With total partisan war (still) consuming Washington, the Obama White House spent the last two weeks blasting away at an unlikely antagonist: 36-year-old New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, author of the new book The Obamas. The text, while containing embarrassing anecdotes detailing schisms between the First Lady and West Wing advisers, largely presents its titular couple in a favorable light. As Jon Stewart put it to Kantor last week: “The book seems to portray Michelle Obama as a complex yet human individual, struggling with this unbelievable situation yet remaining the moral compass and center of an administration trying to find its footing. I guess the only thing I would say to you is, how dare you?” The joke had the ring of truth; for this particular president, Kantor’s sin was in writing her book at all.
Of course, as soon as reports of Kantor’s seven-figure advance put the book on the administration’s radar in 2009, it was certain to be scrutinized. The Obamas’ tightly choreographed debut via a page-one Times excerpt—and the follow-up coverage of the most tabloid-friendly anecdotes—then guaranteed that the White House would have to respond. Still, the ferocity of the White House’s push-back, which was directed by Eric Schultz, the press officer more commonly tasked with scandals like the Solyndra bankruptcy, was striking. “I’ve been writing highly personal stories about [the Obamas] for five years,” Kantor told me. “And nothing like this had ever happened before.”
But the White House’s reaction starts to make more sense if you consider this fact: Barack Obama is the country’s first memoirist-in-chief. Unlike his predecessors, who turned to postpresidential memoirs to shape their legacies, Obama did it the other way around, writing his way to prominence with his best-selling Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. His books also meant that he owned his own narrative like no other politician in memory. But the distinction goes beyond even that. With his literary mien—a cool detachment, a sense of observing the complexity of life as an outsider—Obama is a writer who happened to become president.
So it must be frustrating that now, as president, Obama must watch as outsiders attempt to tell his story. (Kantor hints at this possible tension, writing that Obama disdains the media and at times seemed that he “wanted to be his own White House correspondent.”) Under the guise of factual disputes, the president’s team was actually challenging Kantor’s fundamental approach in setting out to tell the Obamas’ personal story. During a recent CBS interview with Gayle King, Michelle Obama let slip a frustration her husband likely shares: “What third person can tell me how I feel?”
It’s a fair question, but Kantor’s book, which just debuted at No. 6 on the Times’ best-seller list, won’t be the last to venture to do just that. David Maraniss and Bob Woodward both have volumes on the Obama White House due out before the election, and a second term, if the president wins one, will surely bring more efforts like them. Eventually, Obama will get his chance to write a look back at his time in the Oval Office. Until then, he’ll remain in what for him must be an uncomfortable position—as a reader, not author, of his story.