Thursday, October 03, 2019

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

When Michelle Obama was supporting her husband's bid to be president of the USA, she used to tell her own story. Growing up in a "cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago", as the blurb on her autobiography puts it, she could never have dreamed of where she'd end up. But her story and that of her husband, she argues, is proof that we can achieve anything with hard work and hope.

In that aspirational message, Becoming reminded me of Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, a life story just as inspiring and daunting. Except that Obama is writing as her husband's successor attempts to expunge all trace of what was achieved in those years in office. Obama does not mince her words about Trump: her horror directed not just at him but at the part of America that embraced him. Other adversaries go unnamed or she reconciles with later. Her hostility to Trump is in notable contrast to the friendships made across the political divide, such as with the Bush family, or across national and social boundaries such as with the Queen.

She doesn't make a link but I did to the one other person to whom she gives no quarter. Taking us through the night that her husband had Osama Bin Laden killed, she details the delight and excitement she shared with others in the White House and beyond, the vindication she felt for the wounded soldiers and their families she'd encountered up to that point.
"I'm not sure anyone's death is a reason to celebrate. But what America got that night was a moment of release, a chance to feel its own resilience." (p. 364) 
For all Obama says she's "not sure" about celebrating his death, she has no doubts about the killing itself. Elsewhere, she is open about her uncertainties - whether Barack should stand in the first place, what being in office has done to their children's lives. I was struck by her frankness about fertility treatment, the grim practicalities of Clomid and IVF. There's the slips in her speeches, seized upon by her critics. There's the time when she can't face the grieving community after yet another shooting. And then there's this extraordinary, awful acknowledgement - guilt - that the rise of the right in America is in some ways directly personal.
"For more than six years now, Barack and I had lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation ... Our presence in the White House had been celebrated by millions of Americans, but it also contributed to a reactionary sense of fear and resentment among others. The hatred was old and deep and as dangerous as ever." (p. 397)
Yet she remains optimistic, even to the end. Becoming challenges the reader to step up and make a difference, and offers fascinating insight into the practicalities of public office. We learn how she managed her image and needed lessons in smiling, how she decided what she and her children would wear on stage, how she created her own role as First Lady. There's the difficulty of having a date night when your husband is president, or the strange feeling of addressing a huge crowd from behind a shield of bullet-proof glass.

In fact, the security involved is the most telling detail of life in the White House. Obama is daunted by her first sight of the presidential motorcade. Obama explains how difficult all that fanfare is for doing simple things like looking at potential schools for her children, or letting them go for ice cream with friends. She tells us about the challenge of finding a way out of the White House one particular night, the usual door locked even to her. On another occasion, she shares details of a nightmare in which animals roam the grounds of the building and attack her daughters.

One detail stuck with me. The White House is so heavily defended, its walls and windows so secure, that she couldn't hear the Marine One helicopter when it landed right outside.
"I usually figured out that Barack had arrived home from a trip not by the sound of his helicopter but rather by the smell of its fuel, which somehow manage to permeate." (p. 398) 

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