Michelle Obama gets real

She may be too authentic for Maureen Dowd, but the bold and plain-spoken candidate's wife has made doubting Iowans into believers.

Published November 28, 2007 11:00AM (EST)

Michelle Obama is sitting in an alcove of the Monticello Public Library, a gaggle of children at her feet. The 43-year-old mother of two daughters is finishing up a rousing reading of "Olivia and the Missing Toy," a book she appears to be familiar with. "Do you guys know Olivia?" she asks her rapt audience. "She's a pig; she's quite the personality; she's a drama queen. Do you guys know what a drama queen is? Always into something." When Obama finishes the story, she asks, "Any thoughts on Olivia? Comments? Queries? Statements?" The kids shake their heads no and look imploringly at their new friend for more.

There's time for one more story before Obama has to address the adults gathering in an adjacent room, and someone has set aside two books from which Obama can choose. There's one unfamiliar book called "Skippyjon Jones," and a hardback edition of "Our National Anthem," the sort of red, white and blue book Lynne Cheney would write, and that an aspiring first lady would be expected to read. "Not that one," says Obama, quickly discarding the patriotic volume. She opens "Skippyjon Jones" and begins the story of a Siamese kitten who, for reasons too murky to convey here, soon starts using "his very best Spanish accent," to say things like, "My ears are too beeg for my head. My head ees too beeg for my body. I am not a Siamese cat ... I AM A CHIHUAHUA!"

The tale of Skippyjon Jones' trippy, nearly incomprehensible quest for beans (or something) requires Obama to utter lots of awkwardly accented Spanglish things like, "Yip Yippee Yippito! It's the end of Alfredo Buzzito! Skippito is here, we have nothing to fear. Adios to the bad Bumblebeeto!" As she perseveres, the kids go loco, rolling off their beanbags with belly-busting laughter. The wife of presidential contender Barack Obama is laughing pretty hard herself, making significant "Help me!" eye contact with her chief of staff. But she forges on, hollering "Holy Frijoles!" with great gusto. "This is a crazy book!" she says several times, eyebrows raised meaningfully at the adults in the room.

The next day, while Michelle is giving an interview elsewhere in Iowa, one of her staffers, who had missed the reading, overhears me and a photographer laughingly recall "Skippyjon Jones"-gate. When she hears about the rejection of the national anthem and the politically incorrect Mexican accent, the staffer half-jokingly, half-pleadingly says to me, "That was off the record."

The children's book is a minor, insignificant choice, one that brought down the 6-year-old house. But on the presidential campaign trail, the teensiest of signifiers can carry weight. In September, Obama's husband landed in hot water when he failed to put his hand to his heart during the national anthem at Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry. In light of that absurd kerfuffle -- you're not even supposed to put your hand to your heart during the national anthem -- the safe choice would really have been to read the kids "Our National Anthem." But Michelle, a daughter of Chicago's working-class South Side, a Princeton and Harvard Law graduate, who has made no secret of her reticence about jumping into the presidential fray, could not help choosing the book that was untested over the book that was boring.

Obama is by no means the only presidential partner shaking things up out there. We're living in the Wild West of educated, professional, outspoken political spouses; in a post-Hillary, post-feminist nation, the ladies and gentlemen hitting the trail are not armed with recipes and decorating ideas, but with Ph.D.s and presidencies on their résumés. The Family Circle cookie contest -- in which the wives of the two major-party presidential nominees are asked to submit their favorite confections -- may not be completely extinct. But when, four years ago, a bescarfed Teresa Heinz Kerry blithely admitted that her purported recipe for pumpkin spice cookies had been sent in by someone in her office, and that she herself didn't even like pumpkin spice cookies, it was clear that the façade of the happy first hausfrau was crumbling.

This election's crop of spouses includes Judith Giuliani, whose husband suggested she might one day sit in on Cabinet meetings, the tongue-pierced Elizabeth Kucinich, and Elizabeth Edwards, who while living with cancer has become her husband's brassiest and most potent (and most unassailable) weapon against his opponents.

But Obama's particular impulse -- to reject meaningless political pablum or helpmate hokum in favor of unexpected candor and a good laugh -- has already distinguished her yearlong tenure on the presidential campaign circuit.

"You've never seen anyone like us before, and that's a little freaky, isn't it?" she asks the crowd of grown-ups who've assembled at the Monticello library after the bangito conclusion of "Skippyjon Jones." "It's like, 'They're real!' Well, guess what? Real people can be politicians too. We as a country have grown suspicious of real. We take the fake."

In different versions of the speech she gives in Monticello and other towns during a 48-hour, mid-November blitz of Iowa, Michelle promises her audiences that "you will not see another politician like [Barack] in your lifetime. Because they don't come along very often. There are other people like him out there, but they don't choose to go into politics because they have sense. My husband is a little crazy."

Video: Rebecca Traister on Michelle Obama

From the start, Obama, who works as the vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, has appeared determined to temper the near-Messianic expectations that greeted her charismatic husband's campaign. In this she is, worryingly for some, reminiscent of Heinz Kerry, who was equally determined to keep the country's perspective on her mate in check, and who was labeled problematic because of it. ("I don't want to give [John] more due than he deserves," she once informed "Hardball's" Chris Matthews.)

Obama has told various audiences and media outlets about Barack's shortcomings when it comes to putting the butter away and making the bed; that he's "snore-y and stinky" when he wakes up in the morning; that she agreed to his presidential run only if he promised to kick his smoking habit; most memorably, she has said, "He's a gifted man, but in the end, he's just a man." It's not like she's kneecapping the guy, whom she met when he was hired as her intern at the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin in 1989, but so accustomed are we to hearing political helpmates in reverential mode that her remarks have earned her something of a reputation. Like maybe she's a little too real. Too real for Maureen Dowd, who boarded the crazy train (from which she has yet to disembark) in April with a column accusing Michelle of infantilizing and emasculating her husband of 15 years with remarks about his feeble domestic skills.

But judging by the reception she receives in northern and eastern Iowa, her approach is working. It shouldn't be natural that Obama, with her advanced degrees, her height (she's 5-foot-11), her grace, her killer Jimmy Choo boots and impeccably tailored bell-sleeved tunics, would connect to the comparatively pale, squat groups of people who crowd restaurants and theater lobbies to hear her speak. But she does. As Mary Blake, an 81-year-old from Dorchester, tells me, "I think she's one of our own. Our different heritage probably doesn't matter so much if her experience leads her to understand us." Forty-two-year-old ultrasound technician Laura Hubka, who cries after embracing Michelle in Cresco, has never voted before, but is a precinct captain because of her belief in the Obamas. When I ask what she loves about Michelle, she says, "The strength that she has as a black woman married to a black man, running for president. The trust in the American people, that we can look past that, is such a courageous act. I would vote for her for president."

Perhaps some of what Dowd was kvetching about was the fact that Obama is a funny lady, whose humor, contoured by tone and inflection, doesn't always translate to print. When it's announced at the first of her speeches, in a senior center nestled between car dealerships in Davenport, that this is her 13th trip to Iowa, Obama raises her fists and gives a quiet little "Yay!" It's not exactly earnest, and not exactly sarcastic, either. She's tipping her cap to the fact that 13 trips to Iowa when you live, work and mother in Chicago is a lot of work.

"Good morning," she begins, surveying the audience of seniors. "It is morning, isn't it? When I do these trips I get confused."

This latest tour is an anomaly for Obama. She typically confines her campaign travel to day trips so that she can pack her daughters off to school and be home in time to put them to bed. This time, she'll make five appearances on a Wednesday, spend the night in Dubuque, and make three appearances the next day. It's as good a week as any for pulling a double shift; Barack has just come off his barn-burning performance at the Nov. 10 Jefferson Jackson dinner, and his polling numbers are perking up for the first time since August.

Still, his wife says, getting out of the house that morning had been a trial, what with Sasha arguing about what to wear. "Come on, kid, put the pants on" is how Michelle remembers pleading with her youngest in order to get to Davenport on time. Obama's running deadpan monologue about the tribulations of ordinary domestic life under extraordinary national circumstances -- imagine Roseanne married to Tony Soprano -- is a huge part of her appeal, but also the stuff that can sound off-key when you're not in the room.

Over a cheeseburger between events, Michelle and her four staffers reminisce about the big fun the family had this summer at the Iowa State Fair -- a de rigueur stop for all the candidates. As they recall Barack and elder daughter Malia riding everything on the fairway, I ask Michelle why she wasn't on the amusements herself -- was she scared? "Oh no, I love the rides," she says, explaining that she had to stay on the ground with 6-year-old Sasha, having scared the bejesus out of her a year ago by taking her on the Tower of Terror at Disneyland. One of Obama's aides, a mother, looks at Michelle reproachfully. "I know, bad mommy," concedes Obama. "Now I can't persuade her to go on any rides. She's like, 'You don't have good judgment.'"

At the same lunch, in a conversation about husbands and their habits, Obama drops a wiseass comment about Barack that is sweet and funny, but precisely the kind of quip that would look bad plastered on tabloid covers. As soon as the words have left her mouth, she remembers there is a reporter at the table, and shoots me an imploring glance and a firm shake of the head: That, she's saying, is off the record.

It's too bad, because from the familiar, critical, affectionate way she talks, there is little doubt that she adores her husband, whom she likes to refer to as a biracial, idealistic lawyer with a funny name, and whom she realized she could really fall for when she watched him, post-Sidley Austin internship, pass up big-money jobs to do community organizing on her native South Side. She is also aware that he is a lucky guy to have her out there stumping for him; he seems to realize that too. He tells Salon by e-mail, "Michelle is a brilliant woman and an incredible partner in this campaign."

She is also very funny, in a way that cannot be practiced or faked. I hear her give seven versions of the same speech in two days. For most speakers, especially those who are not pros, it would seem easier to modify the straight parts and recycle the punch lines. Not Michelle. In every speech, I hear her tinker with her jokes.

In her first address, she flatly notes that one of her husband's proudest achievements was passing ethics reform. A beat. "In Illinois." Ba-dum-bum. The line gets a good laugh, because Iowans know Chicago's history of corruption, and that Ilinois' most recent ex-governor is in federal prison. But apparently, Obama is not satisfied. In later versions, she more thoroughly explains herself, noting that "Illinois doesn't do ethics really well."

Obama's staff tells me about a couple of lines that have been dropped from the speech -- one about how when she met her husband, she thought, "No one lives in Hawaii!" and one about how she first realized that she could go to Princeton after her brother got in, because "I'm smarter than him!" But as with many gifted comedians, most of the mirth is in the take-my-husband-please borscht belt delivery. Obama has laid off a lot of the domestic complaints since her run-in with Dowd, but comes closest to the kind of "emasculating" riffs that made MoDo sniff when she tells one crowd, "I didn't marry [Barack] for all his degrees. Certainly he's made less money over the years, as my mother has pointed out."

Then there is the steady drumbeat of discontent about the process she's living through. "I'm not doing this because I'm married to him," she tells listeners again and again. "Because truly, this process is painful. If you have a choice, America, don't do this! Teach! Do something else. I tried to [tell] Barack -- there are so many ways to change the world. Let's do them!" In another version, she says, "I [didn't] want to run for president! Life was comfortable! It was safe! Nobody was takin' pictures of us!" This sing-it-sister refrain goes over well, in part because it's something with which everyone in her audience can relate. Who the hell would want to live this way? To give up their privacy, security, routine, all in a bid to watch their mate get attacked for a living and take on the most high-pressure, all-consuming job on the planet? It doesn't matter if Obama is black, if she is a Harvard Law grad, if she is wearing Jimmy Choos. She is communicating to her audience a reluctance that makes good common sense to them.

These moments of relatability give ballast to her big sell, that when push came to shove, she shelved her trepidation. "I took off the Michelle Obama hat," she says, "the selfish hat, the one that says 'no,' and put on my citizen hat, my hopeful hat, and realized that I want Barack Obama to lead me ... Even if it's inconvenient. We have to be bold."

Fifteen years after Bill Clinton rattled the country by announcing that thanks to his marriage to a policy wonk, it would be getting "two for the price of one," Michelle hits a similar note on her own behalf. If the nation elects Barack, she says, "I can guarantee you that you won't be disappointed. Not only will you get to hang out with me -- 'cause I'll be there; I'll go to the White House with him -- but we have a chance to fundamentally change this country."

At the senior center in Davenport, they're thrilled to hear about hanging out with her. She receives a chorus of affirmative "Uh-huhs" after nearly every statement, and when she's finished, the crowd of geriatric fans swarm her, putting her on the phone with their loved ones, having her pose with toddlers, the arm of a stuffed monkey draped around her neck. Sixty-two-year-old Mary Anderson, retired from Ford Motor Credit, tells me, "She reminds me of Jackie Onassis. She's a dignified, high-class lady."

And the truth is, for all her bitching and moaning, there are parts of this that she seems to enjoy -- for real. At the second stop on the tour, in an old opera house in De Witt, her husband's Iowa press aide Peter Weeks, who's along for this trip, watches her cheerily embrace nearly every woman who approaches her. "She's a hugger," he says, with weary appreciation.

During a break between speeches, what she refers to as "our quality time," Obama talks by phone to her sister-in-law, who is also campaigning in Iowa; she discusses a pair of boots available at Neiman Marcus with one of her staffers; she debates the pros and cons of BlackBerry use. Then someone rousts her from her brief repose to get her to go to the next event. She sighs. "This is another example of the hat thing," she tells me. "You just settle into something and then you have to get up and go somewhere and put on a different hat. It's the same with events. You settle into one crowd, and just when you're like, 'I'm so into this,' it's like, 'Oh, you gotta go to a different event!'"

At the midpoint of Obama's trip, at an hour when she is ordinarily home with her girls, she is on fire in Dubuque. She has visited with UAW members who the next day will vote to support her husband, before addressing a fundraiser for local politician Pam Jochum.

Ron Hughes, a small-business owner in Dubuque, tells me that he's a Joe Biden man through and through, and his wife, next to him, is totally apathetic about the political process. "She just comes for the socializing," Hughes assures me. But as Obama begins the most rollicking rendition of the stump speech that I will see on this visit, Hughes leans in to me and acknowledges, "I do like her sense of humor."

By the time Obama gets into the part about how fear is used to bully and divide us, Hughes' purportedly apathetic wife is nodding in assent, and leans in to her husband to say, "She's right on."

Tonight, Obama lingers on the cowardice of her husband's opponents in their votes for the Iraq war, arguing that Barack, though he was not yet in the Senate to cast a vote of his own, acted courageously by coming out against the invasion during his tight Illinois primary race. "That race looked a lot like this race," she says. "He wasn't supposed to win. He had a funny name, he was too young. We've heard it! Been there! Done that! But even in the middle of all that, he said no, the war was a bad idea."

She remains insistent -- despite the flak she's received for minimizing her husband's deity-like status -- on being realistic. "It's not that we're going to elect a president who will deliver us from evil," she tells the Jochum fundraiser. "We are our own evil. We have to be engaged and passionate." Without courage, she says, we will never get anywhere.

"I think I found my candidate," says Hughes' wife, 59-year-old Suzette, a retired physical therapist, as Obama receives a standing ovation. "I hadn't felt the need to make a decision until tonight. I hadn't been moved until tonight."

The next morning, Michelle is about an hour north of Dubuque, in a restaurant that overlooks a broad, sinuous Mississippi River. She's taking a fresh dig at George Bush as she discusses her husband's respect and passion for the Constitution, "something that would be nice in a president these days." The crowd is nodding enthusiastically at her.

While Michelle is hugging after the speech, I overhear a group of four women gossiping about the Clintons, speculating rather ungenerously about why Hillary might be running for president. One of the women, who is wearing a precinct captain button, boils down the differences between the former first family and the Obamas: "Michelle and Barack are like us," she says.

Before the next event, we stop at a Hardee's in Allamakee County. As Obama is filling her medium soda cup, she is approached excitedly by an elderly couple, the woman wearing an American flag hoodie. They are on their way to see her speak down the road and are beside themselves to catch her here first. "We just love you," they tell her.

When I tell Michelle over lunch about my surprise that so many people who apparently have nothing in common with her manage to see themselves reflected in her, she looks utterly unsurprised. She nods, and swallows her bite of cheeseburger before saying, "That's what I've been saying. They see beyond the surface to the core. They know we're real. We are so close to each other." Here she makes a small gesture with her forefinger and thumb, a gesture that reminds me -- in tone and content -- of Bill Clinton, who has taken in recent years to holding forth on how genetic research has shown us how much biology all human beings have in common, regardless of their outward diversity.

Talk turns to the quality of the Hardee's. This is a McDonald's-loyal group, but everyone is impressed. They like the curly fries; they like the table service; they like the Hawaiian chicken sandwich. Michelle surveys the table and hoists her eyebrows to dry perfection, appraising her charges-slash-baby sitters with unhidden amusement, and says, "In summary, I think we can safely say that we are all very pleased with our Hardee's experience."

Then she puts her cheeseburger down. "I shouldn't get too stuffed," she says, prompting some staff fantasies about belching during a stump speech. "Talk about real," she says. "That's a little too real."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

MORE FROM Rebecca Traister

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Bill Clinton Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton Michelle Obama