My recent column about Michelle Obama, which I wrote to counter the negative responses to Jodi Kantor's new book, "The Obamas," apparently has been misinterpreted by some. I did not intend to indict Kantor, who, in fact, wrote a mostly complimentary portrait of the first couple. Nor did I intend to cast doubt on her reporting.
But of course the negative details are what get the most attention, and those are what compelled Mrs. Obama to speak up in her own defense, thus prompting me to rally to her aid. It isn't what Kantor wrote that concerned me as much as the reactions it was causing among a particular segment of the population. These would be the Obama haters, as distinguished from legitimate critics, and especially those who despise the first lady and express these feelings in often-racist, certainly sexist terms.
Thus, I wrote: "The recent discussion about Mrs. Obama's manner and temperament, thanks to Jodi Kantor's new book, 'The Obamas,' is maddening. Yet again, the first lady is being characterized as the thing women can never be -- angry."
Kantor's book provided fodder, but my own emphasis was on "the recent discussion," which was widespread at the time and focused on the perceived angry aspect of Mrs. Obama's personality. Kantor never spoke of the first lady as an angry person, though she mentions occasional bouts of unhappiness and/or pique, neither unique to this first lady. Otherwise, Kantor's portrait is of a strong, strategic-minded, fiercely independent woman who came to the White House determined to succeed.
Alas, my passionate defense of the first lady, who does suffer a surplus of scrutiny far greater than any other by virtue of her First-Ness, has helped mobilize new legions of disgruntled Americans. Poor Kantor has been besieged with angry mail from Obama defenders and, worse, valentines from Obama haters. I've received quite a bit of mail myself, though mostly from appreciative readers and not only from women. Some of those who wrote to object to my perspective only succeeded in allowing me to rest my case.
It should come as no surprise that the White House doesn't like Kantor's book. And though Mrs. Obama says she hasn't and won't read it, she's surely been informed of those sections that aren't especially complimentary.
We can all imagine how painful it is to feel mischaracterized or to see inferences drawn from what amounts to a sliver of a slice of a piece of a moment in one's own life. Or, as here, having one's marriage and family life examined under the klieg lights while trying to perform the toughest job on the planet. Anyone who has ever been written about knows this particular insult. And, really, everyone should have a turn at such inspection, especially journalists.
Kantor is getting hers. But then again, you don't go after the big game and expect to be greeted with flowers and dancing in the streets. Didn't we learn that somewhere rather recently? It is also fair to ask, who, really, can judge or interpret another's feelings or experience based on third-party recollections by, perhaps, a disgruntled staffer? A political outcast?
Few thoughts are more horrifying than that of having a writer observing and interpreting your personal life. For better or worse, presidents and their spouses will have to suffer these intrusions and potential indignities. It is the world in which we live. This is a shame for the nation, ultimately.
In the end, this query may provide the moral of our story. The fittest nation may not survive because our strongest leaders won't bother to run.