Editor’s Note: Anyone who writes about politics and politicians knows how difficult it is to bring fresh insight to familiar issues and personalities. That challenge is even greater if your subject is the most well-known woman in the United States, First Lady Michelle Obama. In this installment of “Writing the Book,” an occasional Storyboard feature in which journalists turned authors discuss their work, former Washington Post reporter Peter Slevin examines how he looked beyond the two-dimensional narrative to find meaningful material for his biography, “Michelle Obama: A Life.” The book was just named one of the year’s 10 best biographies by Booklist and you can read recent reviews here and here.
As I set out five years ago to write a biography of one of the most recognizable women on the planet, the first question was why do it. The second was how. Neither answer came easily.
I had written often about Michelle Obama as the Chicago correspondent for The Washington Post. During the 2008 campaign, I trailed her to Iowa, New York, Texas and a handful of other states. I interviewed her friends on the South Side and tracked her path through Princeton and Harvard and back to the neighborhoods of her youth, where she worked to unstack the deck for working class African Americans.
On the campaign trail, she spoke sharply and stirringly about inequality, not just in terms of race and gender, but class. She painted a winning portrait of the future president, of course, but she also discussed the world she inhabited as a black woman, as a mother, as a professional trying to keep all the balls in the air. Her message ran deeper than electoral politics.
Ever-expanding crowds swooned, but reaction to Michelle was often binary. Adore.Abhor. Respect. Reject. Warm, wise and embracing. Haughty, petty and disdainful. Her most fevered critics held up funhouse mirrors and called her angry, mean and unpatriotic. Mrs. Grievance declared one headline. Barack’s Bitter Half smirked another. Rush Limbaugh barely waited until she had reached the White House to mock her physical appearance. He labeled her Moochelle, or Mooch for short, a term that suggested a fat cow, perhaps, or a leech, and encompassed big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole.
By the time Michelle took up residence in Washington in January 2009, the existing narratives – variously superficial and contradictory – seemed ubiquitous. Clearly, there was more to tell, but a full-length biography? She was the first African American woman to serve as first lady, yet she had no constitutional duties nor armies to command. She was not the one who had been elected president. As Laura Bush once said, it only takes the vote of one man to make a first lady. What I came to recognize, however, was that Michelle, occupied the spotlight in a way that none of her recent predecessors did. Methodically and purposefully, she turned to issues of fairness and equity that had always animated her.
As I watched, I also realized that no writer had put the pieces together, nor had anyone told Michelle Obama’s story against the complex history she was living as a member of the first generation to come of age after the civil rights era. I sometimes wonder if the outlines of Michelle’s story emerged more clearly because I was watching from Chicago, far removed from bluster and scorekeeping that so often defines Washington politics and its chroniclers. It surely helped that I had no beat to cover. By late 2010, the Post had closed the last of its national bureaus and I was teaching at Northwestern University.
But where to start, on a project that would take nearly five years from concept to publication? My goal was to write a thoughtful and thorough book – and an enduring one. I wanted it to be rich with the voices of the people who knew Michelle, with my own voice most definitely quieter than the rest. With a formal assurance from the East Wing of the White House that I would have access to Michelle’s lieutenants, I did a round or two of interviews in Washington, then started in Chicago, where the book is anchored.
For guidance, I first looked to Michelle’s own words about where she drew her lessons. She said her role models were people she knew and she often spoke of her late father, “the voice in my head that keeps me whole and keeps me grounded.” So, who was Fraser C. Robinson III? I rang the bell at the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in search of one of his cousins, Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. After hearing me out, Funnye shared stories and led me to one of Fraser’s brothers, Nomenee Robinson, a Harvard Business School graduate working in the Chicago office of the Peace Corps. Robinson, in due course, told me where I could find one of his younger brothers on a Saturday morning.
I found a DuSable High alum who pointed me to one of Fraser’s classmates. The classmate had a 1953 yearbook with a full-page photograph showing Fraser working on a sculpture. Although he would spend his professional life tending boilers at a Chicago plant, I learned that he had attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago as a boy. He studied there at roughly the same time as Richard Hunt, who became a noted sculptor. I visited Hunt at his gloriously cluttered studio to learn what it meant to be an African-American youngster traveling across town to art classes.
As my work progressed, a DuSable contact called to invite me to a school reception and reported that two of Michelle’s relatives were expected. At a senior living facility, I located the minister who presided over Fraser’s funeral, and I found a Chicago phone number for Barack Obama’s great uncle. At the Harvard law library, an archivist handed me a mimeographed 1988 student newsletter with a long, revealing essay by Michelle Robinson about the need to reduce racism and sexism at the law school. By tracking comment boards about Michelle’s basketball-coach brother, I found Dan Maxime, a water plant colleague and friend of Fraser’s who had retired to Las Vegas. And as my deadline approached, I drove to a barber shop on Chicago’s South Side, where Krsna Golden, a former mentee of Michelle’s, was cutting hair.
This was the satisfying and familiar work of street reporting that I had loved for 30-odd years as a newsman. Finding people who had something to say and searching for common ground. It was like writing a newspaper profile, except about 130,000 words longer. In asking individuals to trust me, I described my purposes and ambitions and offered to answer questions. I promised transparency but not anonymity. (In the finished book, there are more than 1,200 endnotes and no blind quotes.) The outreach to prospective sources seemed endless, and it did not always bear fruit, but it forced me to crystallize my thinking. What was it again that I was hoping to accomplish? Where, exactly, did this person fit into the narrative? What was the most valuable question I could ask?
Any project this ambitious encounters unexpected obstacles great and small. When I was well underway, East Wing chief of staff Tina Tchen reneged on her predecessor’s pledge of access, making it more difficult to interview people who knew the first lady, including sources otherwise happy to share an anecdote or detail about a woman they admired. Some honored Tchen’s dictum, others did not.
It was a setback, but by the time I pressed the button for the last time, I had interviewed scores of people, from all corners of Michelle’s life – friends, relatives, professors, mentors, colleagues, aides and campaign strategists. I drew on my own pre-White House interviews with the Obamas and studied hundreds of thousands of words that Michelle has spoken in public. It also helped that generous colleagues shared unpublished interviews with Michelle and her mother, Marian Robinson.
I often did not know exactly what I had or what I needed until I sat down to write a particular passage. Perhaps congenitally, I could not stop reporting. Two months before the book came out in April 2015, I was still adding details. (Thank you, Knopf.) Just as with shorter-form writing, individual figures and the surrounding landscape gradually came together, sometimes in ways I could not have foreseen.
Two things were at work, it seems to me. One was the sparkling stash of details that emerged from the digging, the reading and the interviews. The other was the accumulated time to make sense of what I had. The time, in other words, to think.
One question led to another, one interview to another, one bit of reasoning to a deeper bit of reasoning and, slowly, some conclusions. The happiest stroke of fortune, and perhaps the least predictable, was happening upon a puzzle with enough great characters and enough complexity that I never grew tired of trying to solve it.
Peter Slevin spent a decade on the national staff of The Washington Post before joining Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he is an associate professor. He has written extensively about Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as political campaigns and policy debates from one end of the country to the other. Slevin graduated from Princeton and Oxford. He lives with his family in Evanston, Illinois.