Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Kantor on the First Family’s Private Quarters, Encounters with Sasha and Malia, and Laura Bush’s Tip for Michelle

In 18 months of work, the New York Times correspondent conducted 200 interviews, many with high-level West Wing aides, and gained unprecedented access to the East Wing. Her new book is out next week, but Kantor gave me some fresh insights and anecdotes.

The Obamas, by Jodi KantorFor almost five years, Jodi Kantor has covered politics, including Chicago’s most famous couple, for the New York Times. She has peeked inside the Obamas’ marriage, traced the First Lady’s roots back to slavery, and explored the president’s relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. She has been in the White House too many times to count, she told me in a telephone conversation from her apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, Ron Lieber, and their daughter, who turns six next week. Because Leiber, who grew up here, writes the Times’s “Your Money” column—and has to work out of New York—her editors allow her to commute to D.C. Kantor, 36, also traveled often to Chicago to research her forthcoming book, The Obamas (Little, Brown, $29.99). She spent most of her time in Hyde Park interviewing the First Couple’s friends—some, such as Marty Nesbitt and Eric Whitaker, who remain very close—and many more who were once friends but now seldom, if ever, see the Obamas.

In 18 months of work, Kantor conducted 200 interviews, many with high-level West Wing aides—repeated interviews with Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, for example. Unprecedented access to the East Wing, Kantor says, came compliments of Michelle Obama. “I’m the first book author to have access to what really happened inside the East Wing.” 

Kantor’s advance is said to be in the seven figures, boosted by a 40-minute Oval Office interview with the First Couple on the subject of their marriage that resulted in a much-discussed October 2009 New York Times Magazine cover story. The Obamas did not speak to her again for the book, but they did not stop people close to them from talking.

The book is out January 10. Until then, Little Brown has embargoed it, but, embargo notwithstanding, Kantor gave me some fresh insights and anecdotes. The first part of my interview with Kantor is in Chicago’s January issue and can be found here. Below, you will find more from our conversation, including Kantor’s take on the Obamas’ private quarters, her encounters with the president’s daughters, the relationship between Michelle and Laura Bush, and more. And check back next week for the final part of our interview, in which Kantor discusses the Desiree Rogers controversy, Barack’s time at Columbia University, and the role that Valerie Jarrett plays in the First Family’s lives.

CF: Of the stuff you learned about the Obamas, what stands out? 
JK:
These are two people who really did lead fairly normal lives not that long ago, and the major question that the book asks is, “What happens when you become the president and the First Lady?” I do feel that I wrote the book for Chicagoans because there’s the sense I get when I’m in Chicago that the Obamas were so much a part of so many peoples’ lives, especially during the presidential campaign. There were so many people who volunteered their time and went to primary states and made phone calls…. And then it’s like, poof, and [they] disappeared to Washington…. I think a lot of Chicagoans were left wondering what happened to these two people? How were they transformed? What do they really make of the experience? I really wrote the book to answer those questions.

CF: Is Michelle quieter on issues than you would have expected?
JK:
She has gone through different stages during her First Ladyhood…. She came to this office with very little idea of what it really entailed. She did not throw herself into research about her predecessors. She didn’t model her First Ladyhood on anybody else’s tenure, and she has really had to figure it out step by step. I think that the big question to ask about her work is how much in substantive terms is it really going to move the needle either in how our country treats military families or the significance about “Let’s Move,” taking on one of the hardest public health problems there is [childhood obesity]. Part of the drama I see is of this woman wrestling with this really traditional role and grappling with the question of what can she do and what can’t she do and what is her role—and where does she really belong in this greater picture and narrative of the administration?

CF: Did Michelle ever want to have her office in the West Wing, like Hillary did?
JK:
Michelle has had to grapple with Hilary Clinton’s legacy as First Lady…Michelle Obama never wants to be seen as the kind of First Lady who is overly involved in the West Wing.

CF: Is she an adviser to her husband?
JK:
In the most private, intimate sense, not in the sense of “I’m coming to your senior staff meeting.”

CF: Any relationship between Michelle and Laura Bush?
JK:
[After the 2008 election, the Obamas went to the White House where the Bushes showed them their new home.] The women stop in this little sitting room off of the bedroom and Laura Bush takes Michelle Obama to the window and she says, “If you look out this window you can see the Rose Garden and you can look out over the Oval Office…. When my husband had a really long day, I would just stand at the window where nobody could see me and I would look over things….  My mother in law Barbara Bush showed this to Hillary Clinton when [Clinton] moved into the White House, and Hillary Clinton showed it to me, and I’m showing it to you, and when you leave the White House it will your job to show this to your successor.” That window is just the perfect metaphor for First Ladyhood because it’s this hidden window on power.

CF: Have you ever seen the Obamas’ White House private quarters?
JK:
No. I can’t even name a journalist who has ever been up there under the Obama watch…. Different presidents have used the private quarters in very different ways. The Clintons did have more work events up there, and the Bushes, interestingly, were very open with the private quarters. Laura Bush even let documentary filmmakers film there. The Obama attitude with the private quarters is, “This is Sasha’s and Malia’s home.” The night that health care reform passed, the president threw a party there…. [The First Lady and girls were out of town.] I always thought it was telling that the one night the president spontaneously threw a party in the residence, he did it when his family wasn’t home.  

CF: Have you ever run into the daughters while you were in the White House doing interviews?
JK:
A few months ago, I was in the Diplomatic Room on the ground floor…. They don’t have a private entrance to their house. They have to walk through the Diplomatic Room, and then they actually duck behind these brown screens in order to get to the private residence. The screens look like the kinds of screens you’d find in a church basement. I was standing with some White House staff. All the sudden, Sasha and Mrs. Robinson [Michelle’s mother] came in, and it was clear that Sasha was returning from school. She had a backpack, and the staff people acted like it was no big deal; they smiled and nodded politely. I had a different reaction. I sort of instinctively shrank away because I felt really funny that Sasha had to run into a reporter coming into her own home.

CF: Malia?
JK:
I was walking down the stairs in the East Wing not long ago, and she bounded right past; she and Sasha were running up the stairs, and they had a Secret Service agent right behind them. He looked very happy. He looked like he had drawn the most fun assignment.

CF: Did you ever cross paths with the Obamas in the White House and have them recognize you—“Oh, that’s the reporter who’s writing the book on us?” 
JK: 
They know exactly who I am. We have an intense relationship. They really care about the Times, they read the Times. I’ve seen them at the [White House] Christmas party every year. After the big marriage piece was published in the New York Times Magazine, I brought my husband to the Christmas party. I walked up the Obamas, and I said, “Well, now you can check out who I’m married to,” and they thought that was very funny; they pretended to inspect [him].

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