Michelle and Me
The trials of being an Obama biographer.
Reporting political profiles is like giving birth: You forget how painful it is until you go through it again. And the minute you do, you think, "Somebody make it stop now." The begging for access, the plaintive calls to sources, the "no comments," the lunches with people who manage not to say anything, and did I mention the begging for access? As a feature writer, I thought I'd achieved nadirs of debasement doing profiles of Hillary Clinton (who never talked to me) and Al Gore (who finally did). But now I realize I never knew what reporting pain was until I set out to write a journalistic biography of Michelle Obama.
How hard was it? How uncooperative was the Obama campaign? I am so glad you asked! Here's an example: Back in June, the New York Times ran a front-page piece about Michelle Obama. A few months earlier, she had made her now-famous comment about how this election was the first time in her adult life that she'd been really proud of her country and become the target of a vast Internet conspiracy to portray her as anti-patriotic and full of racial animus. The Times piece was about the campaign's efforts to soften her image, and in it, Michelle expressed astonishment at the vitriol directed her way, venturing that anyone who spent time with her would know that's not what she is about. "I will walk anyone through my life," she declared.
As it happened, that very day I was in Chicago trying to get people to walk me through what they knew of her life, and the campaign was making it extremely difficult. Among the contacts I tried to make was Michelle's first cousin once removed Capers Funnye Jr., whose mother was the sister of Michelle's paternal grandfather. Funnye is a friendly man with his own story, a convert to Judaism who became a rabbi. I'd called earlier to ask him about the Robinson family history, and when he didn't call back, I'd driven to his Chicago synagogue. He opened the door and, when I told him who I was, looked regretful. He loves to talk, but he'd checked with the campaign, and they had asked him not to give an extended interview.
Around the same time, I called a pastor on Chicago's South Side who knew Michelle. "I was instructed by the campaign to let them know when you called me," he said, explaining that he received an advance message asking him not to discuss Michelle with any book author because they were "not ready for people who knew Michelle to talk about her."
Why should you care about one writer's shaggy-dog story? In one sense, none of this is tragic; every reporter knows that being denied access to the usual contacts means you dig harder and turn up new voices. But you should care if you are expecting an Obama presidency to achieve new levels of transparency. Obama, if elected, may well bring many changes to Washington, but unusually open access to the media—and, by extension, the public—is not necessarily going to be one of them.
It's true that in this presidential campaign, it is the McCain-Palin camp that has been most vigorous in fomenting disdain of the press, denying access to reporters and encouraging the notion that the media is a "filter" that distorts the truth rather than a collection of individuals trying to ferret it out. But the Obama campaign is not above thwarting scrutiny. In June, the campaign told reporters Obama was going to Chicago when he was really meeting elsewhere with Hillary Clinton. Off flew the campaign plane, with the press corps in it, prompting a letter of protest from bureau chiefs. It seems to me that the Obama campaign also hopes voters will eschew the media middle man and get their information "directly" from the campaign Web site. Or from Obama's own books. Go ahead if you want to. Just keep in mind that Obama misremembers the year when he met Michelle and the date of her father's death. There is some virtue, it could be argued, in seeking other sources.
Campaigns are, of course, entitled to deny access to the principals; they do have to choose whom to favor. And I understand that the campaign in general and Michelle in particular have been buffeted by malicious rumors. But there is something, I don't know, unsporting in the willingness to silence outside sources who are eager to talk. And something counterproductive, one would think, in a crouch this defensive: The people being discouraged were those most likely to say nice things. And in any case, here's the bottom line: You don't get to tell the Times how you are willing to walk anyone through your life if, in fact, you aren't.
To begin at the beginning: In 2007, I wrote an analysis of Barack Obama's political rise for the Washington Post.During that reporting, I interviewed Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, at a time when they were not being closely controlled. Both sessions were rich in material that could be useful in painting a portrait of her. I've always been interested in public women who are polarizing, and—whatever people might say about the relevance of spouses—felt that a woman who is one of her husband's closest advisers merits examination. When a Simon & Schuster editor called to ask if I'd be interested in writing a campaign bio of Michelle, I said yes.
I also was moved by the American narrative she embodies. She is the descendant of slaves in South Carolina. Her grandfather moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. Her childhood neighborhood was transformed by white flight; one of her first experiences as a young girl would have been watching white people move away as her own family advanced. She attended Princeton during the height of the debate over affirmative action; I'd been there at roughly the same time. So, I e-mailed the officials I'd dealt with for my earlier profile and told them I hoped they would cooperate. After a couple of exchanges, her communications director, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, called to say the campaign would not.
At first, I thought that this was just part of the familiar birthing hell. Campaigns often say they will not cooperate, so you have to keep going back, writing e-mails and buttonholing. I'd been through this with the profile on Barack: The campaign had promised an interview with him and then backed away, and not until I tracked him down after a Senate hearing and reminded him of the promise did they end up giving me 20 minutes.
This time, I went to hear Michelle speak in Chicago and sought out Lelyveld. I tried to persuade her of my intent to write a fair, straightforward book, arguing that this was the perfect opportunity for the campaign to present an accurate picture of Michelle straight-up. Lelyveld replied that they were very busy and said they didn't think there was enough time to do a good book before the election. I asked her not to shut down access to sources I called.
Photograph of Michelle Obama by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.