Top positive review
Compelling And Worth Reading
November 13, 2018
I eagerly anticipated this book for two reasons that don’t fit well together. First, although I do not know the Obamas, I have several friends who are close personal friends of both Michelle and Barack (this results from my attending law school while Barack was teaching, and living in Chicago for some years thereafter). Second, I am not particularly a fan of their politics, although I obviously have nothing against them personally. Thus, I think I can offer an objective view of this book—and I found it both moving and worthwhile.
What comes across most in this book is Michelle Obama’s lack of self-pity combined with clarity of vision. I suspect this was a difficult book to write—she knew that whatever she wrote, somebody, and maybe a lot of people, would criticize her for it. She therefore focuses quite a bit on what might be called practical insight and empowerment, rather than on settling political scores. That’s probably a wise choice—after all, her husband’s terms as President showed that very few people were interested in political settlements or compromise.
The first third of the book covers her childhood (“Becoming Me”). Contrary to the stereotype of Democrats as the party of the elite, Obama’s childhood, at least, was working class. She grew up in the lower middle class South Shore neighborhood of Chicago; her father was a boiler operator. Obama grew up in a stable household where her parents made their high expectations clear, though family life had its challenges, especially her father’s falling ill with multiple sclerosis. Still, she managed to go to Princeton, then Harvard Law, and then to work at the ultra-prestigious Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin, where she met Barack (and where my wife worked, a few years after that time). I started law school in 1991, when Barack had just returned to Chicago from Harvard; he was much talked about even before he began teaching at the University of Chicago, because a high-powered Harvard graduate did not often choose to return to community organizing, rather than working for a white-shoe firm like Sidley. In contrast, Michelle Obama makes clear in this book she’s the organized, path-following one, who shows up on time, unlike her husband, which is probably why law firm life suited her better.
These initial years with Barack form the second third of the book (“Becoming Us”); one can tell that Obama struggled with her husband’s political ambition, because being a political spouse always imposes tremendous costs on the one not running for office (and she is explicit she has no interest in herself running for office). In fact, she talks at some length about the couples’ counseling they had to go through as a result, though it seems to have worked out for them! All of this is quite interesting, and much more readable than the massive biography of Barack that David Garrow wrote two years ago, “Rising Star,” which defeated my repeated attempts to read it, by having far too much irrelevant detail. Michelle Obama does not make that mistake here, for which the reader, or at least this reader, is grateful.
Obama closes the last third of the book with what was probably the hardest part to write, “Becoming More.” She talks about the stress, but also the opportunity to offer her vision, that being in the spotlight meant, and she criticizes Barack’s successor in office in no uncertain, but in measured, terms. At the end, she remains optimistic, but one gets a little of the feeling that she isn’t certain her optimism is warranted.
I have a lot of sympathy for Michelle Obama. Every person in power, whether that power is direct or indirect, is always ultimately frustrated, but it must gall her to see the contrast between her husband and Donald Trump. I think that she picked the right path of not making that the focus of the book, though. She’s a grounded pragmatist at heart, or at least so it seems from this book. And we could all use a lot more grounded pragmatism, so her contribution to public discourse with this book is (unlike many political autobiographies) both illuminating and valuable.