'The Obamas': Drama, not so much

Despite Jodi Kantor's widely sourced reporting, 'The Obamas' strains to sound like an insider's account of a marriage

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Michelle Obama should be intensely grateful, not annoyed, that "The Obamas" -- the inevitable "behind the scenes" book about her marriage and life in the White House -- was released last week when Republicans were too busy tearing each other apart to pay much attention.

No. Instead, this prickly White House, led by Mrs. Obama, embarked on a fierce pushback of this book in the media -- "an overdramatization of old news," said press spokesman Jay Carney. Staffers were busy contacting reporters questioning dates and times, and the first lady took umbrage with its intimate tone, asking CBS's Gayle King, "Who can write about how I feel?"

By Jodi Kantor
Little, Brown ($29.99).

The tell-all "palace intrigue" book by former aides is a rite of passage for every presidential administration, the narrative almost always the same: Life in the White House is confining, White House aides fight, and the first lady is actually Lady Macbeth. Remember Reagan chief of staff Don Regan's takedown of Nancy Reagan -- she consulted with an astrologer before scheduling her husband's colon operation -- in "For the Record"?

But today, Mrs. Obama and frantic White House aides are upset about a book that actually isn't all that explosive, or probably even inaccurate. Let's review:

The Obamas found life in a goldfish bowl claustrophobic.The West Wing staff fears the first lady; the president and his wife occasionally experienced tensions in their marriage. Mrs. Obama and former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel didn't get along. Mrs. Obama didn't want to move to Washington right away. Mrs. Obama, stressing the moral over the practical, pushed her husband to go for comprehensive instead of piecemeal health care reform. Mrs. Obama fiercely protects her daughters' privacy.

That's it? No astrology? No thongs?

Unfortunately for Ms. Kantor, this book, however well-sourced it may be (she talked to 33 aides and friends, including David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and others), strains to sound like an insider's account of a marriage. But the two people who know the truth only spoke to her once, in a formal sit-down interview, in 2009.

Ms. Kantor, a White House correspondent for The New York Times, is a smart woman (she'll tell you so herself: her bio notes that she "began her journalism career by dropping out of Harvard Law School to join Slate.com in 1998"). She announces her special Obama expertise up front, letting us know in the first paragraph of the book about the day the first couple sat "discussing the most personal of matters in the most official of settings" -- with her.

"The strengths and challenges of our marriage don't change because we move to a different address," Mrs. Obama said. In Ms. Kantor's eyes, "it was my first clue that the Obamas' private debate" -- about whether public life could be made livable -- "hadn't ended on election night."

Really? That's the takeaway here? Another reader might deduce that the first lady was saying, hey, we're a married couple just like anyone else, regardless of where we live .

But no: Ms. Kantor decided to parlay "the subtle tension I had felt in that room" into this book purporting to describe "a friction-filled marriage that [has] proved strong nonetheless."

There is a case to be made for a book on how the first couple's relationship affects the presidency and the country, but this is not that book.

Ms. Kantor, industrious reporter though she may be, tries to ramp up the conflict, but much of the story feels padded and laborious. ("Now that he [Mr. Obama] was in the highest office in the land, he wanted to pass sweeping bills that would tackle long-term, fundamental problems, which would create more stability for the country.")

Spending time in the first lady's press pool, watching her cut ribbons, deliver speeches and dig vegetable gardens, doesn't confer deep insight, but so many reporters make the mistake of thinking it does. Ann Gerhart, an artful writer for The Washington Post, covered first lady Laura Bush and wrote her own book about Mrs. Bush's inner life -- without the first lady's cooperation. It never felt convincing.

Still, there are some priceless set pieces: Cranky, hapless press secretary Robert Gibbs dropping the F-bomb on an infuriatingly calm Valerie Jarrett after she had just informed him that the first lady wasn't pleased with his damage control on "Hellgate" (in which Carla Bruni, first lady of France, claimed that Mrs. Obama had told her life in the White House was "hell").

And Ms. Kantor does provide good detail about the impossible logistics -- and perks -- of being a first family ("When I leave I want a plane and a valet," Mr. Obama tells a friend, and we sense he's only half-joking). It's nice to know that, by the book's end, the Obamas seem more settled and happy with life in the Executive Mansion.

For all the tensions and frayed nerves, there is a sense that the Obama marriage is -- just as George W. Bush and Laura Bush's marriage was before it -- fundamentally sound, grounded in mutual trust and shared values.

That kind of a marriage, for all its virtues, doesn't make for a book you can't put down.

Happy marriages, like Tolstoy's happy families, are pretty much alike: i.e., to an outsider, kind of boring, unlike, say, the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton -- king and queen of White House marital dysfunction. So Mrs. Obama needs to dispense with the damage control and give thanks for the GOP primary in South Carolina.

Mackenzie Carpenter : mcarpenter@post-gazette.com ; 412-263-1949. First Published January 15, 2012 5:00 AM


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