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December 31, 2012

The Obamas

by Jodi Kantor

It's tough for me to read and write about politics -- my natural inclination is to attempt to see both sides and not to offend, and politics is just one of those spheres where it's difficult to do either. So it's with a bit of trepidation that I report back on Jodi Kantor's portrait of the First Couple, The Obamas¹. Mainly, I'm reminded why I largely prefer to view politics through a long-reporting lens rather than the day-to-day nonsense, picking up much of my news about what's going on in the world through the New York Times Magazine.

I made a few notes to myself as I read this book about things that really irritated me -- in particular, one passage stood out where Michelle Obama was assailed for her clothing choices generally and in one specific instance, where she wore relatively expensive designer French sneakers to a charity event where she worked for a day in a soup kitchen or something similar. And I thought, "Really? Are we at a point in our politics where someone can do something nice for people in need, and people who weren't out there doing something nice for people in need can snipe from the sidelines?" The fact that a First Lady chooses to spend her own money on nice clothes should not be an object of derision. I felt this way many, many times in the reading of this book. Our partisan politics are poisonous in this country, and all I feel on those occasions where I'm confronted by it a mixture of rage and sorrow, largely on behalf of my children, who will bear the brunt tomorrow of the ineffectiveness of our governing bodies today.

Largely this book speaks to the relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama and how it has changed in response to the political pressures of Washington over the course of the last four years, touching briefly on his earlier history as a Senator and a campaigning contender. We get a sense of the couple learning how to live in the White House, and I was particularly struck by how uniquely strange that building is, as a combination of residence, office/seat of the executive, and museum complete with guided tours daily. I literally can't fathom the real experience of being a President or in the First Family but Kantor goes a long way to making it real to me. It feels like a complete portrait of both the First Couple and by extension the unique position of all First Families.

There's been a lot in film criticism this year remarking on the grit and push-and-pull of politics as represented in Stephen Spielberg's latest, Lincoln, which I had encountered in Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team of Rivals a few years back. It seems to me that there has always been a certain amount of bombast and viciousness to our political process. But there seems to be more spillover into the general populace these days, and I think that's largely down to the media -- not because of any bias² but because of the continuous news cycle which gives any and every bullshit remark an outlet, and generally an unconsidered one.

In times past, when news wasn't immediate, there was time for a more measured response, and indeed reporters would have time to research comments before issuing them in the press. Recently my sons and I watched All the President's Men and I was struck by the high standards of journalism required by (Jason Robards's) Ben Bradlee and (Jack Warden's) Harry Rosenfeld -- and how that bled down into the reporters themselves, who had to constantly ask themselves whether they "had" the story, whether it held up to scrutiny. Today, whenever someone says something outrageous, the story seems only to be whether that person said it, and not whether it's in fact true, because keeping on top of all the outrageous things said can be a full-time job, and keeping on top of the actual facts may require reading hundreds of pages of dryly written bills and such. When the bombast and the viciousness are themselves the news³, and not merely the tactics that only the politicos themselves see, we all suffer from the resulting partisan paralysis. When news was not always "of the moment," politicians had to be measured on their real results for the folks back home to stand on re-election, and not just the rhetoric they espoused for cameras.

For that reason, I'll continue sticking with the longer view presented in outlets like the New York Times Magazine, and perhaps with the occasional deep reporting by authors like Kantor. This is a well-reported and reflective look at the past four years, through the prism of the President and First Lady.

This entry is part of my Notable series -- an attempt to read, over the next year, all 100 of the Notable Books from the New York Times from 2012. Previous discussions have been of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and briefly of Olen Steinhauser's An American Spy as part of the introductory post to the project. Next up I'll discuss Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, followed by Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and then David Abrams's Fobbit. Feel free to follow along!

¹There are two other books about the Obamas on the list, as well as at least a couple of other books about Democrats (Joseph P. Kennedy and a volume in Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography)... so I will have to tread carefully at least a few more times this year. I don't recall seeing any on the list about Republicans but I haven't looked closely.
²Though no doubt there are outlets which are biased towards either side of the aisle...
³In the interests of fairness, I note that President Obama wasn't particularly above this fray himself in the first half of his first term, either. He clearly attempted to maintain an outsider status towards Washington and had no trouble voicing his frustration with the ineffectiveness of the Legislative branch as a governing body, which helped no one.

Posted by Brett Douville at December 31, 2012 11:11 AM