so. If the teacher didn’t respond as thoughtfully as Michelle expected—thanks to her parents’ example—Michelle could lose her temper. One time a teacher complained to Marian, who just laughed. “Yeah, she’s got a temper,” Marian said. “But we decided to keep her anyway!”
What made Michelle angry, even then, was the difference between what she knew from home and what she saw in school. Craig remembered one of the lessons their father tried to pass on: “Life’s not fair. It’s not. And you don’t always get what you deserve, but you have to work hard to get what you want. And then sometimes you don’t get it; even if you work hard and do all the right things, you don’t get it.” All of that is true, and it’s worth saying. But life was fair for Michelle at home, thanks to Fraser and Marian and Craig. So it wasn’t easy for Michelle to understand why life shouldn’t be fair everywhere.
Craig remembers how young Michelle saw the world: “When we were young kids, our parents divided the bedroom we shared so we could each have our own room. Many nights we would talk when we were supposed to be sleeping. My sister always talked about who was getting picked on at school or who was having a tough time at home. I didn’t realize it then, but I realize it now: Those were the people she was going to dedicate her life to, the people who were struggling with life’s challenges.”
Mother Knows Best
Even in elementary school, Fraser and Marian challenged Michelle. Marian was determined to keep Michelle ahead of teachers’ expectations. Teaching Michelle to read at an early age was just the start. Fraser and Marian, who had both skipped second grade, made sure Craig and Michelle did the same. “If you aren’t challenged, you don’t make any progress,” Marian later explained. Marian also brought home workbooks for Michelle and Craig, who learned early that good enough wasn’t good enough.
Marian, like her husband and children, has a strong competitive streak. (After winning gold medals in sprinting in the Illinois Senior Olympics a few years after Michelle and Craig left for college, an injury slowed her down and she dropped out of racing. “If I can’t do it fast, I’m not doing it,” she said. “You don’t run just to be running—you run to win.”) She pushed Michelle and Craig academically as if she were coaching a sport.
“The academic part came first and early in our house,” said Craig. “Our parents emphasized hard work and doing your best. Once you get trained like that, then you get used to it and you don’t want to get anything but As and Bs.”
Like a good coach, Marian pushed Michelle into new and challenging experiences. The school’s program for advanced students began in the sixth grade, and Michelle was in it for the next three years, until graduation. She began studying French three years before most students were offered it in ninth grade. She took biology classes at Kennedy-King College.
Kennedy-King exposed her to more than just the inside of frogs. The college was almost four miles away from Bryn Mawr. Earlier than most of her classmates, Michelle was taking independent steps toward her education, searching it out rather than expecting it to come to her. The confidence she gained would soon lead her in unexpected directions.
But first, graduation: Michelle finished Bryn Mawr second in her class of more than one hundred students.