23 May

Dear Michelle Obama


Dear Michelle Obama,

As the Obamas make their first official state visit to the UK, we have a warm welcome for the star of the show – the first lady.


Kira Cochrane

The McGlynn: Kira Cochrane, well done.

Michelle Obama flexes her muscles. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Welcome back to this side of the Atlantic! I’m so glad you’re here, and not just because it means the Queen might get another hug. No, I’m excited because I admire you. You do a difficult job – a difficult non-job, let’s face it – with style, aplomb and humour. I’m guessing you realised back on the campaign trail how difficult the role of first lady would be, what with all that rubbish about you and Barack exchanging “terrorist fist jabs”, the suggestions you were unpatriotic, and the digging up of your college essays. (Imagine! What would they have made of my thesis on penis metaphors in Hemingway?) To exist under that kind of scrutiny must be punishing.

It’s a scrutiny that precludes you from having a day job – there would be constant suggestions that you were exploiting your position, the circling threat of trumped-up scandal – and it doesn’t allow you to get too involved with government either. You’ve been described as Barack’s closest adviser, but you’ve distanced yourself from that tag, with good reason. Hillary Clinton was heavily criticised for her work in her husband’s administration, and while she has turned out to be a brilliant elected politician, some of that was probably warranted. I would love there to be more women in government – the numbers here and in the US are disgraceful – but if it turned out Sam Cam was directing foreign policy I’d be . . . how should I put this? I’d be concerned.

So you’re walking a tightrope, but you make it look easy. I’m sure having to cheerlead for your husband sometimes rankles, but you manage it without looking subservient or surrendered. I would love us to have reached a point in history where a first lady could say or do whatever she wanted, could be tattooed, or sweary, or slovenly, or – get this – highly ambitious; could admit to hating the role at times, could say she’d rather pursue her own career, could basically rebel, but we’re not there yet (certainly not with Fox News around), and you know your husband is a good man, doing his best as president, and that if you kicked up your heels and said something even mildly controversial it would open a window for the prospective 2012 Republican candidates, whom nobody with an ounce of sense would trust with a tombola, let alone a fading superpower.

So you’ve taken on a role that’s packed with pitfalls and made it your own. You’ve advocated great causes – the rights of working parents, child health, women’s empowerment. Your position is defined specifically by your husband’s job, but you’ve remained distinctively your own person. Michelle Obama, we love you. Let me count the ways.

You’re a role model

In a social system still dominated by the rich and the white, you’ve shown it’s possible to rise from a working-class family background to attend Princeton and Harvard Law, and then move on to comfortably fulfil a role on the world stage as the first black first lady of the US. Having grown up in a supportive family, living in a one-bedroom apartment with your parents and brother Craig, your father working shifts as a water department pump operator, your achievements in education give hope to the millions who are growing up in similar circumstances. It would have been easy for you to build a lucrative career in corporate law, where you started out, but you soon moved on to jobs that were more worthwhile – founding a programme, for instance, that prepared young people for public service. Your commencement speeches at universities, and ecstatic appearances at schools – the screams, the screams! – continue that work at the highest level.

You have star quality

There are all sorts of ways to define star quality, but perhaps the best is that it’s the ability to appear completely natural in completely unnatural situations. In which case, God you’re good. You have the knack of appearing candid even when you’re speaking carefully – the neatest trick. A documentary crew following Oprah Winfrey recently showed her bounding deliriously around her offices at the very thought of your visit, and it occurred to me, watching her, that even if you weren’t first lady, you’re the kind of person who would still inspire serious excitement. Your brother Craig once said you’d always been a natural leader. He was right.

Your strength

You’re warm, you’re friendly, you do all the voices when you read children’s books in schools, but you’re also no one’s idea of a pushover – I love the quote from the start of your relationship with Barack, when he was being a bit wishy-washy about marriage and you told him: “Look buddy, I’m not one of these who’ll just hang out for ever.” Your mother and brother have both said there has never been a single occasion when you’ve called them in tears. Your friends call you The Taskmaster, and you’ve said: “If I’m not doing any job at 120%, I think I’m failing.” While that quote could make you sound a bit like a failed Apprentice candidate, the overall impression does not. Your work ethic is abundantly clear.

Your looks

As someone who would be hard-pressed to tell her J Crew from her Jason Wu, I can’t comment on your fashion choices, and it’s clear that you’re incredibly beautiful, so I don’t need to write about that either. You also have great arms. The arms! Let’s acknowledge them and move on. But when I say I admire your looks, I’m referring to something else – how comfortable you seem with yourself. A lot of tall women have a hunch, or the hint of one, the shadow of some adolescent shyness that made them stoop to seem smaller, but you stand tall at 5ft 11in. We live in a world where a lot of the most famous women, and certainly the most famous wives, have pinched, Botoxed features, their boredom and unease written in their surgery scars. You are an antidote, a warm face in a cold world.

Your parenting

You’re known as the mom-in-chief, and if I’m honest, this description makes me feel a bit sick – it sounds as if you spend your days in the kitchen, wrapped in gingham, preparing apple pie, before changing into something more stylish and waiting for Barack with a cocktail. Get beyond that particular title, though, and you do seem an exemplary parent, caring about your girls, Malia and Sasha, above all, and bringing them up well in an environment as problematic as it is privileged.

Your dancing

There aren’t many world leaders, or world leader’s wives, whom I particularly want to see dance – although, admittedly, I would have been excited to see Yeltsin’s rhumba. But you are the queen of the dancefloor. Whether with Ellen DeGeneres or with huge groups of schoolgirls in Mumbai or DC, it’s impossible not to smile when you’re shaking it. It would be silly even to try.

Your future

I admire your ability to negotiate this role, but what I’m most excited about is what you’ll do next. I want to see your in a role that isn’t defined by your husband – with your skills and strength I suspect you’ll do something incredible.

Have a great time with Queenie. All my best wishes, Kira.


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