Barack and Michelle

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    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

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    He comes back from the summer of 1L I think with Michelle Robinson in his life. Did you know about that?

    Yeah, I knew about that. I don't know exactly when I found out about Michelle, but it was early in the fall semester of our second year I found out he was dating Michelle, and she worked at Sidley Austin [law firm]. And all of his friends were very happy that Barack had found someone. And we didn't know her, because she wasn't on campus. Some of the students who were ahead of me in law school knew her, because she had just graduated. But from all accounts she was a very serious and wonderful person, and we were happy for Barack.

    Did you see any change in him after Michelle entered his life, even in a long-distance kind of way?

    No, I don't think I saw any change in him. We just knew he had a girlfriend out in Chicago, and he would fly out there every now and then, or she would fly here. But no, he wasn't kind of walking around with his head in the clouds, "I'm in love." He may have been, right, but no, you couldn't quite see that.

    It's not his way, though, is it? He's not Gene Kelly dancing in rain or anything because he's thrilled that he's in love.

    Yeah, but I think he has his own moments where you can see that he's really excited about something. But yes, he just seemed older than us, too. I mean, if he was in love, it was going to be in the way that Barack is going to be in love. It's not going to be the way that some young 24-year-old law student who thinks that they have just met the love of their life and they're going to be broken up six months later would think that they were in love. So he was a different kind of guy. ...

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    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    He says something -- I don't remember exactly what -- that essentially Barack has to get his black ticket punched before he gets to run on the far South Side of Chicago, or anyplace else if he hopes to get African American votes. ... He finds a church. He meets Michelle, which is mightily helpful. I'm not saying it was a crass decision, but it was a good move. It was a nice thing to happen to him and --

    It was a wonderful thing to happen to him.

    You know Michelle, obviously. You must have known about him finding her and their relationship. When he comes back from that summer and he has met her, does he talk about her to you?

    Oh, no, most definitely.

    And?

    And, you know, it was very clear how important she was to him. And Michelle would come and visit the law school. Obviously she had been to the law school previously. And as Michelle is very clear about saying, that Barack is older than she is, but she did attend the law school before him. So it was very clear how important she was to him and the fact that he found her at that point was very important and very wonderful for him.

    Wonderful, beyond just the personal, emotional, heart stuff? Was he happy about who she is and her family is, and just everything about the way that she helped connect him up to all of that?

    I think he certainly identified with Michelle and her experience and her family. But it was personal. I'm just very, very resistant to this notion that there was some calculation, there was some political calculation involved. It was a very important personal connection with Michelle. And the fact that she was so rooted in the community had obvious value. But it was very personal.

    If you, in one sentence, could say what the relationship is, what is it?

    In one sentence, it's loving; it's supportive. They ground each other. I think Michelle particularly grounds him, and Barack is very smart and very intellectual, but in Michelle, he found a partner who was able to ground him personally in ways that he hadn't been previously, in no prior relationships. And that has been profoundly important to him.

    So how did she feel about Bobby Rush and the run for Bobby Rush?

    I did not have a conversation with Michelle around the time, so I can't say definitively. The interesting thing is, Michelle has been -- she's turned out to be a great political partner for him, and has performed, I think, admirably during the presidential run. But she has been a reluctant political partner in that she appreciates Barack's ability and his ambition and has supported him, but she hasn't been someone who has necessarily put herself out as a public person. But she has gone along.

    She didn't necessarily oppose him running. But if she had her choices, yeah, she would probably have him do something else.

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    Let's start a little bit with Chicago. You're going to hire Michelle Obama, but you then meet Barack Obama at a dinner. Tell me a little bit about your first thoughts about this young man, because what happens eventually is that you really become very important to their lives. You sort of introduce them, to some extent, to Chicago politics. ...

    ... So 21 years ago this summer I met the president and the first lady. It was before they were married; they were engaged. And I was trying to recruit the first lady to come and join the mayor's office in Chicago, and a few days after our interview -- I offered her a job on the spot because she was so impressive. Wisely she said she wanted to think about it. And then she called me back and said, "Would you be willing to have dinner with my fiancé so that the three of us could talk about it?"

    Well, I still remember that dinner very vividly and how open they were about sharing their dreams for the future as they were beginning to build their life together. And they shared with me stories about how each of them were raised and what their values were and their character.

    Michelle talked about her father, who had MS [multiple sclerosis], who was very proud and worked hard every day, and he would get up early so that he could dress himself because he didn't want to accept help or be a burden on anyone, and how when she and her brother, Craig, went to college, even though they received scholarships, her dad insisted upon writing a check to pay for a portion of their tuition. And the president talked about being raised by a single mother and how hard it was to have had a father who abandoned him.

    And their life experiences were different, but yet they had the same core values, the same sense of moral justice, and also -- most importantly -- that to those who much is given, much is expected. And they both knew that they were talented and they were trying to figure out how to give back.

    That was really what our conversation was so long ago, and that's what I've observed them doing since that time, is figuring out how to give back.

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    One of the things that you had said previously in another article was that the president's father disappearing left a real hole in his life.

    Yes, it did.

    Explain what you meant.

    Well, it left a hole in his heart, I think, to feel abandoned by his father and to have not had the opportunity to have a father in his life, and to know that it was quite intentional that his father decided to leave him behind.

    And he was determined that he was going to be a good father, and he really modeled that after the first lady's father, who he had a chance to know before he passed away. He thought that Michelle's father was involved. He showed up; he made his children a priority; he took great pride in their accomplishments. He loved them unconditionally, and he provided them with all the support he could. And he wanted to make sure that when he had children, he provided that same kind of safety net for his children so that they could grow and flourish and do whatever else they want to do.

    What else did Michelle's family provide him? It seems that they filled a hole in his heart. They were also tied to the South Side. They also tied him, to some extent, to the church or to religion. Explain a little bit more about what he gained from Michelle's family.

    I think they were all very grounded, very down-to-earth. Michelle lived in the same neighborhood her entire life; the president traveled a great deal.

    Michelle's dad came home every night for dinner, something that the president has done since he's been in the White House quite deliberately, wanting to make sure that for the brief time that his children actually want to spend time with him and have dinner together, that they get to do that together.

    So I think that they really gave him an anchor that he hadn't had before to the community, to a sense of family, and through that anchor grew a deep sense of commitment to play his part in making the community better.

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    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    He's living above a yoga shop. How is his life?

    He was in the Senate, but Michelle and the girls were still living in Chicago. So he spent as little time as he needed to in Washington, D.C. When the opportunity presented itself, he was on a plane to Chicago.

    So there was no need for him to have grand accommodations in Washington. When he was here, he was doing his Senate work. He was writing the book. He was doing some traveling, again to raise money for his colleagues and raise money for the Senate Democrats. But it was a very spartan life.

    You know, we would try to have lunch -- I should say, we would try to have dinner at least once a month. Sometimes that would work out; sometimes that wouldn't. But he definitely wasn't a part of the Washington social scene.

    And the stress on the relationship -- any that you could perceive?

    Nothing that he talked about. But it was obviously challenging. Michelle, for all intents and purposes, was a single mom raising the girls while Barack was in Washington. He was very cognizant of that and would definitely try to carve out time where he wasn't on the road.

    One of the things that he tried to make sacrosanct was Sundays in which he would do no campaigning. That became harder. But he would try to keep time that was devoted to Michelle and the girls. But it would be difficult, I think, for any family to have one parent who was out of town for half of the week. But I think that they handled it really well. ...

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    Let's talk about the first lady and the family a bit. How easy or hard was it for the family to cope with this new role of being the first family? ...

    Well, first of all, I think they spent a lot of time talking about it in anticipation of the change, a lot of time where both the president and the first lady spoke to one another, but also including their children in the conversation.

    They were both very concerned about what the impact would be on their daughters as they pulled them out of a school that they had been in since nursery school, out of a neighborhood they had lived in their entire life, and put them in this bubble here in Washington.

    So, early on, the first lady, for example, made it her priority to really focus on the children. She didn't have a big agenda the first six months of her own. She just really wanted to make sure that transition went smoothly.

    The fact that her mom decided to come here and live with the family was very important. It provided another sense of stability and support that was so important for the children. Taking them to school and going back and forth with them when the first lady wasn't available was really important to the family.

    And I think because they thought it through ahead of time, it made the transition much smoother than it might have been. They talk to their children, and they make sure that their children feel a part of the process and that they can air any concerns that they have, so I think that the family's transition really went much more smoothly than anyone would have anticipated given the magnitude of the change. And part of why that happened as well is that they have worked very hard to keep a sense of normalcy in their children's lives.

    So the president, if you think about spending two years on the campaign trail, and then when he comes to the White House, in a sense, living above the store, and his commute is about 30 seconds, he's able to go home every day. And he told his team here in the White House: "As you think through my schedule, keep in mind that I'm going to be home by 6:30 to have dinner with my family. I can work after dinner, but this is something that's really important for me to do. They need that stability; they need that consistency; and it's something that I wasn't able to provide during the campaign." So I think it's worked very well for them all.

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    Explain a little bit more her role as far as it comes -- I mean, the importance of the relationship to the president. ...

    Well, the relationship is one of fundamental respect and love. They are each other's best friend. They both derive strength from one another, and I think because they share a common sense of values, core values and vision for the country, it enables them to support one another.

    The first lady has carved out initiatives that she cares passionately about. She's been very intentional about issues she's taken on because she wants to make sure that not only does she care about it and is she willing to work really hard, but can she make a difference?

    So I think through that test she's become very interested in, for example, the Let's Move! initiative. That came from observing what she was doing with her own children in terms of nutrition and exercise and developing a sense that if parents had information about how to prepare healthy meals for their children -- everybody wants their children to be healthy. Sometimes they just don't have access to the information; sometimes they don't have access to the food. So working to get rid of food deserts around our country, where grocery stores will go in and provide affordable food, is a very important part of that Let's Move! initiative.

    The work that she and Dr. [Jill] Biden are doing for military families came out of her experience traveling around the country and meeting so many spouses of servicemen and -women who were struggling, and her appreciation that it isn't just that we owe those serving our country this enormous duty, but we owe their families a duty as well, and so she cares deeply about that.

    Each of her initiatives that she's taken on come out of these personal experiences that she has had, when she then is willing to throw herself completely into it.

    Does she involve herself in the president's day-to-day policy? No, she really doesn't. She's focusing on her issues.

    ... Is there another part of it where he can go to her and get a different point of view?

    She's a sounding board anytime he wants to use her as a sounding board. But I think that the distinction would be she's not looking over his shoulder on all of the different policy agenda items that he's put forth, but she is there as someone who he can confide in, someone who he trusts unconditionally, and someone who will give him an honest reaction from what an average person might think.

    And I think that part of what's unusual about this first couple is that it wasn't so long ago they were just ordinary Americans. I mean, eight years ago, seven years ago, they still had student loan debt. And the first lady always says, you know, you can't count on writing a best-seller book to pay off your student loan debt.

    So they are not far away from the struggles that so many Americans face, particularly in this tough economic climate. So that sense of understanding and appreciation for what people are going through is something that they share in common, and it enables her to be a very effective sounding board.

    He wakes up every single morning trying to figure out how to improve the quality of life for Americans, and so to have a spouse who shares that vision and that sense of priority gives him enormous strength.

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