On October 9, 2012, Jodi Kantor of the New York Times visited Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Moderated by Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the foundation, the talk centered on The Obamas, Kantor’s book published in January, and the political transformation of First Lady Michelle Obama
Michelle in the East Wing
Kantor, whose main beat at the New York Times is the White House and its residents, described the subject of her book as a first family suddenly bewildered by the “foreign environment” of their new home, as well as the process through which they gradually adapted to and molded the White House to their own style of living. According to Kantor, Barack and Michelle, neither of whom are fans of political life in general, were challenged with a highly polarized White House and uncomfortably tight image management.
Kantor gave special emphasis to the value of exploring Michelle Obama’s role in the White House, discussing how she fundamentally, yet subtly, changed the image of First Lady by astutely navigating the political stage through innocuous “mom activities,” such as her “Let’s Move” program. Michelle Obama was quietly straightforward about the traditions that she did not want to continue as First Lady, such as introducing the china at the beginning of each state dinner. And, she was confident in replacing them with programs she did want to pursue, such as bringing in inter-city youth into the White House on a regular basis.
Tension and Frustration
But the First Lady’s career in the White House hasn’t only been flowery. Kantor discussed Michelle’s frustration at having to carry out official “First Lady duties,” such as speaking at galas, parties, and other prestigious gatherings, when she wanted to make time for more community-based gatherings and unrecognized organizations, as well as the tension this causes among the members of her staff. Michelle also wrestles with balancing out her fashion to be both First Lady-like and approachable, especially since efforts to depict the former attract criticisms about her enormous fashion budget and the latter incessant questions about appropriateness.
Kantor’s discussion of the constant pressure Michelle Obama is put under-whether it is from the eyes of the millions of Americans watching both her public and private life, or from the constant suppression of her real passions, style, and preferences in the name of image management–raises important questions about where to place the boundaries between the public figure as a human being and the public. Does the enormous amount of pressure and stress that our public figures and politicians experience concerning their public image say anything about us as a nation? How do we balance our attention between public figures as real people and public figures as the movers and shakers of our society?
When Does a Lot of Attention Become Too Much?
The two extreme ends of the spectrum are fairly straightforward. When Anthony Weiner was caught “sexting,” that was enough of an implication about his character to pluck him out of his congressional seat. On the other hand, few of us are likely to want to keep tabs on whether Obama’s daughters had another good day at school. But what about the countless cases between these extremes?
Kantor’s example of Michelle Obama provides some wisdom in this field. In Kantor’s account of Michelle Obama’s process of adaptation to the role of First Lady, we see an unfortunate trade-off between Michelle’s potential to truly revolutionize the East Wing and the priority of up-keeping tradition. A figure like Michelle Obama has been rare, and perhaps unprecedented, in the seat of First Lady; she is not only a Harvard-educated lawyer, but also one in an incredibly small population of prominent African American female professionals.
Her efforts to break out of the quiet and smiling image molded by her predecessors to a more proactive First Lady, however, have been thrown off by the discomforting amount of media attention on the day-to-day minutia of her private life. One can only imagine how difficult it must be to move forward and make useful and effective contributions to the nation while worrying about keeping every single meal, outfit, vacation, conversation, and facial expression under perfect control for a flawless public image.
The Broken Brake
Without a doubt, character and qualities as a human being are important when it comes to judging and evaluating our public figures. Meanwhile, modern technology and the rise of the Internet have wrecked society’s brake on our excessive level of interest on the most private facets of these people’s lives. This behavior inhibits the realization of promising agendas and the potential for a genuinely positive and forward-moving contribution to society.
Becoming a “public” figure in the full meaning of the word and accepting the consequences of that fact is part of the deal when someone enters the public sphere. However, we must also remember that the power of their positions and their large followings put our public figures in the unique position of either taking bold moves to advance society, or to simply hold back. Therefore, it is important that, just as we demand their service and contribution to our society, we support and trust our political figures, thereby empowering them to make the meaningful changes that they believe will benefit our society.
photo credit: Christopher Dilts, Obama for America