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How Michelle Obama’s upbringing shaped her White House priorities

In “Michelle Obama: A Life,” veteran political journalist Peter Slevin tackles a different side of politics by examining how the first lady’s life story influenced her priorities in the White House. Gwen Ifill sits down with the author to discuss what he discovered.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, to the latest addition on the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • It’s a new biography of the first lady, “Michelle Obama:

    A Life” by Peter Slevin, a veteran political reporter formerly with The Washington Post.

    Recently, he sat down with Gwen Ifill at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and bookstore chain in the Washington, D.C., area.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Peter Slevin, thank you for joining us.

  • PETER SLEVIN, Author, “Michelle Obama:

    A Life”: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In this book, you say that at one point Michelle Obama described herself as a statistical anomaly.

    As you were putting together this history, the story of her life, what did you find out?

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    What I found was that Michelle Obama came from a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago. She lived in a small apartment. Her parents had not gone to college. And the odds were kind of stacked against her.

    And then she managed to find her way to a magnet school, to Princeton, to Harvard, and to a position of some influence in the country.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let’s talk about this. She wasn’t like a poor, underprivileged child. She had some piano lessons and she rode her bike everywhere, she and her brother.

    She had some advantages, but pretty middle-class existence without a lot of money.

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    She really did. She had a stay-at-home mother, something that she points out a lot. She was extremely close to her father, who worked at the city water plant. And he did shift work, but he was available to her.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Fraser Robinson.

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    Fraser Robinson. He worked at the city water plant, and he was there for Michelle and for her brother, Craig.

    She had a very large extended family. They were very close geographically on the South Side of Chicago and they were also very close personally. She got advice from people. She had role models in her life. She saw a path forward.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There seem to be several threads that run through this book. One is the story of her childhood, of her upbringing, and how it created who she was.

    The other which I found interesting was the thread of race, all the way from before she was born in her family life, through her childhood in Chicago, through her time at Princeton and at Harvard, and even in her time in the White House.

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    Michelle grew up at a time in Chicago — she was born in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed. She grew up with parents who had not gone to college, with grandparents who came in the Great Migration from the South to Chicago.

    Both of her grandfathers experienced racism. She often said of one of her grandfathers that, if he had been born white, he would have been a banker. Her other grandfather was a man who couldn’t get a good job as a carpenter in the city of Chicago because he wasn’t allowed to join a labor union.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But did that history scar her, or did it shape her, or is she no longer that person?

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    I think there was a fundamental tension growing up, something that she experienced in her household, which was not at all uncommon, that, on the one hand, she learned that the deck was stacked a little bit, that there was a great deal of inequality.

    But that very same grandfather who didn’t become a bank president or, as his relatives called him, professor, he worked in the post office, he said, you know, Michelle, your destiny is not determined on the day you’re born. Get on with it, get an education, everything is possible. She heard that from her parents, too.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    She was a career woman. She was what she called a mom in chief.

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And now the first lady, which is always a murky definition anyhow. How are you? What’s a first lady?

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And how much of this has she shaped herself and how much of it has the world forced on her?

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    She’s chosen to play a very dynamic role, even if, at first, she was very sort of careful and very strategic.

    And she focused on things that she cared about. And they are pulled together by some of those experiences she had growing up and as a professional on the South Side of Chicago.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Many first ladies, their role is also to be some sort of counterpart, a flip side of their husband. And in her case, her husband is known as being kind of opaque, people say cool. And she is not considered to be cool in that way.

    And I wonder if part of her role is to fill in those gaps for Barack Obama.

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    Friends say that their relationship is very close in that way. She’s very direct. And yet, at the same time, she says, you know, every night he walks in the door, he doesn’t need to hear me telling him what to do.

    It’s clear that she’s a close adviser to him. She’s a real partner to him as well.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But her trajectory has been interesting. She’s gone from where we discussed, where she came from, now to being kind of a champion of good health and healthy eating and dancing with Jimmy Fallon and you name it.

    That was all very well-thought-out. That didn’t just evolve.

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    We think of her as doing a lot of mom and apple pie stuff, but if you look at the heart of each her issues, if you think about her educational initiative, Reach Higher, it’s targeting disadvantaged kids.

    When you think about school lunches, 70 percent of kids who buy school lunches at public schools buy them at a reduced price. And even if you think about the military families initiative, the vast majority of soldiers who are leaving the armed forms in fact only have a high school education.

    So she’s also subtly trying in a small way to kind of unstack the deck, I think.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    After all the friends, all the family you have talked to for this book, any indication what she does with this?

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    What everyone says is that she herself is figuring it out.

    She has said that she will do some writing. She has said that she will continue to work on education. One of her roles that she’s taken on through her life has been as a mentor. And I think, if you look at the group she’s speaking to, it’s often girls, often teenagers, trying to share a message with them. And she’s said that she wants to keep pushing those kids in some ways the very same way she was pushed herself.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Peter Slevin, the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life,” thank you very much.

  • PETER SLEVIN:

    Thank you for having me.

     

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