This week, Brooklyn-based New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor published The Obamas, a chronicle of the first couple in the White House. Before most of the political world had even read the book, which was strictly embargoed until its release, it attracted a fair amount of controversy. A list of alleged errors — most of which were not, in fact, errors — circulated the Internet.
Kantor got the book contract after a splashy 2009 article on the Obamas’ marriage, in which she’d obtained a rare joint interview with the couple. It was access she didn’t get for the writing of the book, for which she drew criticism from some quarters, including from Michelle Obama herself, who gave an interview to Gayle King this week questioning how someone else could purport to know what she, Michelle, was thinking. Obama also implied that the book, or at least the reaction to it, somehow fed into the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” with which she’s often been tagged. On Thursday, Daily Intel talked with Kantor about the White House’s reaction to her book, the access question, and the East Wing’s crisis-response mode.
New York: So Michelle Obama joined Twitter this week. Do you know why she was never on Twitter before? Do you think she’ll get into it?
Jodi Kantor: I spoke to them about Twitter a couple of months ago and my impression from her communications staff was that they weren’t really that familiar with it. It will be interesting to see how she uses it, because one thing the aides say is that Michelle Obama is really anxious about making a mistake. She rehearses her speeches again and again before she gives them. She almost never gives a spontaneous statement. After Gabrielle Giffords was shot, I knew how much that event disturbed her and I wondered if we were going see a more spontaneous statement or display of emotions from the First Lady — everything she does is pretty highly orchestrated. There’s very little that’s spontaneous, so I think that what will be interesting is watching her use a technology that is somewhat about spontaneity and whether we’re going to hear her voice. Because with some of the fund-raising e-mails the campaign has sent out over the years, some of them have sounded a little bit more like her and some of them don’t sound very much like her at all.
NY: So now you’re sort of the leading expert on the way the East Wing deals with crisis, and they seem to be in some sort of a crisis mode in response to this book! I’m thinking specifically of the timing of her joining Twitter. Do think that’s a reaction to the book?
JK: Oh, I don’t want to speculate about that! I don’t want to speculate about White House strategy, in part because they are sending so many mixed signals. There have been a lot of White House advisors who have — mostly anonymously — said things like, “Actually, this was a pretty sympathetic portrayal of a new First Lady finding her way in a role that she never thought she would be in.” And I’m also hesitant to characterize their reaction or what’s going on there. I will say this: One thing I did see in my reporting again and again is that the Obamas themselves are much more involved in handling stories than is usually known. For instance, when Mark Leibovich, my colleague from the Times was writing about whether the White House was a boy’s club, the president was really involved in managing that story. He was giving talking points to aides behind-the-scenes, which was not known at the time.
NY: It’s interesting that the White House doesn’t like the picture that’s been painted of the First Lady. Personally, I think she comes across as pretty cool —
JK: There’s a really strange thing going on with this book, which is that the book that’s being discussed on TV is not the book that I actually published.
NY: What do you mean by that?
JK: What I mean is, again and again, people are having the reactions that you just mentioned — of hearing about the book ahead of time and hearing some of the headlines, and then finding that the book is actually a sensitive, nuanced, accurate, multi-dimensional view of the Obamas. It shows their successes and their failures. The main narrative about Michelle Obama involves turnaround, involves learning and growth — and a lot of people have found it really positive. It makes them like her more.
NY: I was struck by her reaction, in which she said “strong woman” in this voice that was kind of weird, almost as if that were an insult that she were being tagged with, and then segued from that to the “angry black woman” thing.
JK: I do think it’s interesting that there does seem to be some sort of assumption in the political world that it would be a really terrible thing if she came across as a strong woman.
NY: So, you told Carol Felsenthal from Chicago magazine that you have, I think it was, “an intense relationship” with the Obamas.
JK: Oh, I’m so glad you’re asking about that! I wish I had said that differently because what I was trying to say is that I’ve been covering the Obamas since 2007, and the second story I ever wrote was one in which I broke the news of the tension between Barack Obama and his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. And from then until now, I’ve written a series of stories that are really close to home about them. I’ve written about race; I’ve written about their children, about their marriage; I’ve written about their family. I interviewed them for 40 minutes in the Oval Office about their marriage. Rachel Swarns and I traced Michelle Obama’s roots back to slavery and part of what is funny about the relationship is that I don’t … nobody has a lot of access to them. There is no journalist with whom they spend a tremendous amount of time. But what I was trying to get at is that sometimes when I do see them at media speeches and even briefly at the White House Christmas parties, the moment feels very intense. What feels more intense than even that is just writing so personally about a president and first lady and having done it for so long. And by the way, they cooperated with my stories for years and years and years and years.
NY: Right. The access question. They were cooperating and cooperating … and then they wouldn’t give you interviews for this book. I know you told an audience in New York that the Ron Suskind book sort of turned them off of granting that kind of access to other journalists. When did it become clear, essentially, during the book-writing process, that they weren’t going to give you that access?
JK: Only at the very end. What I was told at the beginning of the process was that there was a possibility of these interviews and we kept discussing it and kept discussing it for months and months, and they finally gave me a final no in late September*. Two of the reasons they cited along the way were: One, that I had already gotten a big interview with both Obamas [for a New York Times story about their marriage], and two, that they doubted that they would be giving interviews after their experience with the Ron Suskind book. I don’t want to speak for them but that’s just what I was told.
NY: It seems like September is awfully late in the process. How much would that have changed the narrative?
JK: Oh, well, I just think the rule is that you never stop asking, you know? If they would give me an interview today for this book, we would publish an afterword with it in the next edition.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
* The original version said Kantor’s last “no” from the White House came in October; after the article was published, she double-checked her records and found it was, in fact, late September.
Previously: The Best Tidbits From Jodi Kantor’s Obama Book