Michelle Obama’s sensational memoir is really a book about Trump

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona says that ‘Becoming’ could yet be the basis of a bid for high office

13 November 2018 12:43

To be First Lady of the United States is, as Michelle Obama observes in Becoming, to ride in ‘a strange kind of sidecar to the presidency.’ The power the incumbent exercises ‘is a curious thing – as soft and undefined as the role itself.’

Which is why, perhaps, the autobiographies of First Ladies – written intermittently since Julia Dent Grant, the wife of President Ulysses S Grant (1869-77) – have been such a patchy genre. But Obama’s book is the most consequential since Eleanor Roosevelt’s.

Framed as the story of an ordinary life made extraordinary, Becoming traces its author’s passage from humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago to what she calls the ‘vertigo’ of eight years in the White House. But it is also a sharp, explicit and bracing intervention in contemporary politics.

Unlike Hillary Clinton’s exceptionally dull Living History, Obama’s memoir is a genuine page-turner, full of intimacies and reflections: her first ‘warm splishy kiss’ with a boy called Ronnell; the pain of her father’s early death from multiple sclerosis; the pain of miscarriage; and – above all – her ‘seesawing, yin-and-yang’ relationship with her husband, to whom she is ‘still connected by a visceral and grounding love.’

A word she uses often, and to effect, is ‘heaviness’ – by which she means the collateral burden that comes with power and is borne by all those who are close to the office-holder. Much of this is bathetic: when she decides to have bangs cut into her hair, her own team nervously consults the President’s advisers.

On other occasions, however, a normal family meal is transformed by a disclosure of dizzying geopolitical significance. ‘Sometime early in 2011,’ she recalls, ‘we’d just finished dinner and Sasha and Malia had run off to do their homework, leaving the two of us alone in the residence dining room.’ As if in passing, her husband tells her that the CIA may have tracked down Osama bin Laden. Though she and the President try to maintain a semblance of domestic normality, the door to the ‘chaos’ (another recurring word) of the outside world is always ajar.

‘I couldn’t help but feel haunted by the ways I’d been criticized, by the people who’d made assumptions about me based on the color of my skin.’

Allied to this candour is a steeliness of purpose. It is no exaggeration to say that every page of this book is, explicitly or otherwise, a reproach to Donald Trump, and a call-to-arms to those who would defeat the 45th President and all that he stands for.

This is true in the obvious sense that Obama is repelled from the start by Trump’s ‘yammering, inexpert critiques of Barack’s foreign policy decisions and openly questioning whether he was an American citizen…crazy and mean-spirited, of course, its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed’. By spreading the ‘Birther’ conspiracy theory, he was stirring up hatred and ‘putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.’

Once Trump is up and running on the campaign trail, he confirms her worst suspicions. ‘My body buzzed with fury after hearing [the ‘pussy-grabbing’] tape,’ she writes.

In a deeper sense, however, his rise does not surprise her at all. A binding theme in Becoming is the consistent tempering of her lifelong optimism by a wary sense of the bigotry and divisiveness still lurking in the American soul.

‘Though I was thought of as a popular First Lady,’ she writes, ‘I couldn’t help but feel haunted by the ways I’d been criticized, by the people who’d made assumptions about me based on the color of my skin.’ As much as the election of the first black President occasioned global celebration, she always felt that ‘we ourselves were a provocation’, whose very position at the apex of American public life fuelled ‘a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others.’

Seized by this anxiety, she concludes that patience and resilience, as much as high principle, are the progressive’s most important weapons. Along the way, she also discovers a talent for, as she puts it, directing ‘the American gaze’. For all her academic accomplishments – Princeton, Harvard – she remains a ‘child of the mainstream’ who ‘never stopped reading People magazine or let go of my love of a good sitcom.’

She posts her first tweet in 2011. When she appears on James Corden’s ‘Carpool Karaoke’ to publicise her message on girl’s education, she practises for weeks and is rewarded with 45 million views on YouTube. ‘It was important to me to be more than a consoler,’ she writes. ‘I was determined to be someone who told the truth, using my voice to lift up the voiceless when I could, and to not disappear on people in need.’

The populist right, she concludes, will tell its story ‘until someone dares to start telling that story differently’. Which, of course, poses the question: as one of the most recognisable and popular figures on earth, let alone in America, is she not the obvious person to accomplish that great narrative task?

Her formal answer is that she has ‘no intention of running for office, ever… this arena is just not for me.’ And that may be the end of the matter. But I have to say that I have read more comprehensive disavowals of political intent. Indeed, she immediately qualifies her renunciation of public life by asserting that this ‘isn’t to say I don’t care deeply about the future of our country’.

Options are left open, wriggle room is preserved. ‘I am not a political person,’ she says – which, these days, is a distinct advantage. One of the many lessons of the Trump era is that politics no longer consists of careers, but of moments seized. Who knows if Michelle Obama’s moment still lies ahead? But you don’t call a book Becoming unless you have a sequel in mind.

This review originally appeared in Wednesday’s London Evening Standard