Sun, Jan 25, 2009 - Page 14 News List

[ HARDCOVER: US ]: Who is Michelle Obama?

‘Michelle: A Biography,’ which is mostly a compendium of the known record, portrays America’s new first lady as a hard-working girl-next-door type


VIEW THIS PAGE Barack and Michelle Obama spent two years on the campaign trail as he ran for president, but in many ways the US is still getting to know them.

Collectively, Americans seem eager to know them better, judging from the big ratings their television interviews garner. For those who want to know more about Barack, there are several biographies as well as his own books: the memoir Dreams From My Father and the more politically oriented essays of The Audacity of Hope.

But for those interested in Michelle Obama, there are noticeably fewer choices. One early entrant is Michelle, by Washington Post feature writer Liza Mundy.

The catch here is that the Obamas did not cooperate with this one. Far from it. Mundy wrote an article for the online magazine Slate puzzling over the fact that the Obamas seemed to have actively discouraged friends and family from talking to her. It is puzzling, because Michelle is a friendly biography that portrays the next first lady as a likable, smart, girl-next-door type.

Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson in 1964, she was raised by loving parents rooted in Chicago’s black community. Mundy gives particular attention to the historical events affecting her South Side neighborhood, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the racial unrest of the 1960s.

Encouraged to be a high achiever by her parents, Michelle Robinson attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, an integrated school where she served as a class officer. She then headed off to the Ivy League, completing her undergraduate degree at Princeton University, followed by Harvard Law School. Mundy is particularly good at depicting the campus culture wars of the 1980s, though there are big gaps in what Michelle said or thought about the issues of the day.

After law school, she worked at an elite Chicago law firm, where she met her future husband. She resisted him at first because she suspected, based on the office buzz about a whiz kid from Hawaii, that he might be “nerdy, strange, off-putting.”

It’s about the early years of their relationship that Michelle offers the most insight. Mundy depicts her as being as charismatic and ambitious as her future husband and just as concerned with public service and social change.

The details of her professional career demonstrate a continuing line of civic-minded work: She left the law firm to join the mayoral administration of Richard M. Daley, after being recruited by Valerie Jarrett, now one of Barack Obama’s closest advisers. She left city government to work more directly in public service as the executive director of Public Allies, an organization that trains young people to work in the nonprofit sector.

Michelle then worked for the University of Chicago Hospitals as a community affairs liaison, helping the university organize volunteers and expand contracts with women- and minority-owned firms, and conducting neighborhood outreach programs.

Finally, Mundy tackles the US presidential campaign, though the book was published just before the election and so does not include Barack Obama’s victory.

Although undoubtedly sympathetic to Michelle Obama, Mundy forthrightly addresses charges from her critics, including the flap when she said, “For the first time in my adult life I am really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.”

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