The way they were

Michelle Obama in 1996: "I'm very wary of politics. I think he's too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the kind of skepticism."

By Amy Benfer

Published January 20, 2009 3:31PM (EST)

There's something wistful, charming, perhaps nostalgic -- even if the last sentiment is utterly unearned -- about visiting the short photo essay on Barack and Michelle Obama over at the New Yorker's Web site on the day we will inaugurate our 44th president. The pictures were taken in the couple's Hyde Park living room in 1996 by photojournalist Mariana Cook for a project she was doing on couples in America. (The photos didn't make it into the book, much, we imagine, to her publisher's retroactive chagrin.)

At the time, Barack was 34; Michelle, 32. He looks cool and laconic, utterly at ease; she's got her head slightly cocked and wears footless tights with, I think, Bass Weejuns and this badass mid-'90s cropped hair cut that makes her look tough and foxy. It reminds me that during those years, many of my friends and I had hair approximately the same length as those of our romantic partners. (They are just like us! But let's not flatter ourselves into believing that is the sum of their virtue or it somehow reflects on our own! ) When pressed in an interview to reflect on what she saw in them, Cook remembers that she liked to photograph writers, intellectuals, artists and other "people who think." "They would have been in my wider circle," she says.

That circle, at the time, would have put them among many smart, savvy urban couples who had done many things but who were still brimming with pure potential, who had most of their peaks still to come. He was not yet a politician but a young writer and university lecturer who had published his first book the previous year. "There’s a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear. There is a little tension with that," says Michelle, with characteristic frankness. "I'm very wary of politics. I think he's too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the kind of skepticism." (In fact, before the year ended, he would be elected to the Illinois state Senate, which suggests that either a deal was cut soon after, that the Illinois campaigning season is remarkably short or that the two already knew how to play coy about uncertain outcomes.)

Barack, not surprisingly for a man who had just written a memoir on the subject and whose mother had died less than a year before, was already clearly obsessed with family, both in the literal ways it defines our most personal lives, and the ways in which how we treat each other can be applied politically and metaphorically to a city, or a nation, or the world. "My over riding vision has to do with children," he told Cook (the full transcript of that conversation is only available on this separate podcast). In the selection available at the New Yorker, he says:

All my life, I have been stitching together a family, through stories or memories or friends or ideas. Michelle has had a very different background -- very stable, two-parent family, mother at home, brother and dog, living in the same house all their lives. We represent two strands of family life in this country -- the strand that is very stable and solid, and then the strand that is breaking out of the constraints of traditional families, travelling, separated, mobile. I think there was that strand in me of imagining what it would be like to have a stable, solid, secure family life.

But this interview was meant to explain the reasons why we fall in love and choose to couple -- not how we translate that into political policy. As such, the second part of his response is unabashedly romantic:

Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she’s walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her. And then what sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.

More than a dozen years later, I get the sense that even if these two had decided simply to take on responsibility and devotion to their own children (who had not yet been born), their families, their friends, their city and the usual human network of people who are loved and known, they would have led marvelous, meaningful, important lives.

But today, they take on the rest of us, too.


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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