I’m nothing special
More than a year before her husband was declared Democratic candidate, Michelle Obama was already hard at work on his behalf. The setting: the Chit-n-Chat coffee shop in Waukee, Iowa, population 9,213. Percentage of population that is white: 97.7. The subject: values. Hers and his. ‘I married my husband,’ she told the crowd, composed equally of reporters and supporters, ‘because we shared the same Mid-Western values: keep your word, work hard, treat others with respect.’
As a topic, it’s a little disappointing (who would ever come out in favour of shirking work?). I had hoped for a little more of, ‘He’s a man, just a man’ - the speech in which she ribs her lionised husband for being so inept at the banal details of daily life - but those jokes, she told me later, have gone a little flat. Once you have done them, you can’t keep doing them. That, and having been chided by the New York Times for assuming that the American public does, in fact, see Barack Obama as a god (though his mantle has slipped a little now). ‘No harm, no foul,’ Michelle Obama said of the criticism - though she admitted to subsequently toning down the irony. ‘If the joke is clouding the point, let’s just get to the point.’
Of his wife, Barack Obama has said, ‘She is smart, funny and thoroughly charming. If I ever had to run against her for public office, she would beat me without too much difficulty.’ Watching her easy way with the crowd, you can see what he means. She writes her own speeches, speaks without notes, doesn’t seem uptight or anxious about being liked, and makes jokes about herself. Moreover, she looks the part of the elegant working mother she was until just over a year ago, when she cut back on 80 per cent of her $212,000-a-year job with the University of Chicago hospital system in order to concentrate on her husband’s campaign.
After the Chit-n-Chat speech, I sought out the sole black woman in the room, a distinguished-looking elderly lady who had watched Obama’s performance with a small, enigmatic smile. Willie Glanton, it turned out, was the first African-American woman elected to the Iowa state legislature - and a hardcore Hillary Clinton supporter, until Barack and Michelle Obama came along and swept her off her feet. What, I wondered, did she like so much about Michelle Obama?
‘She’s normal,’ Glanton answered, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. ‘She stands by her man.’
Normal. Certainly not a word that applies to Hillary’s spouse, Bill Clinton. Nor, frankly, is it a word that would have applied to Teresa Heinz, John Kerry’s oddly flinty wife, or Cindy McCain, who once stole painkillers from the charity for which she worked. Or even the icy Laura Bush, who can barely contain her contempt for the media in her rare public appearances. But, again and again, it is a word that resurfaces with regard to the Obamas.
‘This is probably my 20th interview on the subject, so I’ve really been forced to think about what makes Barack and Michelle unique,’ said Michelle’s older brother, Craig Robinson, who works as the head basketball coach at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. ‘And I think it’s that they come closer to being like us than any of the other candidates. They’re not extremely wealthy or lifelong politicians hungry for power. They seem like normal, honest people who are doing this for the right reasons.’
Michelle Obama arrived for our photo shoot at the Chicago Cultural Centre wearing black leggings, a flowy tunic top and flat shoes, and looking a little tired. Apparently the senator had surprised her by arriving home for a rare visit the night before. Given her somewhat fierce reputation, I was a little surprised by her easygoing attitude to the clothes for the shoot. ‘I think you all should decide,’ she said, shrugging. ‘I can be comfortable in anything.’ (On the rare occasion she finds a moment to shop, she says, she is drawn to Giorgio Armani or MaxMara for suits.)
Then the time came to do her hair. After half an hour with a curling iron, the hairdresser presented her with a mirror.
Obama looked at the intentionally messy hairdo with alarm. ‘The hair is not working,’ she said, fingering a lank lock with alarm. ‘I look like I just got out of bed.’
A few feet away, Ingrid Grimes, Obama’s make-up artist, shook her head and muttered. Grimes met the Obamas four years ago, became a friend, and has been doing Michelle’s make-up on special occasions ever since. She knows her style inside out. And this was not it. ‘Her natural style is classic and elegant,’ she later told me. ‘She doesn’t like a lot of fuss.’ More important, and as we were witnessing, Michelle Obama does not have a problem saying no. ‘It’s partly her intellect,’ Grimes said. ‘She is a person who is comfortable in her skin. She’s clear and direct without ever being over-emotional.’
Even her brother, who has said, ‘Michelle doesn’t like to play games, because she can’t stand to lose,’ calls Michelle one of his best friends. ‘She might seem intimidating at first because she’s so smart, 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.’ And for the record, it’s not that Michelle can’t stand to lose. She doesn’t like to see anyone lose. ‘I’m competitive,’ she said, ‘but I’d rather see everyone win.’
When we sat down together a few minutes later, the subject of normality came up almost immediately. ‘I say this not to be modest, but there are so many young people who could be me. There’s nothing magical about my background. I am not a supergenius. I had good parents and some good teachers and some decent breaks, and I work hard. Every other kid I knew could have been me, but they got a bad break and didn’t recover. It’s like I tell the young people I talk to: the difference between success and failure in our society is a very slim margin. You almost have to have that perfect storm of good parents, self-esteem and good teachers. It’s a lot, which is why Barack and I believe so passionately about investing in education and strengthening institutions.’Daily Telegraph