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Almost from the minute we agreed it would be okay for him to run, Barack became a kind of human blur, a pixelated version of the guy I knew—a man who quite suddenly had to be everywhere all at once, driven by and beholden to the force of the larger effort. There was not quite a year until the primary contests got started, beginning in Iowa. Barack had to quickly hire staff, woo the types of donors who could write big checks, and figure out how to introduce his candidacy in the most resonant way possible. The goal was to get on people’s radar and stay there right through Election Day. Campaigns could be won and lost on their earliest moves.
The whole operation would be overseen by the two deeply invested Davids—Axelrod and Plouffe. Axe, as everyone called him, had a soft voice, a courtly manner, and a brushy mustache that ran the length of his top lip. He’d worked as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before turning to political consulting and would lead the messaging and media for Barack. Plouffe, who at thirty-nine had a boyish smile and a deep love of numbers and strategy, would manage the overall campaign. The team was growing rapidly, with experienced people recruited to look after the finances and handle advance planning on events.
Someone had the wisdom to suggest that Barack might want to formally announce his candidacy in Springfield. Everyone agreed that it would be a fitting, middle-of-America backdrop for what we hoped would be a different kind of campaign—one led from the ground up, largely by people new to the political process. This was the cornerstone of Barack’s hope. His years as a community organizer had shown him how many people felt unheard and disenfranchised within our democracy. Project VOTE! had helped him see what was possible if those people were empowered to participate. His run for president would be an even bigger test of that idea. Would his message work on a larger scale? Would enough people come out to help? Barack knew he was an unusual candidate. He wanted to run an unusual campaign.
The plan became for Barack to make his announcement from the steps of the Old State Capitol, a historic landmark that would of course be more visually appealing than any convention center or arena. But it also put him outdoors, in the middle of Illinois, in the middle of February, when temperatures were often below freezing. The decision struck me as well-intentioned but generally impractical, and it did little to build my confidence in the campaign team that now more or less ran our lives. I was unhappy about it, imagining the girls and me trying to smile through blowing snow or frigid winds, Barack trying to appear invigorated instead of chilled. I thought about all the people who would decide to stay home that day rather than stand out in the cold for hours. I was a midwesterner: I knew the weather could ruin everything. I knew also that Barack couldn’t afford an early flop.
About a month earlier, Hillary Clinton had declared her own candidacy, brimming with confidence. John Edwards, Kerry’s former running mate from North Carolina, had launched his campaign a month prior to that, speaking in front of a New Orleans home that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. In all, a total of nine Democrats would throw their hats into the ring. The field would be crowded and the competition fierce.
Barack’s team was gambling with an outdoor announcement, but it wasn’t my place to second-guess. I insisted that the advance team at least equip Barack’s podium with a heater to keep him from appearing too uncomfortable on the national news. Otherwise, I held my tongue. I had little control anymore. Rallies were being planned, strategies mapped, volunteers mustered. The campaign was under way, and there was no parachuting out of it.
In what was probably a subconscious act of self-preservation, my focus shifted toward something I could control, which was finding acceptable headwear for Malia and Sasha for the announcement. I’d found new winter coats for them, but I’d forgotten all about hats until it was nearly too late.
As the announcement day neared, I began making harried after-work trips to the department stores at Water Tower Place, rifling through the dwindling midseason supply of winter wear, hunting the clearance racks in vain. It wasn’t long before I became less concerned with making sure Malia and Sasha looked like the daughters of a future president than making sure they looked like they at least had a mother. Finally, on what was probably my third outing, I found some—two knit hats, white for Malia and pink for Sasha, both in a women’s size small, which ended up fitting snugly on Malia’s head but drooping loosely around Sasha’s little five-year-old face. They weren’t high fashion, but they looked cute enough, and more important they’d keep the girls warm regardless of what the Illinois winter had in store. It was a small triumph, but a triumph nonetheless, and it was mine.
Announcement day—February 10, 2007—turned out to be a bright, cloudless morning, the kind of sparkling midwinter Saturday that looks a lot better than it actually feels. The air temperature sat at about twelve degrees, with a light breeze blowing. Our family had arrived in Springfield the previous day, staying in a three-room suite at a downtown hotel, on a floor that had been rented out entirely by the campaign to house a couple dozen of our family and friends who’d traveled down from Chicago as well.
Already, we were beginning to experience the pressures of a national campaign. Barack’s announcement had inadvertently been scheduled for the same day as the State of the Black Union, a forum organized each year by the public-broadcasting personality Tavis Smiley, who was evidently angry about it. He’d made his displeasure clear to the campaign staff, suggesting that the move showed a disregard for the African American community and would end up hurting Barack’s candidacy. I was surprised that the first shots fired at us came from within the black community. Then, just a day ahead of the announcement, Rolling Stone published a piece on Barack that included the reporter making a visit to Trinity Church in Chicago. We were still members there, though our attendance had dropped off significantly after the girls were born. The piece quoted from an angry and inflammatory sermon the Reverend Jeremiah Wright had delivered many years earlier regarding the treatment of blacks in our country, intimating that Americans cared more about maintaining white supremacy than they did about God.
While the profile itself was largely positive, the cover line of the magazine read, “The Radical Roots of Barack Obama,” which we knew would quickly get weaponized by the conservative media. It was a disaster in the making, especially on the eve of the campaign launch and especially because Reverend Wright was scheduled to lead the invocation ahead of Barack’s speech. Barack had to make a difficult call, phoning the pastor and asking whether he’d be willing to step back from the spotlight, giving us a private backstage blessing instead. Reverend Wright’s feelings were hurt, Barack said, but he also seemed to understand the stakes, leading us to believe that he’d be supportive without dwelling on his disappointment.
That morning, it hit me that we’d reached the no-turning-back moment. We were literally now putting our family in front of the American people. The day was meant to be a massive kickoff party for the campaign, one for which everyone had spent weeks preparing. And like every paranoid host, I couldn’t shake the fear that when the time finally came, no one would show up. Unlike Barack, I could be a doubter. I still held on to the worries I’d had since childhood. What if we’re not good enough? Maybe everything we’d been told was an exaggeration. Maybe Barack was less popular than his people believed. Maybe it just wasn’t yet his time. I tried to shove all doubts aside as we arrived through a side entrance to a staging area inside the old capitol, still unable to see what was going on out front. So that I could get a briefing from the staff, I handed Sasha and Malia off to my mother and Kaye Wilson—“Mama Kaye”—a former mentor of Barack’s who had in recent years stepped into the role of second grandmother to our girls.
The crowd was looking good, I was told. People had started gathering before dawn. The plan was for Barack to walk out first, and then the girls and I would join him a few moments later on the platform, climbing a few stairs before turning to wave at the crowd. I’d made it clear already that we would not stay onstage for his twenty-minute address. It was too much to ask two little kids to sit still and pretend to be interested. If they looked at all bored, if either one sneezed or started fidgeting, it would do nothing for Barack’s cause. The same went for me. I knew the stereotype I was meant to inhabit, the immaculately groomed doll-wife with the painted-on smile, gazing bright-eyed at her husband, as if hanging on every word. This was not me and never would be. I could be supportive, but I couldn’t be a robot.
Following the briefing and a moment of prayer with Reverend Wright, Barack walked out to greet the audience, his appearance met with a roar I could hear from inside the capitol. I went back to find Sasha and Malia, beginning to feel truly nervous. “Are you girls ready?” I said.
“Mommy, I’m hot,” Sasha said, tearing off her pink hat.
“Oh, sweetie, you’ve got to keep that on. It’s freezing outside.” I grabbed the hat and fitted it back on her head.
“But we’re not outside, we’re inside,” she said.
This was Sasha, our round-faced little truth teller. I couldn’t argue with her logic. Instead, I glanced at one of the staffers nearby, trying to telegraph a message to a young person who almost certainly didn’t have kids of her own: Dear God, if we don’t get this thing started now, we’re going to lose these two.
In an act of mercy, she nodded and motioned us toward the entrance. It was time.
I’d been to a fair number of Barack’s political events by now and had seen him interact many times with big groups of constituents. I’d been at campaign kickoffs, fund-raisers, and election-night parties. I’d seen audiences filled with old friends and longtime supporters. But Springfield was something else entirely.
My nerves left me the moment we stepped onstage. I was focused completely on Sasha, making sure she was smiling and not about to trip over her own booted feet. “Look up, sweetie,” I said, holding her hand. “Smile!” Malia was out ahead of us already, her chin high and her smile giant as she caught up with her father and waved. It wasn’t until we ascended the stairs that I was finally able to take in the crowd, or at least try to. The rush was enormous. More than fifteen thousand people, it turned out, had come that day. They were spread out in a three-hundred-degree panorama, spilling out from the capitol, enveloping us with their enthusiasm.
I’d never been one who’d choose to spend a Saturday at a political rally. The appeal of standing in an open gym or high school auditorium to hear lofty promises and platitudes never made much sense to me. Why, I wondered, were all these people here? Why would they layer on extra socks and stand for hours in the cold? I could imagine people bundling up and waiting to hear a band whose every lyric they could sing or enduring a snowy Super Bowl for a team they’d followed since childhood. But politics? This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.
It began dawning on me that we were the band. We were the team about to take the field. What I felt more than anything was a sudden sense of responsibility. We owed something to each one of these people. We were asking for an investment of their faith, and now we had to deliver on what they’d brought us, carrying that enthusiasm through twenty months and fifty states and right into the White House. I hadn’t believed it was possible, but maybe now I did. This was the call-and-response of democracy, I realized, a contract forged person by person. You show up for us, and we’ll show up for you. I had fifteen thousand more reasons to want Barack to win.
I was fully committed now. Our whole family was committed, even if it felt a little scary. I couldn’t yet begin to imagine what lay ahead. But there we were—out there—the four of us standing before the crowd and the cameras, naked but for the coats on our backs and a slightly too big pink hat on a tiny head.
Hillary Clinton was a serious and formidable opponent. In poll after poll, she held a commanding lead among the country’s potential Democratic primary voters, with Barack lagging ten or twenty points behind, and Edwards sitting a few points behind Barack. Democratic voters knew the Clintons, and they were hungry for a win. Far fewer people could even pronounce my husband’s name. All of us—Barack and I as well as the campaign team—understood long before his announcement that regardless of his political gifts a black man named Barack Hussein Obama would always be a long shot.
It was a hurdle we faced within the black community, too. Similar to how I’d initially felt about Barack’s candidacy, plenty of black folks couldn’t bring themselves to believe that my husband had a real chance of winning. Many had yet to believe that a black man could win in predominantly white areas, which meant they’d often go for the safer bet, the next-best thing. One facet of the challenge for Barack was to shift black voters away from their long-standing allegiance to Bill Clinton, who’d shown unusual ease with the African American community and formed many connections there as a result. Barack had already built goodwill with a diverse range of constituents throughout Illinois, including in the rural white farm areas in the southern part of the state. He’d already proven that he could reach all demographics, but many people didn’t yet understand this about him.
The scrutiny of Barack would be extra intense, the lens always magnified. We knew that as a black candidate he couldn’t afford any sort of stumble. He’d have to do everything twice as well. For Barack, and for every candidate not named Clinton, the only hope for winning the nomination was to raise a lot of money and start spending it fast, hoping that a strong performance in the earliest primaries would give the campaign enough momentum to slingshot past the Clinton machine.
Our hopes were pinned on Iowa. We had to win it or otherwise stand down. Mostly rural and more than 90 percent white, it was a curious state to serve as the nation’s political bellwether and was maybe not the most obvious place for a black guy based in Chicago to try to define himself, but this was the reality. Iowa went first in presidential primaries and had since 1972. Members of both parties cast their votes at precinct-level meetings—caucuses—in the middle of winter, and the whole nation paid attention. If you got yourself noticed in Des Moines and Dubuque, your candidacy automatically mattered in Orlando and L.A. We knew, too, that if we made a good showing in Iowa, it would send the message to black voters nationally that it was okay to start believing. The fact that Barack was a senator in neighboring Illinois, giving him some name recognition and a familiarity with the area’s broader issues, had convinced David Plouffe that we had at least a small advantage in Iowa—one upon which we would now try to capitalize.
This meant that I would be going to Iowa almost weekly, catching early-morning United Airlines flights out of O’Hare, making three or four campaign stops in a day. I told Plouffe early on that while I was happy to campaign, part of the deal had to be that they’d get me back to Chicago in time to put the girls to bed at night. My mother had agreed to cut down her hours at work so that she could be around for the kids more when I was traveling. Barack, too, would be logging many hours in Iowa, though we’d rarely show up there—or anywhere—together. I was now what they call a surrogate for the candidate, a stand-in who could meet with voters at a community center in Iowa City while he campaigned in Cedar Falls or raised money in New York. Only when it really seemed important would the campaign staff put the two of us in the same room.
Barack now traveled with a swarm of attentive aides, and I was allotted funds to hire a two-person staff of my own, which given that I planned to volunteer only two or three days per week to the campaign seemed like plenty to me. I had no idea what I needed in terms of support. Melissa Winter, who was my first hire and would later become my chief of staff, had been recommended by Barack’s scheduler. She’d worked in Senator Joe Lieberman’s office on Capitol Hill and had been involved in his 2000 vice presidential campaign. I interviewed Melissa—blond, bespectacled, and in her late thirties—in our living room in Chicago and was impressed by her irreverent wit and almost obsessive devotion to detail, which I knew would be important as I tried to integrate campaigning into my already-busy schedule at the hospital. She was sharp, highly efficient, and quick moving. She’d also been around politics enough to be unfazed by its intensity and pace. Just a few years younger than I was, Melissa also felt more like a peer and an ally than the much younger campaign workers I’d encountered. She would become someone I trusted—as I do still, to this day—with literally every part of my life.
Katie McCormick Lelyveld rounded out our little trio by coming on board as my communications director. Not yet thirty, she’d already worked on a presidential campaign and also for Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady, which made her experience doubly relevant. Spunky, intelligent, and always perfectly dressed, Katie would be in charge of wrangling reporters and TV crews, making sure our events were well covered and also—thanks to the leather briefcase she kept packed with stain remover, breath mints, a sewing kit, and an extra pair of nylons—that I didn’t make a mess of myself as we sprinted between airplanes and events.
Over the years, I’d seen news coverage of presidential candidates making their way around Iowa, awkwardly interrupting tables full of unassuming citizens having coffee at diners, or posing goofily in front of a full-sized cow carved out of butter or eating fried whatevers-on-a-stick at the state fair. What was meaningful to voters and what was just grandstanding, though, I wasn’t quite sure.
Barack’s advisers had tried to demystify Iowa for me, explaining that my mission was primarily to spend time with Democrats in every corner of the state, addressing small groups, energizing volunteers, and trying to win over leaders in the community. Iowans, they said, took their role as political trendsetters seriously. They did their homework on candidates and asked serious policy questions. Accustomed as they were to months of careful courtship, they were not likely to be won over with a smile and a handshake, either. Some would hold out for months, I was told, expecting a face-to-face conversation with every candidate before finally committing to one. What they didn’t tell me was what my message in Iowa was supposed to be. I was given no script, no talking points, no advice. I figured I’d just work it out for myself.
My first solo campaign event took place in early April inside a modest home in Des Moines. A few dozen people had collected in the living room, sitting on couches and folding chairs that had been brought in for the occasion, while others sat cross-legged on the floor. As I scanned the room, preparing to speak, what I observed probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did, at least a little. Laid out on the end tables were the same sorts of white crocheted doilies that my grandmother Shields used to have at her house. I spotted porcelain figurines that looked just like the ones Robbie had kept on her shelves downstairs from us on Euclid Avenue. A man in the front row was smiling at me warmly. I was in Iowa, but I had the distinct feeling of being at home. Iowans, I was realizing, were like Shieldses and Robinsons. They didn’t suffer fools. They didn’t trust people who put on airs. They could sniff out a phony a mile away.
My job, I realized, was to be myself, to speak as myself. And so I did.
“Let me tell you about me. I’m Michelle Obama, raised on the South Side of Chicago, in a little apartment on the top floor of a two-story house that felt a lot like this one. My dad was a water-pump operator for the city. My mom stayed at home to raise my brother and me.”
I talked about everything—about my brother and the values we were raised with, about this hotshot lawyer I met at work, the guy who’d stolen my heart with his groundedness and his vision for the world, the man who’d left his socks lying around the house that morning and sometimes snored in his sleep. I told them about how I was keeping my job at the hospital, about how my mother was picking our girls up from school that day.
I didn’t sugarcoat my feelings about politics. The political world was no place for good people, I said, explaining how I’d been conflicted about whether Barack should run at all, worried about what the spotlight might do to our family. But I was standing before them because I believed in my husband and what he could do. I knew how much he read and how deeply he thought about things. I said that he was exactly the kind of smart, decent president I would choose for this country, even if selfishly I’d have rather kept him closer to home all these years.
As weeks went by, I’d tell the same story—in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs; in Sioux City, Marshalltown, Muscatine—in bookstores, union halls, a home for aging military veterans, and, as the weather warmed up, on front porches and in public parks. The more I told my story, the more my voice settled into itself. I liked my story. I was comfortable telling it. And I was telling it to people who despite the difference in skin color reminded me of my family—postal workers who had bigger dreams just as Dandy once had; civic-minded piano teachers like Robbie; stay-at-home moms who were active in the PTA like my mother; blue-collar workers who’d do anything for their families, just like my dad. I didn’t need to practice or use notes. I said only what I sincerely felt.
Along the way, reporters and even some acquaintances began asking me some form of the same question: What was it like to be a five-foot-eleven, Ivy League–educated black woman speaking to roomfuls of mostly white Iowans? How odd did that feel?
I never liked this question. It always seemed to be accompanied by a sheepish half smile and the don’t-take-this-the-wrong-way inflection that people often use when approaching the subject of race. It was an idea, I felt, that sold us all short, assuming that the differences were all anyone saw.
Mainly I bristled because the question was so antithetical to what I was experiencing and what the people I was meeting seemed to be experiencing, too—the man with a seed-corn logo on his breast pocket, the college student in a black-and-gold pullover, the retiree who’d brought an ice cream bucket full of sugar cookies she’d frosted with our rising-sun campaign logo. These people found me after my talks, seeming eager to talk about what we shared—to say that their dad had lived with MS, too, or that they’d had grandparents just like mine. Many said they’d never gotten involved with politics before but something about our campaign made them feel it would be worth it. They were planning to volunteer at the local office, they said, and they’d try persuading a spouse or neighbor to come along, too.
These interactions felt natural, genuine. I found myself hugging people instinctively and getting hugged tightly back.
It was around this time that I took Malia to our pediatrician for a well-child visit, which we did every three to six months to keep tabs on the asthma she’d had since she was a baby. The asthma was under control, but the doctor alerted me to something else—Malia’s body mass index, a measure of health that factors together height, weight, and age, was beginning to creep up. It wasn’t a crisis, he said, but it was a trend to take seriously. If we didn’t change some habits, it could become a real problem over time, increasing her risk for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Seeing the stricken look on my face, he assured me that the problem was both common and solvable. The rate of childhood obesity was rising all around the country. He’d seen many examples in his practice, which was made up mostly of working-class African Americans.
The news landed like a rock through a stained-glass window. I’d worked so hard to make sure my daughters were happy and whole. What had I done wrong? What kind of mother was I if I hadn’t even noticed a change?
Talking further with the doctor, I began to see the pattern we were in. With Barack gone all the time, convenience had become the single most important factor in my choices at home. We’d been eating out more. With less time to cook, I often picked up takeout on my way home from work. In the mornings, I packed the girls’ lunch boxes with Lunchables and Capri Suns. Weekends usually meant a trip to the McDonald’s drive-through window after ballet and before soccer. None of this, our doctor said, was out of the ordinary, or even all that terrible in isolation. Too much of it, though, was a real problem.
Clearly, something had to change, but I was at a loss about how to make that happen. Every solution seemed to demand more time—time at the grocery store, time in the kitchen, time spent chopping vegetables or slicing the skin off a chicken breast—all this coming right when time felt as if it were already on the verge of extinction in my world.
I then remembered a conversation I’d had a few weeks earlier with an old friend I’d bumped into on a plane, who’d mentioned that she and her husband had hired a young man named Sam Kass to cook regular healthy meals at her house. By coincidence, it turned out Barack and I had met Sam years earlier through a different set of friends.
I never expected to be the sort of person who hired someone to come into my house and prepare meals for my family. It felt a little bougie, the kind of thing that would elicit a skeptical side eye from my South Side relatives. Barack, he of the Datsun with the hole in the floor, wasn’t hot on the idea, either; it didn’t fit with his ingrained community-organizer frugality, nor the image he wanted to promote as a presidential candidate. But to me, it felt like the only sane choice. Something had to give. No one else could run my programs at the hospital. No one else could campaign as Barack Obama’s wife. No one could fill in as Malia and Sasha’s mother at bedtime. But maybe Sam Kass could cook some dinners for us.
I hired Sam to come to our house a couple of times a week, making a meal we could eat that night and another that I could pull from the refrigerator to heat up the next evening. He was a bit of an outlier in the Obama household—a white twenty-six-year-old with a shiny shaved head and a perpetual five o’clock shadow—but the girls took to his corny jokes as quickly as they took to his cooking. He showed them how to chop carrots and blanch greens, shifting our family away from the fluorescent sameness of the grocery store and toward the rhythm of the seasons. He could be reverent about the arrival of fresh peas in springtime or the moment raspberries came ripe in June. He waited until peaches were rich and plump before serving them to the girls, knowing that then they might actually compete with candy. Sam also had an educated perspective on food and health issues, namely how the food industry marketed processed foods to families in the name of convenience and how that was having severe public health consequences. I was intrigued, realizing that it tied in to some of what I’d seen while working for the hospital system, and to the compromises I’d made myself as a working mother trying to feed her family.
One evening Sam and I spent a couple of hours talking in my kitchen, the two of us batting around ideas about how, if Barack ever managed to win the presidency, I might use my role as First Lady to try to address some of these issues. One idea bloomed into another. What if we grew vegetables at the White House and helped advocate for fresh food? What if we then used that as a cornerstone for something bigger, a whole children’s health initiative that might help parents avoid some of the pitfalls I’d experienced?
We talked until it was late. I looked at Sam and let out a sigh. “The only problem is our guy is down by thirty points in the polls,” I said as the two of us began to crack up. “He’s never gonna win.”
It was a dream, but I liked it.
When it came to campaigning, each day was another race to be run. I was still trying to cling to some form of normalcy and stability, not just for the girls, but for me. I carried two BlackBerrys—one for work, the other for my personal life and political obligations, which were now, for better or worse, deeply entwined. My daily phone calls with Barack tended to be short and newsy—Where are you? How’s it going? How are the kids?—both of us accustomed now to not speaking of fatigue or our personal needs. There was no point, because we couldn’t attend to them anyway. Life was all about the ticking clock.
At work, I was doing what I could to keep up, sometimes checking in with my staff at the hospital from the cluttered backseat of a Toyota Corolla belonging to an anthropology student volunteering for the campaign in Iowa or from the quiet corner of a Burger King in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Several months after Barack’s announcement in Springfield and with the support of my colleagues, I’d decided to scale back to part-time hours, knowing it was the only sustainable way to keep going. On the road two or three days a week together, Melissa, Katie, and I had become an efficient family, meeting up at the airport in the mornings and hustling through security, where the guards all knew my name. I was recognized more often now, mostly by African American women who’d call out “Michelle! Michelle!” as I walked past them to the gate.
Something was changing, so gradually that at first it was hard to register. I sometimes felt as if I were floating through a strange universe, waving at strangers who acted as if they knew me, boarding planes that lifted me out of my normal world. I was becoming known. And I was becoming known for being someone’s wife and as someone involved with politics, which made it doubly and triply weird.
Working a rope line during campaign events had become like trying to stay upright inside a hurricane, I’d found, with well-meaning, deeply enthusiastic strangers reaching for my hands and touching my hair, people trying to thrust pens, cameras, and babies at me without warning. I’d smile, shake hands, and hear stories, all the while trying to move forward down the line. Ultimately, I’d emerge, with other people’s lipstick on my cheeks and handprints on my blouse, looking as if I’d just stepped out of a wind tunnel.
I had little time to think much about it, but quietly I worried that as my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted “Harvard-educated” in their description of me, but generally left it at that. A couple of news outlets had published stories speculating that I’d been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband’s growing political stature, which was painful to read. In April, Melissa called me one day at home to let me know about a snarky column written by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. In it, she referred to me as a “princess of South Chicago,” suggesting that I was emasculating Barack when I spoke publicly about how he didn’t pick up his socks or put the butter back in the fridge. For me, it had always been important that people see Barack as human and not as some otherworldly savior. Maureen Dowd would have preferred, apparently, that I adopt the painted-on smile and the adoring gaze. I found it odd and sad that such a harsh critique would come from another professional woman, someone who had not bothered to get to know me but was now trying to shape my story in a cynical way.
I tried not to take this stuff personally, but sometimes it was hard not to.
With every campaign event, every article published, every sign we might be gaining ground, we became slightly more exposed, more open to attack. Crazy rumors swirled about Barack: that he’d been schooled in a radical Muslim madrassa and sworn into the Senate on a Koran. That he refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. That he wouldn’t put his hand over his heart during the national anthem. That he had a close friend who was a domestic terrorist from the 1970s. The falsehoods were routinely debunked by reputable news sources but still blazed through anonymous email chains, forwarded not just by basement conspiracy theorists but also by uncles and colleagues and neighbors who couldn’t separate fact from fiction online.
Barack’s safety was something I didn’t want to think about, let alone discuss. So many of us had been brought up with assassinations on the news at night. The Kennedys had been shot. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. Ronald Reagan had been shot. John Lennon had been shot. If you drew too much heat, you bore a certain risk. But then again, Barack was a black man. The risk, for him, was nothing new. “He could get shot just going to the gas station,” I sometimes tried to remind people when they brought it up.
Beginning in May, Barack had been assigned Secret Service protection. It was the earliest a presidential candidate had been given a protective detail ever, a full year and a half before he could even become president-elect, which said something about the nature and the seriousness of the threats against him. Barack now traveled in sleek black SUVs provided by the government and was trailed by a team of suited, ear-pieced men and women with guns. At home, an agent stood guard on our front porch.
For my part, I rarely felt unsafe. As I continued to travel, I was managing to pull in bigger crowds. If I’d once met with twenty people at a time at low-key house parties, I was now speaking to hundreds in a high school gym. The Iowa staff reported that my talks tended to yield a lot of pledges of support (measured in signed “supporter cards,” which the campaign collected and followed up with meticulously). At some point, the campaign began referring to me as “the Closer” for the way I helped make up minds.
Each day brought a new lesson about how to move more efficiently, how not to get slowed down by illness or mess of any kind. After being served some questionable food at otherwise charming roadside diners, I learned to value the bland certainty of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. On bumpy drives between small towns, I learned how to protect my clothing from spills by seeking out snacks that would crumble rather than drip, knowing that I couldn’t be photographed with a dollop of hummus on my dress. I trained myself to limit my water intake, understanding there was rarely time for bathroom breaks on the road. I learned to sleep through the sound of long-haul trucks barreling down the Iowa interstate after midnight and (as happened at one particularly thin-walled hotel) to ignore a happy couple enjoying their wedding night in the next room.
As up and down as I sometimes felt, that first year of campaigning was filled primarily with warm memories and bursts of laughter. As often as I could, I brought Sasha and Malia along with me out on the trail. They were hardy, happy travelers. On a busy day at an outdoor fair in New Hampshire, I’d gone off to give remarks and shake hands with voters, leaving the girls with a campaign staffer to explore the booths and rides before we regrouped for a magazine photo shoot. An hour or so later, I spotted Sasha and panicked. Her cheeks, nose, and forehead had been covered, meticulously and comprehensively, in black and white face paint. She’d been transformed into a panda bear, and she was thrilled about it. My mind went instantly to the magazine crew waiting for us, the schedule that would now be thrown off. But then I looked back at her little panda face and exhaled. My daughter was cute and content. All I could do was laugh and find the nearest restroom to scrub off the paint.
From time to time, we’d travel together as a family, all four of us. The campaign rented an RV for a few days in Iowa, so that we could do barnstorming tours of small towns, punctuated by rousing games of Uno between stops. We passed an afternoon at the Iowa State Fair, riding bumper cars and shooting water soakers to win stuffed animals, as photographers jostled for position, shoving their lenses in our faces. The real fun started after Barack got swept off to his next destination, leaving the girls and me free from the tornado of press, security, and staff that now moved with him, stirring up everything in its wake. Once he’d left, we got to explore the midway on our own, the air rushing past us as we rocketed down a giant yellow slide on burlap sacks.
Week after week, I returned to Iowa, watching through the plane window as the seasons changed, as the earth slowly greened and the soybean and corn crops grew in ruler-straight lines. I loved the tidy geometry of those fields, the pops of color that turned out to be barns, the flat county highways that ran straight to the horizon. I had come to love the state, even if despite all our work it was looking like we might not be able to win there.
For the better part of a year now, Barack and his team had poured resources into Iowa, but according to most polls he was still running second or third behind Hillary and John Edwards. The race looked to be close, but Barack was losing. Nationally, the picture appeared worse: Barack consistently trailed Hillary by a full fifteen or twenty points—a reality I was hit with anytime I passed by the cable news blaring in airports or at campaign-stop restaurants.
Months earlier, I’d become so fed up with the relentless, carnival-barker commentary on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News that I’d permanently blacklisted those channels during my evenings at home, treating myself instead to a more steadying diet of E! and HGTV. At the end of a busy day, I will tell you, there is nothing better than watching a young couple find their dream home in Nashville or some young bride-to-be saying yes to the dress.
Quite honestly, I didn’t believe the pundits, and I wasn’t sure about the polls, either. In my heart, I was convinced they were wrong. The climate described from inside sterile urban studios was not the one I was encountering in the church halls and rec centers of Iowa. The pundits weren’t meeting teams of high school “Barack Stars,” who volunteered after football practice or drama club. They weren’t holding hands with a white grandmother who imagined a better future for her mixed-race grandchildren. Nor did they seem aware of the proliferating giant that was our field organization. We were in the process of building a massive grassroots campaign network—ultimately two hundred staffers in thirty-seven offices—the largest in the history of the Iowa caucuses.
We had youth on our side. Our organization was powered by the idealism and energy of twenty-two- to twenty-five-year-olds who had dropped everything and driven themselves to Iowa to join the campaign, each one carrying some permutation of the gene that had compelled Barack to take the organizing job in Chicago all those years ago. They had a spirit and skill that hadn’t yet been accounted for in the polls. I felt it every time I visited, a surge of hope that came from interacting with true believers who were spending four or five hours every evening knocking on doors and calling voters, building networks of supporters in even the tiniest and most conservative towns, while learning by heart the intricacies of my husband’s stance on hog confinements or his plan to fix the immigration system.
To me, the young people managing our field offices represented the promise of the coming generation of leaders. They weren’t jaded, and now they’d been galvanized and united. They were connecting voters more directly to their democracy, whether through the field office down the street or a website through which they could organize their own meetings and phone banks. As Barack often said, what we were doing wasn’t just about a single election. It was about making politics better for the future—less money-driven, more accessible, and ultimately more hopeful. Even if we didn’t end up winning, we were making progress that mattered. One way or another, their work would count.
As the weather began to turn cold again, Barack knew he had basically one last chance to change up the race in Iowa, and that was by making a strong showing at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, an annual Democratic ritual in every state. In Iowa, during a presidential election, it was held in early November, about eight weeks ahead of the January caucuses, and covered by the national media. The premise was that every candidate gave a speech—with no notes and no teleprompter—and also tried to bring along as many supporters as possible. It was, in essence, a giant and competitive pep rally.
For months, the cable news commentators had doubted that Iowans would stand up for Barack at caucus time, insinuating that as dynamic and unusual a candidate as he was, he still wouldn’t manage to convert the enthusiasm into votes. The crowd at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner was our answer to this. About three thousand of our supporters had driven in from all over the state, showing that we were both organized and active—stronger than anyone thought.
Onstage that night, John Edwards took a shot at Clinton, speaking in veiled terms about sincerity and trustworthiness being important. Grinning, Joe Biden acknowledged the impressive and noisy turnout of Obama supporters with a sardonic “Hello, Chicago!” Hillary, who was fighting a cold, also used the opportunity to go after Barack. “ ‘Change’ is just a word,” she said, “if you don’t have the strength and experience to make it happen.”
Barack was the last to speak that night, delivering a rousing defense of his central message—that our country had arrived at a defining moment, a chance to step beyond not just the fear and failures of the Bush administration but the polarized way politics had been waged long before, including, of course, during the Clinton administration. “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s,” he said. “I don’t want to pit Red America against Blue America, I want to be the president of the United States of America.” The auditorium thundered. I watched from the floor with huge pride.
“America, our moment is now,” Barack said. “Our moment is now.”
His performance that night gave the campaign exactly what it needed, catapulting him forward in the race. He took the lead in about half the Iowa polls and was only gaining steam as the caucuses approached.
In the days after Christmas, with just a week or so left in the Iowa campaign, it seemed as if half of the South Side had migrated to the deep freeze of Des Moines. My mother and Mama Kaye showed up. My brother and Kelly came, bringing their kids. Sam Kass was there. Valerie, who’d joined the campaign earlier in the fall as one of Barack’s advisers, was there, along with Susan and my posse of girlfriends and their husbands and children. I was touched when colleagues from the hospital showed up, friends of ours from Sidley & Austin, law professors who’d taught with Barack. And, in step with the use-every-moment ethic of the campaign, they all signed on to help make the final push, reporting to a local field office, knocking on doors in zero-degree weather, talking up Barack, and reminding people to caucus. The campaign was further reinforced by hundreds of others who’d traveled to Iowa from around the country for the final week, staying in the spare bedrooms of local supporters, heading out each day into even the smallest towns and down the most tucked away of gravel roads.
I myself was barely present in Des Moines, doing five or six events a day that kept me moving back and forth across the state, traveling in a rented van with Melissa and Katie, driven by a rotating crew of volunteers. Barack was out doing the same, his voice beginning to grow hoarse.
Regardless of how many miles we had to cover, I made sure to be back at the Residence Inn in West Des Moines, our home-base hotel, each night in time for Malia and Sasha’s eight o’clock bedtime. They, of course, barely seemed to notice I wasn’t around, having been surrounded by cousins and friends and babysitters all day long, playing games in the hotel room and going on excursions around town. One night, I opened the door, hoping to flop on the bed for a few moments of silence, only to find our room strewn with kitchen utensils. There were rolling pins on the bedspread, dirty cutting boards on the small table, kitchen shears on the floor. The lamp shades and the television screen were covered with a light dusting of…was that flour?
“Sam taught us to make pasta!” Malia announced. “We got a little carried away.”
I laughed. I’d been worried about how the girls would handle their first Christmas break away from their great-grandmother in Hawaii. But blessedly, a bag of flour in Des Moines appeared to be a fine substitute for a beach towel in Waikiki.
Several days later, a Thursday, the caucuses arrived. Barack and I dropped into a downtown Des Moines food court over lunch and later made visits to various caucus sites to greet as many voters as we could. Late that evening, we joined a group of friends and family at dinner, thanking them for their support during what had been a nutty eleven months since the announcement in Springfield. I left the meal early to return to my hotel room in time to prepare, win or lose, for Barack’s speech later that night. Within moments, Katie and Melissa burst in with fresh news from the campaign’s war room: “We won!” We were wild with joy, shouting so loudly that the Secret Service rapped on our door to make sure something wasn’t wrong.
On one of the coldest nights of the year, a record number of Iowans had fanned out to their local caucuses, almost double the turnout from four years earlier. Barack had won among whites, blacks, and young people. More than half of the attendees had never participated in a caucus before, and that group likely helped secure Barack’s victory. The cable news anchors had finally made their way to Iowa and were now singing the praises of this political wunderkind who’d comfortably bested the Clinton machine as well as a former vice presidential nominee.
That night at Barack’s victory speech, as the four of us—Barack, me, Malia, Sasha—stood onstage at Hy-Vee Hall, I felt great, even a little chastened. Maybe, I thought to myself, everything Barack had been talking about for all those years really was possible. All those drives to Springfield, all his frustrations about not making a big enough impact, all his idealism, his unusual and earnest belief that people were capable of moving past the things that divided them, that in the end politics could work—maybe he’d been right all along.
We’d accomplished something historic, something monumental—not just Barack, not just me, but Melissa and Katie, and Plouffe, Axelrod, and Valerie, and every young staffer, every volunteer, every teacher and farmer and retiree and high schooler who stood up that night for something new.
It was after midnight when Barack and I went to the airport to leave Iowa, knowing we wouldn’t be back for months. The girls and I were headed home to Chicago, returning to work and school. Barack was flying to New Hampshire, where the primary was less than a week away.
Iowa had changed us all. Iowa had given me, in particular, real faith. Our mandate now was to share it with the rest of the country. In the coming days, our Iowa field organizers would fan out to other states—to Nevada and South Carolina, to New Mexico, Minnesota, and California—to continue spreading the message that had now been proven, that change was really possible.
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