Last June I profiled Michelle Obama for a cover story that appeared in October’s issue of More. Because the magazine’s target readership is women over 40, and the Obama campaign was still, at that time, somewhat concerned about winning over disaffected Hillary-ites in that demographic, I had better than usual access: time on the campaign trail during and after the primaries, a one-hour, wide-ranging sit-down interview in Chicago and a meeting with Michelle’s remarkable mother, Marian Robinson.
But one revealing moment came outside of the on-the-record sessions, when I hung around as a fly on the wall to observe the photo shoot for the magazine’s cover. Matthew Rolston, a renowned glamour photographer, had set up a makeshift studio in a Chicago hotel suite near the Obama campaign offices and, as his squad of assistants tweaked lighting and backdrops, the magazine’s fashionistas fluttered nervously around a garment bag. “Do you think we can open it before she gets here?” one asked. “I’m dying to see...”
She is smart enough and subtle enough to have worked out that so-called Mom issues can make for meaty public policy.
The reason for the angst: Michelle Obama had insisted on wearing her own clothes for the shoot, “even though,” lamented the fashion director “I had designers in New York ready to jump out windows for the chance to make something for her.” Eventually, under the guise of checking to see if the clothes needed pressing, the bag was unzipped to reveal two Maria Pinto sleeveless, knee-length sheaths. One was a tone-on-tone appliquéd organza in aubergine and rich brown, the other a plain, extremely vivid fuschia crepe with a purple satin bow affixed to the round neckline. The fashionistas murmured approvingly over the subtle beauty of the first dress but concurred that the pink was a better “sell’ for the cover.
But that bow! Their collective noses crinkled. “Do you think we could ask her to lose that? Who could we get to, like, ask her?” They worked the room, trying to recruit one of Michelle’s regulars—her local Chicago hairdresser or makeup artist. Whomever they got to make the anti-bow demarche, it was unsuccessful. As she draped her almost-six foot frame into effortless poses, the purple bow was right there, front and center. The fashionistas peered anxiously at Rolston’s computer as the images came up. “The bow!” they quelled. “It’s just right! Look how it draws the eye to her face!”
The point of this long-winded anecdote is not to add more fuel to the bonfire of the vanities surrounding the fact that, my God, we’re finally gonna’ have another first lady like Jackie who knows how to dress. The point is twofold: Michelle seems to be able to do everything she sets her mind to, and to do it at a high level of excellence. And, more importantly: she knows this, and isn’t about to be “handled” into any role in which she is not supremely confident and comfortable.
So why then has she gone out of her way to stress the Mom-in-Chief bit? Why hide her Harvard and Princeton exceptionalism —as she did in her convention speech, and again in her weekend appearance on 60 Minutes—and highlight her common-Mom interests in the Dick Van Dyke Show and (lord help us) The Brady Bunch?
I think it is because she is smart enough and subtle enough to have worked out that so-called Mom issues can make for meaty public policy. Take lead paint on toys: nice, hamesh-sounding thing for a Mom to care about, right? Not very threatening; not very surprising if a First Lady were to take that up. Oh, and it gives you a way to discuss globalization, free trade, the environment, public health and consumer protection legislation.
Military families? That’s a twofer. It’s all about parents and kids, and it’s highly patriotic. But start talking about better mental health support for veterans and you’re soon into the real costs of this disaster of a war, the whole terrible litany of scrambled brain tissues and shredded emotional lives. It’s the perfect show-don’t-tell way to support your husband’s policy of exiting the mess as soon as possible.
Work-family balance? What is that, really, but a polite way of putting the feminist agenda of equal pay and decent child care back on the table after so many years of neglect?
East Wing office or West Wing office, it isn’t going to matter. Michelle has already positioned herself to be as much a player in her husband’s administration as she wants to be. Which, I suspect, is quite a lot.
The woman’s a fox, in more ways than one.
Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who worked for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a writer with a special interest in environmental issues. Brooks has worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March , and her novel Year of Wonders is an international bestseller. She is the author of Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence .