Originally posted at BIG Journalism
In the March 2009 issue of Vogue in an article entitled “Leading Lady,” editor at large André Leon Talley pays homage to Michelle Obama, who he believed was “poised to be the most transformative First Lady in history.” In the opening paragraphs of the article Talley describes Michelle Obama, two weeks prior to the Inauguration, standing in front of a window in the Hay-Adams Hotel, where the Obamas had moved so Sasha and Malia could start the spring semester at Sidwell Friends School.
It was there that the woman Talley described as a “long, lean…Alvin Ailey [dancer] in another life,” turned to her smitten admirer, pointed across the street, and asked him the question: “Do you see our new house?”
The “No-Churchgoing” Mrs. Obama told Talley that after “checking out churches to join [and] helping her kids adjust to unfamiliar surroundings,” she intended to “open up the White House again.” After implying that there had been years of exclusion, with Michelle as grand hostess, Talley looked forward to a day where “in a spirit of diversity and inclusion,” life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would finally become a “collective experience.”
The following month, Michelle’s BFF Oprah Winfrey interviewed the First Lady for O Magazine in an article entitled “Oprah Talks to Michelle Obama.” In that article Oprah shared that Michelle, while contemplating what Winfrey called the “weight of history,” oftentimes said, “This is not about us.”
In that same interview, Oprah observed “Yet for all the majesty of the White House, the First Lady has already infused it with a palpable ease; her presence makes the place feel open and approachable. When we sit down to talk, she seems as relaxed as she did when I first interviewed her and her husband in their Chicago apartment in 2004.”
Now the American public comes to find out that in “The Obamas,” a new book by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor, the woman who Oprah said was excited about living in the White House because “if you want pie, there’s pie,” and who Talley perceived was “like the neighbor organizing a block party,” really wanted to stay in Chicago and delay moving to Washington DC.
In one section of André Leon Talley’s article, the part-time fashionista goes on and on about Michelle Obama’s sense of community and how Chicago’s South Side native exudes the impression that once in the White House, ‘everyone is invited’ to the “ never ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and ‘some,’ but ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘all’ people’s house.”
If that was true, then why, according to Jodi Kantor, was Michelle so “worried about her children bumping into White House tourists during play dates?”
Admittedly, it is easy to understand the difficult transition from Chicago, which Michelle told Talley was the Obama family “Kennebunkport,” to what she soon felt was a “tough life in Washington DC.” But, to say that the woman who had the water dyed green in the fountain on the White House lawn for St. Patrick’s Day a few weeks after moving in was “alone, frightened and unsure of what to do next” may be stretching it a bit.
When Oprah asked the first lady if she felt the glare of the fishbowl, Michelle said, “I don’t pay attention to it. There isn’t a bigger fishbowl, but I don’t own the glare.” In Jodi Kantor’s book the author differs when she claims sources told her that Mrs. Obama said, “Sometimes it becomes difficult to live in what we call a bubble.”
Which may be why, to distract attention from herself, in March of 2009 the unobtrusive Michelle stomped into the yard out back in $500 Tory Burch gardening boots; turned over 1,100 square feet of the White House lawn; and planted a low key garden that included “cilantro, tomatillos and hot peppers…red romaine, green oak leaf, butter head, red leaf and galactic lettuce… spinach, chard, collards and black kale.”
The first lady, allegedly anxious and hesitant, also included in her garden “a patch of berries…anise hyssop and Thai basil,” and acquired two beehives for honey to drizzle on exotic desserts and to add to White House Honey Ale.
One thing is for sure: despite her angst, Michelle was never too lonely or frightened to shop for hundreds of thousands of dollars in designer clothes and accessories. Nor was she unsure of which pair of pricey sneakers to wear when volunteering at soup kitchens.
To quell her despair, Mrs. Obama spent the first year (and every year since) soothing her confused, lonely self by subbing as a mannequin for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Maison Martin Margiela, Narciso Rodriguez, Nina Ricci, Thakoon and an endless roster of high-end designers.
In Vogue, Talley was so enamored with Michelle that he said her gaze was “akin to hearing a chord from John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme.’ Or maybe Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending.’” Spending time in Michelle Obama’s company right around the same time that Kantor claims she was full of fear, insecurity, and indecisiveness, André claimed he had a sense that “All [was] well and right and real.”
Well, was “all well and right and real,” or wasn’t it? Because either way, based on which person got it right, the three opposing accounts pose a bit of a credibility problem for someone who was either lying, perceiving something incorrectly, or flat out got the story wrong.
In the “Time 2009 100” issue, Michelle Obama groupie Oprah did the honors again by poetically describing Michelle Obama: “How sweet it is that America has a First Lady who embodies the vibrancy and confidence of a seriously prepared 21st century woman. A phenomenal woman indeed.”
Comparing the statements Michelle made to Oprah and André Leon Talley during the months following the inauguration and subsequent move to the White House with Jodi Kantor’s account, either the first lady was really “alone, frightened and unsure of what to do next,” had no idea what she was saying, or she, like her phenomenal husband, is a phenomenal phony “indeed.”