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The Hero’s Foil

Normalizing the president.

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Portrait by Mondongo  

Gifted with the security that her parents gave her in childhood, Michelle Obama seems to have been both thrilled and discomfited by her husband’s radical self-invention and his desire to stand out from the crowd. His character was shaped in a quiet but tense struggle with his mixed parentage and the fact that both his parents abandoned him for other pursuits. Michelle will always remain the queen of a precious square block of middle-class black Chicago where her parents loved her and her brother was a basketball star.

There are clear limits to Michelle’s ambition. She went to excellent schools, got decent grades, stayed away from too much intellectual heavy lifting, and held a series of practical, modestly salaried jobs while accommodating her husband’s wilder dreams and raising two lovely daughters. In this, she is a more practical role model for young women than Hillary Clinton, blending her calculations about family and career with an expectation of normal personal happiness. Now her mother is coming to live in the White House.

The fact that Barack remains so publicly in thrall to her is a tribute to the Obamas’ shared genius for putting other people at their ease. Barack Obama alone would make us uncomfortable. Michelle neutralizes our response to her husband’s existential estrangement by sharing our discomfort while still being in love with him. She found his literary and political ambitions wildly impractical. She tested him before she married him, made fun of his weird-sounding name, tried to make him go to bed on time, and worried that he didn’t get a normal job. She convinced her husband, whose mastery of political calculation extends to seven or ten extra dimensions, that she was the ultimate catch.

The trick of attributing superhuman characteristics to a protagonist and then making him vulnerable through love is a literary trick as old as the Greeks. F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved the Obamas, though one suspects that he would have edged Michelle into crazy territory or made her into a black Jordan Baker type, mysterious and cool with a borderline lesbian vibe. Love is the great equalizer, and it makes the reader less resentful of a supremely gifted hero.


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