Writing a biography of Michelle Obama.

Women writing about politics, etc.
Oct. 14 2008 3:19 PM

Michelle and Me

The trials of being an Obama biographer.

(Continued from Page 1)

Because that's how political reporting works: When you call sources who are close to the subject, the drill is that they check to see if it's OK to talk. Almost immediately, evidence suggested the answer they were getting was "no." I e-mailed an administrator for a group Michelle is on the board of, who responded to say: "I am in London. … Do you want to wait until I get back to Chicago or talk on the phone from here?" I e-mailed back to say either was fine. I got back a message markedly different in tone from the first. "I think I will need to wait on this," it said. "When I get back, I am leaving town again and have much work to do in between." My further e-mails to her went unanswered.

And that, pretty much, is how it went. I tracked down a cousin in Florida who would be glad to talk until, suddenly, he wouldn't. I e-mailed Craig Robinson, head basketball coach at Oregon State. He responded promptly, saying, "I'm happy to help out." Lelyveld put the kibosh on an interview.

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Over the summer, the campaign brought on a number of Washington hands. Each time, I contacted the staffer, hoping that at some point one veteran would say: Um, why aren't we cooperating? No such luck. Usually, there was no reply.

Eventually, I convinced myself that I had to get through to Michelle. So, I went to see her speak in Pontiac, Mich., at a groovy downtown music venue called the Crofoot. Before I went, I wrote a letter to Michelle, including articles I'd written, which, I hoped, would show her I was a fair reporter with experience, among other things, in writing about race. After the speech, hemmed in by audience members who wanted to shake her hand, I had to clamber over chairs to deliver the envelope to an official. A couple of days later, leaving my house on an errand, I had the wild notion that Michelle would respond. So, I instructed my children to be very, very polite if she called.

"Mom," said my 10-year-old son, looking at me gravely, "Michelle Obama is not going to call."

It got worse, at least from my point of view. Thanks to Google alert, I learned that before the event in Pontiac, the campaign had called the editor of a local women's publication, offering Michelle for an interview. The editor wrote a piece that said talking to her was just like talking to her girlfriend.

Because the Obama campaign does give access to Michelle Obama. They give access to celebrity magazines like Us Weekly and People, which tilt toward that coveted female audience; to publications that do the same thing on a local scale; and to TV shows like The View and Access Hollywood. Why not me, too? Maybe somebody in the campaign disliked me. But it seems likely that at this juncture the campaign prefers to keep at arm's length reporters working in an extended print medium, in which lots of ancillary characters will be interviewed whose comments cannot be controlled. It also may be that Michelle Obama plans to write her own book someday and wants the field clear.

Right about now, I imagine, my poor book editor is clutching her hair, thinking: Dear God, how did I end up with an author who is driving down her own Amazon numbers? So, let me hasten to say that when the going gets tough, the tough cry and gnash their teeth and rend their garments and then go out and start obtaining yearbooks. I called high-school and college and law-school classmates; neighbors; lawyers; people who worked with Michelle Obama at the nonprofit she directed, Public Allies. If you place enough phone calls, some people who knew your subject well at one point, and who are not closely in touch now, will call back. And some people who have been instructed not to talk will, anyway, because they want publicity, because they like her and want to say why, or because they consider it a public service.

So, in the end, I talked to enough people to write a biography I found interesting and enjoyed doing. And because the campaign did not cough up the same 12 people they usually make available, there are new voices in it. The point, however, is that the campaign made writing a book about Michelle Obama harder, I would argue, than it should have. In an Obama administration, we the press will have our work cut out for us.

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