ROTTERDAM, April 19 -- Earlier this year, when President Obama announced from the East Room of the White House that he and his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters would travel to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches there, he said they did so “not just as a president or a first lady or as African-Americans, but as Americans.”
It was only the latest time Obama assured the nation that he represents all Americans, not just those who identify with him as the first black president. Three decades before, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, a Princeton University senior named Michelle Robinson read a book for her thesis about the challenges faced by black politicians — challenges that would later resurface again and again throughout the political career of her future husband. The authors, she wrote, “discuss problems which face these black officials who must persuade the white community that they are above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just black people.”In “Michelle Obama: A Life,” Peter Slevin quotes friends and colleagues who describe Mrs. Obama as “confident” and “poised” and “extremely articulate.” But she also comes across in this thoughtful biography as constantly searching and frequently torn between different worlds — not just black and white but also working-class and elite. In the early chapters of this portrait, race influences everything in Mrs. Obama’s life — from her family’s roots in slavery and segregation; to the Black Belt of Chicago with a street named after Emmett Till; to the South Shore Country Club that had not allowed African-Americans to join, but where, in 1992, the Obamas held their wedding reception.
Authors love to tap into the poetry found in the grit of Chicago, and Slevin, a former Washington Post correspondent, also seems taken by the city. (He now teaches journalism at Northwestern University, in nearby Evanston, Ill.) His book, which is based on extensive interviews with family members, friends, colleagues, former classmates and others close to Mrs. Obama, does not get into the first lady’s mixed-race ancestry, a topic deeply explored by the New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns in her book “American Tapestry,” but he provides just enough back story on Chicago’s racial strife and Mrs. Obama’s family, including her grandparents’ migration from the South to the city’s “Negro Belt.” Her paternal grandmother cleaned houses for white families in Hyde Park — the same neighborhood where, years later, the Obamas would live in a 6,500-square- foot mansion. “The deck was stacked, and it would remain that way well into Michelle’s lifetime,” Slevin writes.
Mrs. Obama, of course, has spoken at length about her working-class upbringing, but Slevin’s reporting lays out a compelling case that had there been no modest bungalow at 7436 South Euclid Avenue; no Marian Robinson tending to her children, Michelle and Craig; no Fraser Robinson who, after working the overnight shift tending boilers for the Cook County water plant for $858 a month, made breakfast for “Miche” and “Cat”; there might not now be a black first family in the White House.
At times, the recollections of the Robinson family in “Michelle Obama: A Life” read like a parenting manual for how to raise confident, high-achieving kids; it was that warmth and stability that Barack Obama, the son of a single, transient mother, craved, and it grounded him as he ascended in politics. “If Barack was a helium balloon,” Slevin writes, “Michelle was the one holding the string.” The descriptions of piano lessons and drama classes and church on Sunday and drives in the family’s Buick Electra 225 to explore wider (and whiter) Chicago make Mrs. Obama’s childhood sound like a South Side edition of “Leave It to Beaver.” Craig called it “the Shangri-La of upbringings.”
But racial tensions were never far away, and the first half of the book, which includes Mrs. Obama’s time at Princeton and Harvard Law School and as a young professional, is ripe with revelations about her deeply complicated relationship with her own position as an Ivy League-educated black woman. Ever since her childhood, she encountered the belief that because she was well read and educated, she somehow wasn’t black enough; at the same time, the white world didn’t make her feel entirely welcome either. During her freshman year at Princeton, the mother of her white roommate demanded a room change. (“I told them we weren’t used to living with black people,” this mother recalled.) Working at the prestigious Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, Michelle Robinson would stand “in her gleaming window,” Slevin writes, “and still not quite see the South Side.”
When critics questioned Mr. Obama’s commitment to African-Americans in his Senate campaign, Mrs. Obama shot back. “I’m as black as it gets,” she told an interviewer on Chicago television. “I was born on the South Side. I come from an obviously black family. . . . I put my blackness up against anybody’s blackness in this state, O.K., and Barack is a black man.”
All this provides richly rendered context for Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, when Mrs. Obama suddenly became a litmus test for the country’s views about black women. She was labeled “Barack’s Bitter Half” and “Mrs. Grievance.” Obama aides and critics pounced after she declared, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country,” and Republicans accused her of ranting against “whitey” in an explosive — and, it turned out, nonexistent — video.
Only when Mrs. Obama reaches the East Wing does Slevin’s narrative lose steam. By now readers know that she broke convention and posed for her first official White House portrait in a sleeveless Michael Kors sheath while standing in front of a painting of Thomas Jefferson. “Her blackness was all the more striking in juxtaposition with the painting of the nation’s third president, who owned slaves and fathered as many as six children with one of them,” Slevin writes, in what seems like a stretch to tie a traditional White House custom to the meatier parts of the biography.
He avoids Beltway gossip, but the biography is subtitled “A Life,” and by glossing over the high staff turnover and drama in Mrs. Obama’s East Wing, Slevin leaves the reader with an incomplete portrait. A quick nod to Mrs. Obama’s removal of her friend and fellow Chicagoan, Desiree Rogers, as White House social secretary, after a security breach at a state dinner, is used only to illustrate that the first lady is an exacting perfectionist. And the marital tensions that the Obamas once spoke about are hardly anywhere to be found beyond what has already been reported in existing accounts of the first couple, like “The Obamas,” by the Times writer Jodi Kantor.
When Mrs. Obama gets frustrated (and she must have felt that way more often than Slevin and the sympathetic voices he quotes let on), her husband reminds her that they’re “playing a long game here, and that change is hard and change is slow and it never happens all at once.” What’s left unsaid is how, in the long game of racial change, Mrs. Obama decided to make the jump from determined career woman who called out racial inequities to beloved “mom-in-chief,” fighting childhood obesity and jamming with a turnip on a Vine video.
Slevin says that Mrs. Obama saw in her predecessor, Laura Bush, a “level of freedom” that comes with being out of the White House, and she wants to write her own memoir about her time as first lady: “She told friends that she would have much to say when she no longer had to worry quite so much about the consequences.”
Perhaps in that book Mrs. Obama will feel freer to provide readers with a welcome dose of the pre-White House candor she demonstrated on the South Side of her youth.
MICHELLE OBAMA: A Life
By Peter Slevin
WASHINGTON, April 6 -- United States President Barack Obama has defended a framework nuclear understanding with Iran as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prevent a nuclear bomb and bring longer-term security to the Middle East, insisting the US will stand in defense of Israel.
In an interview with The New York Times, published on Sunday night, Obama argues the risks of a deal are far outweighed by potential gains if it deters Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations, since the US is a far superior military power who can protect its core security interests.
He said the US will make sure the deal does not threaten Israel's own military advantage.
The notion that Iran is undeterrable is "simply not the case," Obama said.
"And so for us to say, 'Let's try' - understanding that we're preserving all our options, that we're not naive - but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies."
'Committed to Israel'
Obama added that he was "absolutely committed" to making sure Israel maintains "their qualitative military edge" and was willing to make clear that "if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them."
Obama expressed concern about how the talks have strained US-Israel relations, indicating how he takes it personally when he's accused of being anti-Israel.
"Part of what has always made the US-Israeli relationship so special is that it has transcended party, and I think that has to be preserved. There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as ... opposing Israel."
Obama's comments came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the US on Sunday to seek a better deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme and US Senate Republicans pressed their demand that the US Congress be allowed to vote on the agreement.
Netanyahu engages in US
Netanyahu has been strongly critical of the deal struck on Thursday in Switzerland, saying it threatens the survival of Israel. Netanyahu said he has spoken with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress - nearly two thirds of House of Representatives members and a similar number in the US Senate - about the Iran nuclear issue.
In appearances on US television on Sunday, Netanyahu did not repeat his assertion on Friday that any final agreement should include a commitment by Iran recognising Israel's right to exist.
But, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union" programme, he said of the deal, "This is not a partisan issue. This is not solely an Israeli issue. This is a world issue because everyone is going to be threatened by the pre-eminent terrorist state of our time, keeping the infrastructure to produce not one nuclear bomb but many, many nuclear bombs down the line."