On the occasion of her new memoir, Becoming, the former ﬁrst lady opens up to close friend Oprah Winfrey about love, leadership, and her inspiring journey from the South Side of Chicago to the White House and beyond.
Tunic, Proenza Schouler. Earrings, Jennifer Fisher. Necklace, Sophie Buhai
Oprah Winfrey: First, let me just say: Nothing makes me happier than sitting down with a good read. So when I realised—in the preface!—what an extraordinary book was coming, I was so proud of you. You landed it. The book is tender, it is compelling, it is powerful, it is raw. Millions of people have been wondering how you’re doing, how’s the transition, and I think there’s no better example than the toast story. Can you share the toast story?
Michelle Obama: Well, I start the preface right at one of the first weeks after we moved into our new home after the transition—our new home in Washington, a couple miles away from the White House. It’s a beautiful brick home, and it’s the first regular house, with a door and a doorbell, that I have had in about eight years.
OW: Eight years.
MO: And so the toast story is about one of the first nights I was alone there—the kids were out, Malia was on her gap year, I think Barack was travelling, and I was alone for the first time. As first lady, you’re not alone much. There are people in the house always, there are men standing guard. There is a house full of SWAT people, and you can’t open your windows or walk outside without causing a fuss.
OW: You can’t open a window?
MO: Can’t open a window. Sasha actually tried one day—Sasha and Malia both. But then we got the call: “Shut the window.”
MO: So here I am in my new home, just me and [my dogs] Bo and Sunny, and I do a simple thing. I go downstairs and open the cabinet in my own kitchen—which you don’t do in the White House because there’s always somebody there going, “Let me get that. What do you want? What do you need?”—and I made myself toast. Cheese toast. And then I took my toast and I walked out into my backyard. I sat on the stoop, and there were dogs barking in the distance, and I realised Bo and Sunny had really never heard neighbour dogs. They’re like, “What’s that?” And I’m like, “Yep, we’re in the real world now, fellas.”
OW: In reading the book, I can see how every single thing you’ve done in your life has prepared you for the moments and years ahead. I do believe this.
MO: That’s if you think about it that way. If you view yourself as a serious person in the world, every decision that you make really does build to who you are going to become.
OW: Yes, and I could see that from you in the first grade. You were an achiever with an A+++ attitude.
MO: Yeah. Looking back, I realised there was something about me that understood context. My parents gave us the freedom to have thoughts and ideas very early on.
OW: They basically let you and [your brother] Craig figure it out?
MO: Oh, gosh, yeah, they did. And what I realised was that achievement mattered, and that kids would get tracked early, and that if you didn’t demonstrate ability—particularly as a black kid on the South Side from a working-class background—then people were already ready to put you in a box of underachievement. I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t a hardworking kid. I didn’t want them to think I was “one of those kids”. The “bad kids.” There are no bad kids; there are bad circumstances.
OW: You mention this phrase that I like so much, I think it should be on a T-shirt or something. “Failure,” you say, “is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.” Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. You knew this when?
MO: Oh, first grade. I could see my neighbourhood changing around me. We moved there in the 1970s. We lived with my great-aunt in a very little apartment over a home she owned. She was a teacher, and my great-uncle was a Pullman porter, so they were able to purchase a home in what was then a predominantly white community. Our apartment was so small that what was probably the living room was divided up into three “rooms”. Two were for me and my brother; each fit a twin bed, and it was just wood panelling that separated us—there was no real wall, we could talk right between us. Like, “Craig?” “Yep?” “I’m up. You up?” We would throw a sock over the panelling as a game.
OW: The picture you paint so beautifully in Becoming is that the four of you—you, Craig, and your parents—each was a corner of a square. Your family was the square.
MO: Yes, absolutely. We lived a humble life, but it was a full life. We didn’t require much, you know? If you did well, you did well because you wanted to. A reward was maybe pizza night or some ice cream. But the neighbourhood was predominantly white when we moved in, and by the time I went to high school, it was predominantly African-American. And you started to feel the effects in the community and the school. This notion that kids don’t know when they’re not being invested in—I’m here to tell you that as a first grader, I felt it.
Michelle Obama in conversation with Oprah Winfrey.
OW: You say your parents invested in you. They didn’t own their own home. They didn’t vacation.
MO: They invested everything in us. My mum didn’t go to the hairdresser. She didn’t buy herself new clothes. My father was a shift worker. I could see my parents sacrificing for us.
OW: Did you know at the time it was sacrifice?
MO: Our parents didn’t guilt-trip us, but I had eyes, you know? I saw my father going to work in that uniform every day.
OW: Your father drove a Buick Electra 225. So did my father.
MO: We had our little aspirational moments when we’d get in the [car] and drive to the nicer neighbourhoods and look at the homes. But the Buick Electra for my father represented more than just a car because my father was disabled. He had MS (multiple sclerosis), and he had trouble walking for quite some time. That car was his wings.
MO: There was power in that car. I call it a little capsule that we could be in and see the world in a way we normally couldn’t.
OW: So after high school, you went to Princeton and then Harvard Law School. And then you joined this prestigious law firm in Chicago. Now, this—when I read this, I put three circles around it and two stars—you write, “I hated being a lawyer.”
MO: It took a lot to be able to say that out loud to myself. In the book, I take you on the journey of who that little striving star getter became, which is what a lot of hard-driving kids become: A box checker. Get good grades: Check. Apply to the best schools, get into Princeton: Check. Get there, what’s your major? Uh, something that’s going to get me good grades so I can get into law school, I guess? Check. Get through law school: Check. I wasn’t a swerver. I wasn’t somebody who was going to take risks. I narrowed myself to being this thing I thought I should be. It took loss—losses in my life that made me think, “Have you ever stopped to think about who you wanted to be?” And I realised I had not. I was sitting on the 47th floor of an office building, going over cases and writing memos.
OW: What I loved about it is, it says to every person reading the book: You have the right to change your mind.
MO: Oh, gosh, yeah.
OW: Were you afraid?
MO: I was scared to death. You know, my mother didn’t comment on the choices that we made. She was live-and-let-live. So one day she’s driving me from the airport after I was doing document production in Washington, D.C., and I was like, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I can’t sit in a room and look at documents.” I won’t get into what that is, but it’s deadly. Deadly. Document production. So I shared with her in the car: I’m just not happy. I don’t feel my passion. And my mother—my uninvolved, live-and-let-live mother—said, “Make the money, worry about being happy later.” I was like [gulps], “Oh. Okay.” Because how indulgent that must have felt to my mother.
MO: When she said that, I thought, “Wow—what—where did I come from, with all my luxury and wanting my passion?” The luxury to even be able to decide—when she didn’t get to go back to work and start finding herself until after she got us into high school. So, yes. It was hard. And then I met this guy Barack Obama.
OW: Barack Obama.
MO: He was the opposite of a box checker. He was swerving all over the place.
OW: You write, about meeting him: “I’d constructed my existence carefully, tucking and folding every loose and disorderly bit of it, as if building some tight and airless piece of origami… He was like a wind that threatened to unsettle everything.” At first you didn’t like being unsettled.
MO: Oh, God, no.
OW: This I love so much—a moment that cracks me up: “I woke one night to find him staring at the ceiling, his profile lit by the glow of streetlights outside. He looked vaguely troubled, as if he were pondering something deeply personal. Was it our relationship? The loss of his father? ‘Hey, what are you thinking about over there?’ I whispered. He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just thinking about income inequality.’”
MO: That’s my honey.
OW: You really let us into the relationship. I mean, down to the proposal and everything. You also write about some major differences between the two of you in the early years of your marriage. You say: “I understood it was nothing but good intentions that would lead him to say, ‘I’m on my way!’ or ‘Almost home!’”
The former ﬁrst lady in the Red Room of the White House, photographed by Jason Schmidt for the November 2010 issue of BAZAAR U.S.
MO: Oh, gosh, yes.
OW: “And for a while, I believed those words. I’d give the girls their nightly bath but delay bedtime so that they could wait up to give their dad a hug.” And then you describe this scene where you’d waited up: He says, “I’m on my way, I’m on my way.” He doesn’t come. And then you turn out the lights—I could hear them click off, the way you wrote it. MO: Mm-hmm.
OW: Those lights click, you went to bed. You were mad.
MO: I was mad. When you get married and you have kids, your whole plan, once again, gets upended. Especially if you get married to somebody who has a career that swallows up everything, which is what politics is.
MO: Barack Obama taught me how to swerve. But his swerving sort of—you know, I’m flailing in the wind. And now I’ve got two kids, and I’m trying to hold everything down while he’s travelling back and forth from Washington or Springfield. He had this wonderful optimism about time. [Laughs] He thought there was way more of it than there really was. And he would fill it up constantly. He’s a plate-spinner—plates on sticks, and it’s not exciting unless one’s about to fall. So there was work we had to do as a couple. Counselling we had to do to work through this stuff. OW: So what was the argument, or the conversation, that got you to say yes to him running for the presidency? You mention in the book that every time someone would ask him, he’d say, “Well, it’s a family decision.” Which was code for “If Michelle says I can, I can.” MO: Imagine having that burden. Could he, should he, would he. That happened when he wanted to run for State Senate [in Illinois]. And then he wanted to run for Congress. Then he was running for the U.S. Senate. I knew that Barack was a decent man. Smart as all get-out. But politics was ugly and nasty, and I didn’t know that my husband’s temperament would mesh with that. And I didn’t want to see him in that environment. But then on the flip side, you see the world and the challenges that the world is facing. The longer you live and read the paper, you know that the problems are big and complicated. And I thought, “Well, what person do I know who has the gifts that this man has?” The gifts of decency, first and foremost, of empathy second, of high intellectual ability. This man reads and remembers everything, you know? Is articulate. Had worked in the community. And really passionately feels like, “This is my responsibility.” How do you say no to that? So I had to take off my wife hat and put on my citizen hat.
OW: Did you feel pressure being the first black family?
MO: Uh, duh! [Laughs]
OW: Uh, duh. Because we’ve all been raised with, “You’ve gotta work twice as hard to get half as far.” Before you came out, I was saying, “She’s meticulous, not a misstep.”
MO: Do you think that was an accident?
OW: I know it was no accident. But did you feel the pressure of that?
MO: We felt the pressure from the minute we started to run. First of all, we had to convince our base that a black man could win. It wasn’t even winning over Iowa. We first had to win over black people. Because black people like my grandparents—they never believed this could happen. They wanted it. They wanted it for us. But their lives had told them, “No. Never.” Hillary was the safer bet for them, because she was known.
MO: Opening hearts up to the hope that America would put down its racism for a black man—I think that hurt too much. It wasn’t until Barack won Iowa that people thought, “Okay. Maybe so.” OW: There’s a section in the book that certain news channels are going to have a field day with. You write about Donald Trump stoking the false notion that your husband was not born in this country. You write: “Donald Trump, with his loud and reckless innuendos, was putting my family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.” Why was it important for you to say that at this time?
MO: Because I don’t think he knew what he was doing. For him it was a game. But the threats and security risks that you face as the Commander-in-Chief, not even within your own country but around the world, are real. And your children are at risk. In order for my children to have a normal life, even though they had security, they were in the world in a way that we weren’t. And to think that some crazed person might be ginned up to think my husband was a threat to the country’s security; and to know that my children, every day, had to go to a school that was guarded but not secure, that they had to go to soccer games and parties, and travel, and go to college; to think that this person would not take into account that this was not a game—that’s something that I want the country to understand. I want the country to take this in, in a way I didn’t say out loud, but I am saying now. It was reckless, and it put my family in danger, and it wasn’t true. And he knew it wasn’t true. OW: Yeah.
MO: We had a bullet shot at the Yellow Oval Room during our tenure in the White House. A lunatic came and shot from Constitution Avenue. The bullet hit the upper-left corner of a window. I see it to this day: The window of the Truman Balcony, where my family would sit. That was really the only place we could get outdoor space. Fortunately, nobody was out there at the time. The shooter was caught. But it took months to replace that glass, because it’s bombproof glass. I had to look at that bullet hole, as a reminder of what we were living with every day.
OW: You end the book by talking about what will last. And one of the things that has lasted with you, you say, is the sense of optimism: “I continue, too, to keep myself connected to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leader, or news story—and that’s optimism. For me, this is a form of faith, an antidote to fear.” Do you feel that same sense of optimism for our country? For who we are, as a nation, becoming?
MO: Yes. We have to feel that optimism. For the kids. We’re setting the table for them, and we can’t hand them crap. We have to hand them hope. Progress isn’t made through fear. We’re experiencing that right now. Fear is the coward’s way of leadership. But kids are born into this world with a sense of hope and optimism. No matter where they’re from. Or how tough their stories are. They think they can be anything because we tell them that. So we have a responsibility to be optimistic. And to operate in the world in that way.
OW: You feel optimistic for our country?
MO: [Tears up] We have to be.
Photographed by Miller Mobley.
Styled by Meredith Koop
PHOTOGRAPHY: CHUCK KENNEDY; JASON SCHMIDT/TRUNK ARCHIVE.
MAKEUP: CARL RAY.
HAIR: YENE DAMTEW