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tv   After Words  CSPAN  May 3, 2015 9:00pm-10:01pm EDT

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discusses the life of first lady michelle obama from her childhood to the white house interviewed by cassandra, broadcast lecturer at the university of maryland college of journalism. >> host: thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your book michelle obama a life.
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>> guest: it's great to be here. >> host: it's not just the story of a life it's the story of modern american history. did you set out to tell the story in that context or did that develop as you found out more about the background insertion themes? >> guest: i covered it for quite a while when i was in chicago working for the "washington post" and recognized that michelle obama led a remarkable life and the trajectory is fascinating and i felt that it was worth telling a story where she is at the center of her own narrative. when i am barred from the project, i wanted to figure out where she was coming from. what were the origins and that meant getting into her family history ended to chicago history and the history that she has
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lived. >> host: chicago into being a major player almost a character in her story. >> host: going back there and looking at her father what was it about her parents in particular that gave her the outlook? >> guest: many people would say that she would say i'm asking myself am i making a good decision )-right-paren. he was born on the south side of chicago. his parents had come north. he went to high school come into the army and he was the heart
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and soul of his family he was the oldest brother, he was kind, he was assaulting problems at a difficult time and he spun stories and share his values. michelle was particularly close to her father until his death. >> host: and he suffered many years for multiple sclerosis. how did he get up every day. >> guest: they watched their father worked at the plant even though they had a case of
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multiple sclerosis and she admired his determination and pride in his work and how he never quit. >> host: she and her older brother grew up in this tightknit family and seemed to have a very happy home life. they were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. give us a sense of what that was like. >> guest: she says that's where they live the apartment actually where they lived with craig -- it was one-bedroom and they said i would say that you are lying. it would be very modest existence until they were in high school but she said it was where my life happened.
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they lived upstairs by her mother's and uncle who have taken them in and craig described it because it was a first part of chicago and a place that was underway families were strong, they could walk places but this was in the 60s and 70s. >> host: you mentioned that fraser had come up. talk a little bit about the credo that came with those families that came up from the south and they had a certain expectation for their children. >> host: . >> guest: that's the right way to talk about it. i talked with relatives who told
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the same story about her parents and cousins and aunts and uncles had come north to chicago and they came in search of a world that was a little more fair and free and where there was more opportunity and. you get on with it and do your work and do just a little bit better than your parents. your kids will do better than you. >> host: they were rooted in the paradox that is a contradictory idea that they are level because of the class
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because of the conviction of the perseverance. >> guest: very much the story that i heard from many people. you may remember duval patrick who until recently was the governor of massachusetts. he was a little bit older than michelle robinson and he talked about the lessons he had learned and how there was a message of getting on with it at the same time a grandfather that had endured racial hostility or saying yes it exists. it's important to note that he will not stop you do not let that stop you. you can be whatever you want. and i think about the paternal grandfather committee came from georgetown south carolina. he came to better himself as he put it and he was very mindful
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that he didn't have the opportunity that so many other people did. if my grandfather were born here but have been a precedent and as it happened he went into the post office and -- >> guest: it was a way in for many in chicago and many around the country and he went into the army andarmy and other place that happened until 1948 and then he went into the post office and so he shared the lessons that he had developed over time but he also said sure it is a little unfair but remember your destiny wasn't with him today that you were born. and she tells that story.
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>> host: what about the racial conflict, how does that affect the childhood event the playground. >> guest: it wasn't far from where michelle lived in the community. in the early 60s there was a great deal of racial competition and there was a riot of course that it didn't turn out so well as the record would show as they were encroaching on what they considered. it's important to recognize that it was changing by the way. rainbow beach was a place where
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the city had the camp they had attended. there's no question but she knew about racial hostility but didn't experience it in the same way her parents and grandparents did. >> host: and they did a lot to create a safe haven. they made us feel confident. that's how we grew up and show was a confident young woman, competitive and very studious. >> guest: she pretty much raised herself from the time she was 8-years-old but they did
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have a very warm and embracing family. it mattered a great deal to the family was geographically close and they spend time with the extended family and she also went to the neighborhood school as did cragg both of them requested and her father did shift work and had a great have a great deal of time for his kids with enormous energy. >> host: tell us about the 10-year-old michelle but missed out on this. what happened there? >> guest: she was at the camp in the summer and was told she would have been the best camper if you didn't have the salty tongue. >> host: what did she learn from that? >> guest: she may have learned to bite her tongue perhaps.
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she liked being on top of things and in charge of things and was determined. she talks about how and craig talks about how hard she works to get ahead. >> guest: i wanted to talk about that because she had to travel across town to get their and that also says a lot about how chicago itself was changing during that time. >> guest: that's right. she graduated from high school and some days it would be so crowded that she would take the bus out away from the school so she could get a seat on the northbound bus and i think one of the most interesting ways is she had a friend that was a rather well-known father and
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they were very close. they were both on the honor society and very engaged she danced to the air and there and it was an interesting world. it was very well segregated. >> host: her older brother had a decision to make about going off to college. he was an accomplished basketball player and got offers from school but they were going to pave the way that wanted to go to princeton. talk about that decision they made to go even though there was the matter of money. what was the decision to family
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made? >> guest: it was an intriguing moment in 1979 graduating from high school, very talented basketball player and had an offer from the university of washington that was going to pay his way and he had been invited and accepted where the family would have to pay some of the pills and earn money on the side to get to go to print and and he had a conversation with his father who was sitting at the kitchen table in his mother was washing dishes and talking it over and they said well i might go to the university of washington and he said that iowa to be kind of disappointed if i made a decision like this. he said i won't think about this and he said it was the most
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generous act that he had seen in his life and he went to princeton and they paid the difference. it's a story that he does tell. >> host: and michelle a couple of years later decide i would like to go there to perhaps. but at the time the counselors said the scores were too low and sides were too high. >> guest: they said i'm going to get into princeton. and they said you might want to be thinking of the bowl more modestly about where you can go but she applied and wrote an essay and she kind of talked her
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way in. >> host: the scores were not what she hoped but it was from the action and a lot of people looked at michelle. >> guest: as so many were getting access she not only went to princeton but she did extremely well. >> host: was she happy? >> guest: there was an interesting remark she made at the memorial service last year during she said looking back on her recent career she talked about what it was like to be on the campaign trail and she mentioned a feeling of loneliness and class.
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she had a bit of a struggle when she got there at age 17 and she worked her way through with the help of friends and they patented the determination and discipline. >> host: how does the whole debate affect her and living in two worlds and being adjudged as something other than just michelle? >> guest: she wrote in her senior thesis it made me more aware of my blackness than ever in chicago and that is because of that the nature at that time where they were very much in the minority and class clasp is a big
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question. she said i don't even know adults have a bmw and it was a place where many students felt slightly other bit of welcome. >> host: even from the first days on campus in the dormitory. >> guest: that is a remarkable story and it has to do with another freshman roommate. the student and this is a story that she first told was with some chagrin she's in the dorm room, everybody is moving in and craig robinson shows up and says is my sister around and she wasn't and catherine went up to see her mother and said i had an african-american roommate and her mother went holistic and tried to get her daughter pulled out of the room and complained
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to the princeton of the events at my daughter didn't come to princeton to be living in a room of a black student. princeton, to its credit didn't. later in the semester she did without it is a very dramatic sign of the time. >> host: indeed. going back to the senior thesis she designed a survey and send it to some 400 alumni. what was she trying to determine and what was the question she seemed to be struggling with about privilege and what to do with that? >> guest: you will remember that it got so much attention and it was a carveout cut out -- cardboard cutout until she thought about was race and at one point you might remember they said she's a stokely carmichael and his designer
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dress. i was interested in looking to see what questions were on her mind. what were her formative moments and it was intriguing not just with her conclusions with the questions. the questions were what does it mean to african-americans to rise to the elite said she had some ideas about solidarity perhaps were maybe distance in terms of class as of course she was compared with others. so she explored that and it became those questions.
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>> host: and maybe she was older, more confident but she seems to find her stride and a sense of community and maybe that was a different of what seemed to make a harvard law a better experience. >> guest: i think that it was an intellectual time as on the supreme court they said all of the talk turned to race by the time that barack and michelle obama were there not at the same time, she and her friends that became active had many conversations about obligations where we were asking questions of what does it not just need to be a weird that a black lawyer and what can the law accomplish
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in terms of changing the country for the better. by that point it had been 30 years since brown v. board of education but they hardly overcome their educational past. so they were asking what role they could fulfill as they climbed into society and the elite. they should just make a bunch of money. >> host: she tried to make a difference and tried to change things on the ground. talk little about that. >> guest: she was active in law school which is challenging. she worked in the legal aid bureau where she and other students worked as volunteer lawyers for clients in need and handled domestic cases.
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she would work on the housing case and according to her mentor at the time she was tenacious about that and also worked with a couple of her friends to make the alumni gathering a little more purposeful and not just recruiting where they would command recruited these terrific lawyers but in fact where there would be discussions of like the ones we were having in the basement offices of the associations where they were asking how can we do while and also how can we do the right thing and do good. >> host: after she left harvard law and was highly recruited, she went back to chicago and chose corporate law.
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and it is a place people that knew? >> guest: she faced a alumni and was not entirely sure what she wanted to do. she later said that had she not had such extensive student debt from princeton and harvard she might have gone directly to a nonprofit but in fact she thought this was a place that she could pay off some bills and she could see she was connected. >> host: so she did the corporate law thing for a while. how was chicago different once she came back into the late 1980s? >> guest: that's an important question because the city had been changing very dramatically certainly from an her parents were coming up and the most important thing that happened is
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that the city had elected a black mayor there were opportunities that came one of which they wanted to make sure they have the women and minorities on the staff and who were representing clients but in fact it's the business model working for the firm. >> host: also gone in the old days were plantation politics in chicago. now you have to black leadership and eerily charismatic meir of the city for a change. but something else happened for her in atlanta. >> host: that summer they were bringing in some associates and
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they asked to supervise. >> guest: a first year law student named barack obama. she was assigned to be the mentor. they hit it off and -- >> host: i love the story though because he was late for the first meeting -- >> guest: they tell the story on each other. he didn't look so interesting. he was late. that wasn't a big moment that she had told the story now a number of times about how they liked talking to each other and they connected. >> host: i like that when she says when they first met she fell in the plague. >> guest: she told her mother
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for now i am not going to be dating. >> host: they were from different backgrounds and temperament even. what attracted them to each other? >> guest: well he was dazzled by her beauty and her humor. they laughed at the same thing. and i think that is probably true to this day. they have a great sense of humor. he has also written that he admired the fact and he said in fact that they were scattered so that appealed to him as well. what did she see other than the handsome hotshot?
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>> guest: she talked a little bit later after they were married she said that she admired that he could take a few risks among other things and that in fact he had a large vision and she was intrigued by him and she said that within a moment there is a moment she fell in love with him and it's the moment when he took her a long did the basement of a church in chicago where he spoke with some of the community members in the chicago incident he worked before he'd gone off to law school and she said he talked back today about the world as it is end of the world as it should be and have we can't give up. we have to get from one to the other. she saw the values that they have a passion if this is a guy
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that i can believe in. >> host: they gave it a month tops. >> guest: it was less about barack obama than it was about michelle obama. they had seen according to craig who have spoken about this but she had a pretty high standards and she was not just going to wait around for somebody that didn't quite measure up. but by all accounts they were very impressed. >> host: let's talk about her parents. >> guest: she said in an interview in 2004 that she had a
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little bit of a concern because there was a black father and white mother and it might be difficult for their future kids. she came to adore him and it sounds like pretty quickly. >> host: it wasn't until the family that he began to understand her. so what did he see and connect to and understand? >> guest: he felt something very warm and positive "-end-quotes and if you remember his upbringing and his father and brother split when he was very young. he then lived in indonesia for a while with his mother and her second husband and back to hawaii and then he felt
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something was strong and good. >> host: after the decades long battle how did that seem to supplement their relationship? >> guest: . >> host: he sort of made a promise to the mother. >> guest: there is a moment that he writes about that as he was being lowered into his grave that he revised that he was becoming part of the family that he was close to michelle. >> host: that brings tears to my eyes. but he was dragging his feet a little bit about actually getting married. >> guest: he tells a great
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story about how the shell was ready to be married and graduated and had been elected president of the harvard law review and was studying for the bar but one little eyes that he hadn't adopted was in the middle of marriage and he and his telling was about marriage and its really to get on with it. that argument wasn't going to go far but at the end of the dinner was an engagement ring and she says that he said to her that shutshockey left and? [laughter]
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>> host: after the marriage was a time for soul-searching for both of them. she decided that she wanted to leave and then actually took a job in the mayor's office. what was going on in her head at the time? >> guest: one of the reasons that she was asking that question is because he had died rather suddenly from cancer and she asked herself if i were to die tomorrow would i be dying happy, is this how i would want to feel that i'd spent my life? she would go up and stand in the window with this great office tower in downtown chicago and feel literally and figuratively i can't even see my old neighborhood. so she felt betrayed their things, so she looked around and applied at the city hall where
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her resume found one to valery gerrit that we know as the presidential counselor in first she had spoken with suzanne had become the chief of staff and michelle said i don't think i want to be a lawyer so she ended up working in the community development for a couple of years. >> host: and at the same time barack obama is starting to think about his own future in politics. he's written rather than stay and get a job then they will come to stay and lend a hand. >> guest: that is one of the most intriguing periods. they are a young couple they don't have children yet and he made a series of decisions that
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resonate to this day and it has to do with not getting out or moving up and moving away from the issues that animated them already but in fact digging in and making a difference and so she went to the city hall and they made him happiest and that was running a program called public allies allies which was an americorps program leadership training conscience. it was the one thing she said was entirely her own and enough job, she recruited young people and guided them into internships for nonprofits and city agencies and talk to them to give back. >> host: it's a great job for her. but then he's talking more and
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more about doing something with politics and she's not sure about that. she's pretty familiar with the arc of the political story but along the way she's been very ambivalent and this isn't noble. how does she reconcile ultimately supporting him? >> guest: he would commute every weekend when the legislature was in session he did the job for a very long time before he entered national politics he was very committed to it and they were not sure that it really did all that much that were that it was what he could achieve as a supreme
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talented man into someone she believed. she just wondered if that was the best use of his talent. >> host: and he was gone at the time that they just had their first child. and it sounds in your book that there was a great deal of strength in the marriage at that time and was there any sort of consideration we are not going to go through with it or for sure they were going to tough it out which they did. >> guest: that isn't something that i know. i don't know how dark the problems became. he was a terribly ambitious man
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and was working at the university of chicago law school teaching constitutional law. needed to do just a little bit more around the house for one thing you have to respect the professional ambitions a little bit more than he did. >> host: even though they gave up on becoming a political spouse lets talk about the role played as a wife, friend, advisor. what sense do you have that gives a lot of advice for the political instinct?
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>> guest: he listens to michelle, not the copresidents idea that she wants to play the people around them say one friend calls her the most do what's right person in the circle in the same description that was used before. she could be counted on to recognize what matters. she has a very good instinct for people. >> host: i think that you said in the buck. >> guest: think about the speech that was given he is elected leader that year and is a hot commodity and michelle was
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very good there and many people say if it is a role that has continued to play first of all and she got criticism for that trying to cut him down a little bit and his head anybody but thinks that's doesn't know him very well. but she also wanted to lower expectations. so many reporters were seeing barack obama as somebody that was going to save the nation. she said let's please not put all of that responsibility on this one young man speed so there is a groundedness to her. >> host: she made a famous
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misstep. she said for the first time in my adult life i am proud of my country. why not just say not because he is doing well but people are hungry for change, for critics latched onto the middle part of that. >> host: you went to princeton and harvard, and how could anybody say that and it's just a really clear sign of the polarization. a black man named barack obama just won iowa and is in the middle of winning the ten caucuses in a row.
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being in the army helped me love my country. we have to race relations in the country and it was kind of a surprise to people that guess what, barack obama was on his way to the white house. >> host: and michelle came in as the first lady coming and we've gotten used to seeing her not just that the state functions. it is a caricature that is racialized.
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they are all just plain mean and hurtful. on the campaign trail she talked about the playing field isn't level. the deck was little to distract. she felt she was also mortified she was hurting her husband's campaign so she wielded in to change the tone a little bit and she reemerged at the national convention and the members went skyrocketing and never really came down and fast forward to
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the kind of criticism that she gets no and of course she gets criticism but really just of the attack that is racial. she hasn't spoken publicly about them and she frankly has dealt with this with a great deal of grace. when you think about the kind of things people say about her when the elected officials share e-mails with a sort of grotesque caricatures connected to raise it's remarkable. >> host: i wonder how she protects her children from that. she declared she was going to be the mom in chief after so many people have. is she going to be involved in
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the policy the champion for causes like eleanor roosevelt? she has managed to raise them. they seem normal, they have a lot of privacy. they do seem like good kids. >> guest: not just on him on her so they will do policies. she's a terrific speaker and she will do that. she will do more. my first job is to make sure that my girls are in a good place. that was the first goal. they worked very hard to make their world as you say just a little bit more normal.
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>> host: it does feel despite all the partisanship outside of the bubble they lived a pretty happy life in the family in the white house. >> guest: they talk about that don't they. it's like living above the store where barack obama traveled so much during the campaign and worked so hard to get elected now they are in one place and they do talk about how much it means to them. >> host: she's involved in what's new and with military families helping kids go to college, she's been in the fashion place, off the rack
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clothing. what do you think is closest to her and what will she be remembered for? >> guest: that's a great question. she has a couple of years left to go and she will be 53 when they leave in 2017. i do think it is interesting to connect what she's doing in her policy initiative with where she grew up into the lessons she learned from home. it's about encouraging the disadvantaged children. if you think about who buys the lunch is of course that is such a subject of controversy. 70% are brought by those that cannot afford to pay full price. if you think of the mentor
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program and especially the message, this is where i think the legacy will come in. the message is that the power of my trajectory and barack obama's trajectory and belief in yourself and that you can do it and stick with it and you will make it. that is the lesson that she heard from mary robinson back home. >> host: and she talks to a wad of school kids and college kids and reiterates that message over and over again. do you think that it's being heard and expected? >> guest: they are exceptional. it's what they've achieved. not everybody will be able to live the narrative personally but for the buck i traveled all over the country and watched her in action with the kids listened to her and we are going to try
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harder. it sounds a little corny but it's connected. >> host: she has come into washington. she has out in the country this contrary of supporters say we've got your back. we don't care what other people say. we've got your back. has that been kind of extraordinary to see what she has been able to do to end our dalia crispy sex and power but support and render the country? >> guest: i talk about a couple of different places that she spoken to each other during the campaign and one as a luncheon in maine where lobster is served and she rallies the crowd of two the enthusiasm and
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then to juxtapose that with the meeting on the south side of chicago which is where michelle obama grew up and wear a raisin where a raisin in the sun is set by lansbury. it's an interesting time in fact that michelle's parents were living there. she called this one of the great american plays. in contrast to the gathering that she had in manhattan not long before each woman would lock the door behind them to make sure that nobody could get in. they came to listen to her making a pitch to reelect barack obama and they have such a faith in michelle obama and it was wonderful to them to see someone in the white house that looked for them.
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we have her back and one woman said to remember when she put her arm around the clean and people criticized her? of course it is a very natural gesture. she's an increasing end of this woman said she should her arm around the clean again. she should be who she wants to be. >> host: it's interesting that you brought that up. she is now in to give people hugs. she has this openness. you didn't get to interview her for this book but i wonder how you did get to know her and what was the key to understanding her and is there a little ball and despite all that openness?
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>> guest: disses and unique as the first lady but it is clear that she is disciplined and she controls her conditions the best she can and to whom she will grant interviews and so on and to try to develop a true portrait of her. and those that trusted me to tolltowa story there were mentors friends from different parts of her life that were relatives. i was also thrilled to discover that michelle obama even though she doesn't grant very many interviews to reporters that coverthe reporters thatcover her, she gives many speeches. she does a lot of q-and-a with those that ask questions and wondering a red hundreds of thousands of words and i have
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her voice carried through the book with michelle obama talking to the high school kids that ends with her talking at the mobile radio service. >> host: she has used her voice from the bully pulled that some of the critics what you would consider her side of the aisle have questions on the she have done more. >> guest: that is one of the questions in the time in the white house could she do more and she has critics from women to her left although it is simplistic.
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especially what she does after. was it a memoir or whether she would do with her writing. i think she has made it clear that she intends to continue to work on education remembering how important it was to her own life and the messages that she heard and have shared with kids now. she calls it the most important civil rights challenge and continues to work on it. >> host: that goes back to her own importance of education with those children of the great migration and onto her generation so that would be a
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wonderful cause for her to maintain. some people say she should get into politics. do you see any chance that she would run for political office? >> guest: not only had she said no under no circumstances. barack obama was asked what if you heard ten years from now that your wife was in politics? i would conclude that she had been adopted by aliens. [laughter] >> host: did you see her on the campaign trail perhaps for hillary clinton? >> guest: she hasn't put her hand enough that it is fair to say that she and barack obama will want a democrat elected and not have such important things they care about. >> host: and the legacy of course. >> guest: she's a terrific fund raiser. she has raised millions and is
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in a great demand as a speaker. >> host: one thing that you mentioned when she was the main speaker at the democratic national convention in 2012 and i remember watching that and she came out on stage in her dress was shiny and perfect, and she gave a speech that was called masterful. use it in your book that she touched the station of the family. her father climbing the stairs slowly and borrowing money to pay for her princeton bills. her grandmother riding the bus into training male colleagues promoted while she hit the glass ceiling. while his family continued to scrape by. they were married and paying
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more towards their student loans towards the mortgage. she goes on to say though that as president she has seen firsthand how that doesn't change how we do our. it reveals who you are and what does being the first lady reveal about michelle obama and i almost said michelle obama superstar. [laughter] >> i think that in this world we have seen so many sides, so many worlds that she can walk and i think that it gets back to those conversations about purpose that reflects the work she did along the way in chicago during her 20 year professional career where she is in the white house to try
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to show as an example about what is possible. more importantly she would hope that that message would be a big part of her legacy. >> host: that this story is a story of the american dream? >> guest: i think it's safe to say that she represents an important chapter in the country's history and we've seen in the time that she has inhabited great progress towards the world is a little bit more care that let's keep in mind that it was only a year ago that michelle obama was giving a speech to commemorate point that there was a long way to go.
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but her story is part of that history and part of the progress. >> host: this is a wonderful book that you've written. i know you want everyone in the world to read it but who in particular would you like to read this book that might give them a better understanding not just of the show obama but of the american story? >> guest: i hope that the book will be read at a number of levels. some people are interested just in michelle obama who has an interesting story to tell but i do certainly hope that there will be people that will read a little more deeply into see themselves in the story which is a story that reflects such an
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important slice of history and i hope that there will be people who will read it who may not have fully appreciated just exactly how recent we have seen such and e. quality and how much it is with us and will reflect on that and the kind of thing is michelle obama is talking about and discussing and trying to change. ..

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