People who loathe President Obama and his wife Michelle will resentfully skip right past this soaring bestseller. And I get that; most of us don’t go out of our way to digest tell-all books from the other side. But in this case, that’s a shame. Because “Becoming” is an aspirational biography written and shared with grace and honesty. On top of that, if you take the time to consider this life experience of one of your fellow citizens, if you’re fair-minded, you will concede that Michelle Robinson’s story is the essence of the pure American experience: work hard, seek excellence, offer to serve, and ask God to richly multiply your efforts.
If you’re mainly interested in the Obamas’ White House years, just know that only takes up the final third of her story. So there’s plenty of interesting stuff from her days as a kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago in an ordinary African-American household. This is the classic “local girl makes good” tale of a high schooler who worked her buns off to get into Princeton so she could prove wrong her guidance counselor who flat-out said: “You don’t have what it takes to get there.” Then landed jobs with top law firms, only to move on for half the pay because she thought she could do more for her community helping to build more accessible hospital systems and improve education.
One thing I appreciate about a book like this is how it dispels commonly held stereotypes. I’ll mention three. For eight years a meme floated around that the Obamas were “lazy”; that they endlessly vacationed and flew around on Air Force One. It’s true that she and her husband took a load of well-deserved heat when the Secret Service had to guard “Renegade” and “Renaissance” for a New York City “date” that was a major traffic inconvenience and expense. But in terms of workload, the reality is this. Every single evening, his team and hers sent binders up to the White House residence. His was admittedly larger, but staffers and experts daily prepared large briefing folders they had to go through.
So in the President’s case, he would dutifully have supper with his wife and kids. Then, after the three Obama ladies were in bed, President Obama would retire to a study. And almost nightly, between ten p.m. and 1:30 in the morning, he would study and bone up on issues, filling his mind with stats and anecdotes and trend lines and the latest intel from foreign hot spots. Michelle Obama writes with awe at how, from her first days dating this Chicago newcomer, he carried around a zest for learning, for determinedly absorbing important factoids and stats and the broad, unshakable themes of history.
Several times a week, again, well past midnight, he would carefully read through ten selected letters sent to him from ordinary citizens. “While the rest of us slept,” she confesses, “he took down the fences and let everything inside.”
(As an aside, I did once read a Republican exposé by press secretary Scott McClellan. Even though I didn’t vote for George W. Bush, and Scott’s book had its “tell-all” moments, he does describe his boss as being diligently prepared and hardworking when it came to studying for important cabinet meetings.)
The second canard it’s good to set aside is that the Obama family was somehow “unchristian.” The Rev. Wright scandal was a political mess, pure and simple, but it did lead to one of candidate Obama’s finest moments when he gave his Philadelphia speech on race. But she writes about the family always saying grace before meals, having special “Sunday School” moments for Malia and Sasha in the White House. One of the quietly poignant moments is how she describes lying in bed next to her husband. “Every night, I’d look over and see Barack lying with his eyes closed on the other side of the bed, quietly saying his prayers.” She admits with profound gratitude how citizens of all races and backgrounds regularly murmured to her: “We pray for you and your family every day.”
Thirdly, it’s wonderful to read all through these pages how the First Couple loved, appreciated, and lauded the many military heroes who heroically serve our nation in uniform. Michelle had endless meetings with soldiers and vets and their families; she describes holding hands with war wives and crying together as they shared a prayer. “What I saw of military life left me humbled,” she writes. “As long as I’d been alive, I’d n ever encountered the kind of fortitude and loyalty that I found in those [Walter Reed Hospital] rooms.”
In terms of writing style, it’s no secret Michelle Obama enjoys having a good team of collaborators around her to help make this a compelling story. The writing is crisp and interesting all the way through, infused with emotion, although I would have like to read more, for example, about how she and Barack felt when Mitt Romney creamed him in their first 2012 debate. Again, the Obamas’ two White House terms are described in just the last hundred pages or so, beginning with this vulnerable confession: “There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.” But all of it is warm, kind, and a powerful expression of what she hopes will always be an America – this unique place of opportunity – striving to be all that it ever can.