Opinion: Michelle Obama picks up where Betty Ford left off

Editor’s note: Nicole Hemmer is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She co-hosts the historical podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History”. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.


When Michelle Obama took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she had a clear mission: to inject inspiration into what had been a difficult campaign. Tensions within the Democratic Party, represented by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong showing in the primaries, had rocked the convention from its inception, and Hillary Clinton’s team had struggled to balance early inspirations of his nomination and the dark, chaotic energy of Donald Trump’s candidacy.

It was Obama who struck that balance, in a speech full of both urgency and possibility. The most memorable line would become a rallying cry for liberals: “When they go low, we go high.

Courtesy of Nicole Hemmer

From another speaker, such a line might have carried a whiff of liberal smugness, more high-flying than lofty. But from Obama, someone who hadn’t sought the spotlight and remained torn about his role in politics, it was a reminder not to follow Trump down the low lane, to model the world you wanted to live in. .

It was also a sign that Obama might one day produce a book like his last. “The Light We Carry” comes four years after his memoir, “Becoming,” a book that sold 10 million copies in its first months on the market.

But “The Light We Carry” is not a follow-up memoir. It’s a self-help book, reflecting all the conventions of the genre and showing that Obama understands its appeal: not as a former first lady who did things few people will be able to do, but as someone who faced familiar challenges despite their unusual circumstances. She has an intuitive sense of confusing not just the personal and the political, but the influencer and the politician. In this book, Obama shows his desire to use this tangle of emotions and power to bring people together, but the ease with which feelings and politics now mix is ​​also a reminder of how easily this combination could be used to divide. .

“The Light We Carry” grew out of both the “we go high” moment and the book tour around “Becoming.” If “we go high” became a marker of Obama’s role as a moral authority for millions of Americans, “Becoming” became a channel through which they came to see her as someone who shared and understood their struggles.

In her new book, Obama writes about the tour that followed the publication of her memoir, when she addressed sold-out stadiums and parlor-sized book groups. “With the space and energy to write a book and for the first time in decades, being detached from the political world my husband inhabited, I found myself putting the parts left out,” she wrote to about “Becoming”. “With the book, I showed myself from the inside, less cautious than I had ever been, and was surprised at how quickly others let their guard down in response.”

The times she felt a connection weren’t above the glamorous moments of her life as First Lady – “No one came up to me at desperate literary events to talk about the time they’d worn a ball gown or interacted with a senator or went on a white House tour” – or even his many career accomplishments. Rather, they emerged from the shared experiences of a parent with multiple sclerosis, or an untrainable dog , or an hour of lunch spent huddled in a car, the only place where, as parents of young children, they could find peace and solitude.

This idea that his experiences could not only bond, but could be tapped for helpful advice, became the basis of “The Light We Carry”. Although Obama is notoriously skeptical of politics, she is always invested in creating change. The way she thinks about change should be familiar: change first starts on the inside, then happens at home, then spreads to the wider community. “One light feeds another,” she writes. “A strong family gives strength to others. An engaged community can ignite those around it. It is the power of light that we carry.

Familiar is a good way to describe this new book. Not just because it recalls bits and pieces from his memoir — Obama assumes you’ve probably read “Becoming” — but because it follows the conventions of the modern self-help genre. She backs up her advice not only with personal experiences, but also with a mix of scientific studies, anecdotes and stories from everyday people and celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Toni Morrison. The emotions she explores are also at the heart of the genre: vulnerability, anxiety, authenticity.

What makes the book so unusual and worth reading is that it’s about a first lady rather than a life coach who draws on her experiences and emotions to write it. Not because she’s the only first lady to give advice, but because the way she presents her advice shows just how much the genre has changed.

For 20 years, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an advice column called “If You Ask Me,” which distributed practical advice on political, cultural, and even romantic issues. The column appeared in Lady’s Home Journal and later in McCall’s, two popular women’s magazines in mid-century American culture. But it was a product of both its author and its time: practical, thoughtful, but also reserved – Roosevelt did not open his innermost thoughts and private life to his readers. “There are certain things in life that you have to be allowed to keep to yourself,” she writes.

First Lady Mrs. Gerald Ford holds a press conference in the State Dining Room of the White House.

But American culture would become more therapeutic in the years that followed, creating more space for public discussion of emotions and personal struggles. This became clear when First Lady Betty Ford disclosed her addiction issues and revealed she had seen a therapist. It was both a sign of how much things had changed – such personal details about such public figures, especially political figures, had rarely been willingly disclosed in earlier eras – but also how important such sharing was. new at that time. Ford’s revelations surprised Americans, while helping to create a culture that allowed people to talk more openly about their own struggles.

Self-help writing changed with the culture, although it was not an area where the first ladies engaged with Ford. First ladies wrote books that weren’t memoirs. Barbara Bush has written a children’s book from the perspective of the first dog, Millie; Hillary Clinton wrote the politically-focused book “It Takes a Village”; Laura Bush has written children’s books and a book about women in Afghanistan – but none like “The Light We Carry”.

Obama’s decision to write this book speaks both to his unusual position as a voice of moral uplift and advice, but also to his post-White House career. Through podcasts and documentaries, Obama has developed a distinctive brand, heavier than a lifestyle brand and more personal than a political brand. This, too, speaks to this particular culture and economic moment, where to stay engaged with people, celebrities must open the doors to their personal and emotional lives.

All of this makes “The Light We Carry” a fascinating read – whether for the thoughts on how to deal with anxiety and relationships and the immense uncertainty in our lives today, or for the snapshot of a time when politics, fame, self-help, and authenticity became entangled in ways we are still trying to understand.


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