If anybody else had written it, the first hundred pages of Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming” would stand as a brief, but warm and fuzzy memoir of growing up on the black south side of Chicago. But Michelle Obama is NOT anybody else. She’s the wife of Barack Obama, the first black president, with all the weight and responsibility that carries.
You’d think the former first lady would seize the opportunity presented by her best selling memoir to educate her audience not just to the fact that people growing up on the south side frequently come from loving two parent families, that they grow up in cramped apartments, that they have aunties who give piano lessons, uncles who love jazz, that some of them get good grades, attend magnet high schools, end up in ivy league universities and Harvard Law School, but educate them just a little about the political realities governing the place she grew up.
Michelle Obama doesn’t do that. She tells us her loving and hard working father worked for the city’s water department, and that he was a Democratic precinct captain but she never connects the two. Every Chicagoan knows that water department employees and tens of thousands of other city and county workers, for decades before the seventies and decades afterward are obliged to walk the precincts election day and deliver assigned quotas of votes for what Chicagoans call the Machine. That’s what precinct captains and their helpers are. The captains who fail to deliver their quota lose those city jobs and are replaced with others who can deliver the vote. For forty-five out of fifty-five years Chicago was ruled by one or another mayor named Richard Daley, and deploying an army of patronage workers like Michelle’s father was how they and their stooges stayed in office. Little Michelle Robinson wouldn’t have known that, but by the time one becomes an adult in Chicago these facts are well known.
The other three quarters of her book, in which she meets her husband and he pursues a political career, is pretty unremarkable. She meets her husband to be at work, they get to know each other, they marry, he settles on a political career. He spends a few years as a state senator, is elected US senator from Illinois. They have children, and Barack Obama is elected president. She describes some key members of her husband’s political team, and her own support staff. She fulfills the duties of first lady, but is relieved when it’s time to campaign for a second term. She travels, she meets lots of people. She climbs into the limo with Trump’s wife for their inauguration, and the book ends where it began, some time in 2017.
Michelle Obama has lots of stories, but few if any lessons, and when it comes to her husband’s career, some of the stories aren’t even true. She depicts her husband’s path up to his run for president in 2007 as kind of aimless happenstance. She claims the notion of running for president didn’t surface till other people brought it up after Barack Obama’s “...there is no black America, there is no white America...” speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. This is wildly implausible.
I was one of the three field organizers at Project VOTE Illinois in 1992, and Barack Obama was our state director. Michelle Obama devotes a couple pages to Project VOTE in her memoir. After we registered more than 100,000 new voters and chased them out to the polls that November, the talk around Barack was that he would be running for the first open state senate seat on that part of the south side, the first open congressional seat on the south side, followed by a run for statewide office and a run for national office. As political organizers who’d had a hand in multiple Chicago mayoral campaigns and voter registration drives for 15 years by then, such a career arc seemed entirely plausible to us. That was around the Xmas holiday of 1992. If I heard it, then so did Michelle Obama. It’s not exactly the sort of plan one keeps from the wife.
Despite what Michelle Obama says in her book, by the time a politician is invited to deliver the keynote at the Democratic party’s national convention, as Barack was in 2004, one is firmly on the short list of that party’s prospects for the next presidential election.
Michelle Obama remembers that her feelings were hurt when Congressman Bobby Rush called her husband an “educated fool” in 1999 or early 2000. But she omits entirely the political context of Barack Obama’s 2000 run for Congress against Rush, the only electoral contest he managed to lose. By then, the Daley Machine had ruled Chicago for decades despite a fairly robust, longstanding and widespread political opposition. But that opposition didn’t have a mayoral candidate for 1999. Bobby Rush stepped forward to be the opposition’s mayoral candidate that year, even though he knew he couldn’t win. Obama’s primary election run against Congressman Rush the following year was widely perceived in Chicago as payback, a gesture of Daley’s displeasure against Bobby Rush. In return for his losing run though, Barack Obama was well rewarded indeed. His state senate district was redrawn to shed most of its ghetto precincts and replace them with some of the wealthiest areas in the city, really some of the wealthiest in the nation, making it easier to raise far more money when he chose to run for higher office.
The Obama memoir depicts her advocacy of healthy foods and the Obama’s “partnership” with Wal-Mart as an unalloyed good thing for ordinary people. As I pointed out back in 2012, it wasn’t.
“As the White House's resident advocate for healthy eating and exercise, Ms. Obama has leveraged her image as a priceless asset to Wal-Mart, endorsing its drive to penetrate new urban markets , crush competition, and gobble up even more public tax breaks and subsidies. But in the real world, more urban Wal-Marts, and giving more public subsidies and market share to the amoral company that already accounts for 27 cents of every dollar spent on groceries in this country is not so much the solution to urban “food deserts” as it is the solution to Wal-Mart's problem of how to raise that 27 cents to 30, 40 or 50 cents of every grocery dollar in its corporate coffers. That's the problem Michelle Obama is helping solve, not the problem of accessing decent food at reasonable prices.“
Michelle Obama is obviously an intelligent and well educated woman. But her education seems to have taught her faith and unquestioning acceptance of the power of elites, and how that power is wielded rather than to look for ways to put that power in the hands of the kind of ordinary people among whom she was raised. For the Michelle Obamas of this world, the sky is the limit, as far as personal ambition goes. But she freely manufactures excuses for her lack of faith in any uplift by collective effort. “Bitterness,” she says, and “cranky mistrust” of whites, are as much to blame for lack of black progress than anything which originates from above.
This serves to insulate the former first lady from the world the rest of us live and struggle in. It makes her not a very interesting person, with a memoir that should have ended after the first hundred or so pages. I’d give her book one star out of four.