Journalist Jodi Kantor first got to know the Obamas at the start of the 2008 Presidential campaign, when she began working the Washington beat for the New York Times. Reporting from Chicago and the campaign trail, part of Kantor’s work focused on the Obamas as a family new to the spotlight of presidential politics and, later, adjusting to a radically different life inside the White House. In The Obamas (Little, Brown), Kantor expands on her personal-is-political approach to provide a look at the evolving relationships among the Obama family, the White House, and the Presidency. Tip Sheet spoke over the phone with Kantor from her Brooklyn home.
How did this project come about?
I had been covering the Obamas since 2007, and I was approached a few times during the campaign about doing a book. The stories I was doing were a little bit different than a lot of the other things being written. I was really working on where [the Obamas] were in their lives, who these people really are and what their reaction is to the process they’re undergoing. Late in 2009 I finally knew what I wanted to write a book about—to write a reported book, what you need is a question that you don’t know the answer to. My question, I realized, was “What is happening to these two people in the White House?” I knew it was such a dramatic shift for them: I immersed myself in their Chicago world, and then when I visited the White House I saw how different the places were. It was a transformation, from being pretty regular people to being President and First Lady of the United States.
What kind of access did you have to the First Couple and the White House?
Most of the information in the book comes from more than 30 current and former White House advisers and the Obamas’ closest friends. Not to my surprise, the White House did not let me in [to interview the President], in part because I had a huge interview with them in 2009, where I sat with them for 40 minutes. I think [that restriction] really goes to one of the themes of the book: there’s so much they can’t talk about and so much they can’t share, it’s one of the reasons [average Americans] don’t know that much about what the White House is really like. Another is that the people who lived there are never given to complain, lest they appear ungrateful. So part of the important process of the book was getting an accurate picture of the place. The book is absolutely about taking readers into a world that most of us don’t understand that well, going beyond the images we see on TV—speeches, state dinners, The West Wing. I was, however, the first author to be given access to the East Wing, which is the First Lady’s sphere.
What’s unique about the Obamas among other recent First Couples?
The speed of their lives. Think of George and Laura Bush: George Bush Senior had been vice president for eight years, president for four years. When they entered the White House, this was a world very familiar to them. The Obamas are the extreme opposite: they did not come from privilege, Obama was an insurgent candidate for President, Michelle lived a normal life until the start of the presidential campaign, and even a couple months in. They’re outsiders from Chicago, the world [of D.C.] is pretty new to them, and—by the way—they’re the first African-American First Couple. So the book is the story of their adjustment to a really new and unusual place. It does have some real elements of a classic narrative, where someone arrives in a new place and, as that character discovers it, we discover it through their eyes and their experiences.
In your estimation, who is the bigger star of the book: President Obama or First Lady Michelle?
That’s another way this book is very different from the traditional presidential biography, the First Lady gets equal time. There has not yet been that much serious nonfiction on Michelle Obama. Liza Mundy wrote a really good biography during the presidential campaign, but that was before she got into the White House. But [The Obamas] is really about the President and the First Lady, you get to watch them as a pair but you also see how the President’s experience is different form the First Lady’s, their differing reactions to things. Reporting on both of them at once was a challenge, but it really made my reporting richer. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers said Michelle walked away with it.