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Review: Liza Mundy's 'Michelle' portrays the next first lady as a hard-working girl next door.

Barack and Michelle Obama spent two years on the campaign trail as he ran for president, but in many ways the nation is still getting to know them.

Collectively, we seem eager to know them better, judging from the big ratings their television interviews garner. For those who want to know more about Barack, there are several biographies as well as his own books: the memoir Dreams From My Father and the more politically oriented essays of The Audacity of Hope.

But for those interested in Michelle Obama, there are noticeably fewer choices. One early entrant is Michelle, by Washington Post feature writer Liza Mundy.

The catch here is that the Obamas did not cooperate with this one. Far from it — Mundy wrote an article for the online magazine Slate puzzling over the fact that the Obamas seemed to have actively discouraged friends and family from talking to her. It is puzzling, because Michelle is a friendly biography that portrays the next first lady as a likable, smart, girl-next-door type.

Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson in 1964, she was raised by loving parents rooted in Chicago's African-American community. Mundy gives particular attention to the historical events affecting her South Side neighborhood, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the racial unrest of the '60s.

Encouraged to be a high achiever by her parents, Michelle Robinson attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, an integrated school where she served as a class officer. She then headed off to the Ivy League, completing her undergraduate degree at Princeton University, followed by Harvard Law School. Mundy is particularly good at depicting the campus culture wars of the '80s, though there are big gaps in what Michelle said or thought about the issues of the day.

After law school, she worked at an elite Chicago law firm, where she met her future husband. She resisted him at first because she suspected, based on the office buzz about a whiz kid from Hawaii, that he might be "nerdy, strange, off-putting."

It's about the early years of their relationship that Michelle offers the most insight. Mundy depicts her as being as charismatic and ambitious as her future husband and just as concerned with public service and social change.

The details of her professional career demonstrate a continuing line of civic-minded work: She left the law firm to join the mayoral administration of Richard M. Daley, after being recruited by Valerie Jarrett, now one of Barack Obama's closest advisers. She left city government to work more directly in public service as the executive director of Public Allies, an organization that trains young people to work in the nonprofit sector. (Public Allies would become part of the Clinton administration's AmeriCorps program.)

Michelle then worked for the University of Chicago Hospitals as a community affairs liaison, helping the university organize volunteers and expand contracts with women- and minority-owned firms, and conducting neighborhood outreach to steer patients away from emergency rooms into primary care.

Finally, Mundy tackles the campaign, though the book was published just before the election and so does not include Barack Obama's victory.

Although undoubtedly sympathetic to Michelle Obama, Mundy forthrightly addresses charges from her critics, including the flap when she said, "For the first time in my adult life I am really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change."

Mundy concludes that Michelle Obama probably meant what she said, based on interviews with African-American leaders who defended the comment. They loved their country, they said, but were not always proud of it because of its history of racial discrimination, and there is an important distinction there. "People who have not traveled the same road that African-Americans have traveled could not understand it," Mundy (who is white) quotes one Chicago minister as saying.

Mundy concludes that Michelle Obama is "outspoken, likable, grounded. She may indeed be quick to find fault — with bosses, with America, whatever — but she is also warm and loyal and, truth be told, not much of a rabble-rouser. If she becomes first lady, she will be an interesting and occasionally lively one."

The job of first lady, though, is "difficult and constraining and unenviable . . . all the scrutiny, and none of the power." Mundy here sells the first lady position short. Whatever the job's limits, modern first ladies have used their celebrity to promote causes and charities. From this point of view, the job is an open-ended opportunity for someone with a career in public service.

Michelle Obama has said she intends to be "mom-in-chief," spending much of her time mothering her two daughters, but it seems likely, based on Mundy's portrait, she will also use her new platform to promote cherished causes.

For researchers and investigators, Michelle is mostly a compendium of the known record, although Mundy gets bonus points for her easy-to-read prose style and for documenting her sources well in above-average end notes. For confirmed Michelle Obama fans or for those who are simply intrigued by a new first lady and would like to know more, Michelle is great night-table reading.

Angie Drobnic Holan is a researcher and reporter for


A Biography

By Liza Mundy

Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $25

Review: Liza Mundy's 'Michelle' portrays the next first lady as a hard-working girl next door. 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 3:30am]
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