Photo: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
United States Project

Michelle Obama biographer Peter Slevin on reporting A Life

June 11, 2015
Photo: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

Peter Slevin, author of the recently-published biography, Michelle Obama: A Life, didn’t want to write “a first lady book, a Washington book or a book that was centered on politics alone,” he told me. While covering Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign for The Washington Post (he was the Post’s last Chicago bureau chief), Slevin was captivated watching the future first lady in action.

“The more I followed Michelle, and the more I learned of her high-profile work in Chicago, the more I thought she should be at the center of her own narrative, not just wife of the more famous Barack Obama,” said Slevin, now an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. “I set out to do an ambitious biography that tracked her experiences and her parents’ Chicago history, which is so important to her own.”

I recently talked to Slevin about his 432-page book, which took more than four years to complete and in which, he says, the city of Chicago is “practically a character in its own right.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Tell me abut reporting here in Chicago.

I loved reporting the Chicago history of Michelle and her family. I wanted not only to write a book about her intriguing trajectory from the South Side to the White House, but to tell that story against the backdrop of the history she and her family lived. The book traces the family from the Great Migration through the 1960s and 1970s, when her parents would take Michelle and her brother Craig on drives through the city, talking about politics, racism and civil rights.

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At a Chicago retirement home, I pressed the buzzer one day and found Betty Reid, who presided over the funeral of Michelle’s father. Another day, I interviewed Barack’s great-uncle, Charles Payne, a former University of Chicago librarian who lives on Lake Shore Drive. I went to a DuSable High School reunion and found classmates of Michelle’s father, Fraser C. Robinson III, who graduated in 1955. Through the Moody Bible Institute, I found a co-worker of Michelle’s grandmother, LaVaughn Robinson, who told wonderful stories. (Michelle Obama’s birth name was Michelle LaVaughn Robinson.)

What kind of access did you have to the first family and to Michelle Obama for the book?

Michelle declined to be interviewed. I haven’t spoken with her since the two interviews I did with her during the 2008 campaign, although I was glad for the material in those interviews that hadn’t made it into the paper back then. Beyond that, the access question requires some nuance: At first, starting in 2010, the East Wing allowed staff members to talk with me, and those interviews appear in the book. During the intense 2012 campaign, however, the White House did much to shut down access to authors, fearing leaks that could damage Obama’s chances of reelection. This was true across the board–not particular to this book or to me–and I never believed it was personal. After the reelection, however, Michelle’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, did her best to keep the door closed. Some sources honored Tchen’s efforts; others didn’t. The policy made my work more difficult, but not impossible.

There are no blind quotes. Everyone is on the record. The book contains upwards of 1,200 endnotes, in the interest of transparency, credibility, integrity.

Do you come across anyone in the course of your research and reporting who had not talked to a reporter or biographer before?

Yes, the book is chock full of sources who had not previously given interviews. It also benefits enormously from the time I spent poring over the hundreds of thousands of words Michelle Obama has spoken and written during her years in public life, and before. Some of those speeches and transcripts are in plain sight, but all but entirely unnoticed or unstudied. Others required digging. Her voice carries throughout the book. Indeed, it begins with her speaking to Anacostia high school students and ends with her remarks at a memorial service for poet Maya Angelou.

What was the biggest challenge in reporting this narrative?

The biggest challenge was access, but isn’t that almost always the case? It helped enormously that I had worked under pressure in Washington for a decade and reported from dozens of countries, often for weeks at a time. I’m persistent and I enjoy complexity, and I also understood the concerns of sources who wanted to be sure they were doing the right thing.

How much of Chicago shaped Michelle Obama and how much of Chicago went with her to 1600 Pennsylvania?

It is unquestionable that Chicago shaped Michelle, as she herself said on June 9 at a high school graduation on the South Side and also on May 12 in announcing that the Obama presidential library would be on the South Side. In the White House, she chose to focus on the challenges that first animated her long ago, particularly inequality. She has witnessed the vast gulf of opportunity in her own family, and in families and neighborhoods all across the South Side. She calls herself “a statistical anomaly.” That was a big part of the story I set out to tell–where she came from, how she got where she is, what she is doing with the White House megaphone, and why.

Through reading Michelle Obama’s story what will we learn about Chicago that might surprise us?

Many white readers may be surprised to see just how racist and unfriendly the “City of Big Shoulders” was to African Americans, and how recently. The stacked deck was a fact of life for Michelle’s parents and grandparents, and remains so for countless African Americans in the city today. One small example: The book tells how racism prompted Jim and Barbara Bowman–the accomplished parents of Valerie Jarrett, the Obamas’ friend and advisor–to move to Iran in the 1950s.

How would you describe the Obamas’ relationship with the hometown press?

Arm’s length, no special favors. The Obamas are disciplined, to put it mildly, in their approach to the media. Chicago reporters are usually on the outside looking in, just like pretty much everyone else.

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.