Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas: Why the White House went medieval on it
Something didn’t smell right. A woman with impeccable liberal credentials – Ivy League-educated, a former Slate staffer now writing for the New York Times, who lives in Brooklyn with her journalist hubby – pens a book about the Obamas’ marriage (The Obamas by Jodi Kantor). Sounds like an election year ad for The One’s re-election, right?
But then suddenly, the Democratic Media (what many folks wrongly call the “MSM” or “Mainstream Media” – 80% of Americans are not liberal, so what is “mainstream” about liberal propaganda?) began spirited attacks on the book, even before many of them had read it. The White House issued a statement criticizing the book. Most surprising, Michelle Obama herself was deployed to CBS to attack the book – and even shamefully played the race card to smear the author (did I mention Kantor quit Harvard Law to become a journalist?):
“I guess it’s just more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here,” [Michelle Obama] said. “That’s been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some kind of angry black woman.”
The over-the-top nature of the attacks seemed odd – which is why I had to read the book. Why the fury to kill this book?
It could be simply to limit the exposure of Kantor’s portrayal of this White House. As Toby Harnden of the UK’s Daily Mail noted:
[The Obamas] portrays Obama’s inner circle as riven by dissent and jealousy. Gibbs is quoted as saying that Valerie Jarrett, a long-time Obama friend who is so close to the couple that she holidays with them, was a liar and not someone he subsequently took “at all seriously as an adviser to the President of the United States”.
. . . The First Lady is portrayed as often unhappy and sullen and on occasions fiercely critical of her husband and his aides, who are fearful and unwilling to confront her.
But every White House has rivalries and dysfunction. Would they really expend the First Lady’s political capital about that? The reporting in the book is not devastating to the Obama reelection; at worst, it reinforces critiques conservatives have been making about the Obamas for years. In fact, the bulk of the book is a sympathetic portrayal of the First Couple. The author clearly admires the First Lady (and President) and conveys a strong, loving marriage.
Exploiting the Obama Family
What may have drawn the ire of the Obama White House is Kantor’s reporting that the Obama political operation intends to exploit America’s affection for the First Family to win crucial votes for a president who can’t run on his failed record.
Kantor would have to be destroyed – attacked as a racist! – and the book marginalized, then, because the White House does not want it known that Barack and Michelle Obama will mine Americans’ goodwill about them and their kids for partisan, political gain.
Of course, Beltway types will find this beyond obvious – politicians have been exploiting their popular relatives for generations: Chelsea Clinton, Barbara Bush, John John, even Checkers the dog and Pat Nixon’s cloth coat. But it’s like “Reality TV”: it works best when people believe it’s real.
Here are some other elements of the book that the Obamas do not want swing-state independents to hear.
Elitist and out of touch
A core element of the Obama myth as advanced by the Obama campaign and the “MSM” is that the Obamas are regular folks, just like you and me. She shops at Target! She gardens! They were paying off student loans just a few years ago! Whether running against the wealthy Mitt Romney, or Newt Gingrich and his past personal troubles, the idea of the Obamas as ‘regular folk’ is an irresistible narrative for Obama boosters to promote. Kantor’s book has delicious vignettes that puncture that myth.
[Of course, those who follow conservative blogs already know that the White House tipped off the Associated Press the last time Michelle went to Target - the entire visit was a staged campaign event to appeal to Jane Sixpack, with the AP a willing co-conspirator. But what percentage of swing state independents know that it was staged? For that matter, how many soccer moms know that President Obama ditched his wife and kids last month, after not seeing them for a week, for five hours of golf with buddies . . . on Christmas Eve?]
Kantor documents the elitism of the Obamas in hilarious detail. For example, she quotes Michelle Obama from a campaign speech in 2008 that received scant news media attention at the time (though National Review Online covered it and Bill Kristol actually wrote about it in his since-cancelled New York Times column):
“Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual—uninvolved, uninformed.”
Kantor also quotes Barack Obama to David Plouffe in 2006:
“I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I’ll hire to do it.”
And she quotes Obama in 2007, to a candidate to be his political director:
“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
[She leaves out a similar, choice quotation from Michelle, from a Beverly Hills campaign event on June 13, 2011: "He knows more than the people briefing him."]
Their closest confidante, Valerie Jarrett, shares their view. Kantor quotes her talking to New Yorker editor David Remnick: Obama is “just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
Kantor also writes about the Obamas’ trip for the President to accept his Nobel Peace Prize:
The trip spurred a thought the Obamas and their friends would voice to each other again and again as the president’s popularity continued to decline: the American public just did not appreciate their exceptional leader. The president “could get 70 or 80 percent of the vote anywhere but the U.S.,” Marty Nesbitt told Eric Whitaker indignantly.
And she reports on a White House breakfast Obama held for some of the Congressional Democrats who were tossed out by the voters in 2010, thanks to the Obama agenda. The group was “struck by Obama’s lack of regret.” She adds, summarizing the views of the (no doubt embittered) breakfast participants:
He seemed entirely sure he knew what was best for the country; he seemed to think that he was a better judge than the public.
Another recurring theme of some of Kantor’s most damning anecdotes concerns the Obamas’ interest in money. Now, we all like nice, shiny things. The Obamas are no different. Yet, the myth perpetuated by the Obamas themselves and their “MSM” stenographers is that they are motivated by concern for others, that material things are unimportant to them.
That false narrative is how Obama could manage not to be laughed out of the room when he said in 2010: “I do think at some point you’ve made enough money.”
How many voters know that the Obamas have made more than $20,000,000 since the year 2000, including $5.5 million in 2009, the highest total ever reported by a presidential couple? More power to them, but can’t we tell the truth about it?
Michelle, meanwhile, told a crowd in Zanesville, Ohio in 2008:
“Don’t go into corporate America. . . . If you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.”
In 2005, the helping industry helped her with a salary of $316,000, and in their poorest year of the 21st century, the Obamas had to scrape by on $207,000.
But that is no longer enough. According to Kantor, they have come to love the lavish lifestyle the White House has afforded them.
Behind the scenes, aides said, the Obamas were concerned about money: the president’s books could only sell so many copies, and it would be years until he could write more and the first lady could write her own. … their lifestyle [in the White House] had grown fearsomely expensive.
Kantor mentions the time Michelle Obama wore $500 sneakers to a food bank photo op. [But she neglects to report on the $990 tote bag – tote bag! – Michelle brought along to a parent-teacher conference.]
She quotes the President, no doubt joking, but clearly reflecting how addictive the pampered lifestyle could become:
“When I leave office there are only two things I want. I want a plane and I want a valet.”
But the Obamas were living pretty nicely back in Chicago, so it can’t all be blamed on their time in the White House. How many Americans know that the Obamas had a personal chef in Chicago, and that they brought him onto the White House payroll in 2009? How about the fact that they pay their personal trainer to fly from Chicago each week for exercise sessions? (Flying the Obamas’ personal trainer in for weekly workouts will create an estimated 200 tons of carbon dioxide during Obama’s term in office, but maybe it takes a President with abs of steel to combat “global warming.”) And Kantor adds a new tidbit: Michelle Obama convinced their kids’ piano teacher to move with his wife from Chicago to Washington, DC so he could continue to give the Obama children piano lessons. It’s enough to make even Tiger Mom blush.
Again, if you have the money, great. Spend it as you like. It would just be nice if the Obamas vilified other successful people less, though one starts to suspect they find everyone’s success suspect except their own.
Team Obama is understandably skittish about Obama’s support among women, due to the rough campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and the raw feelings that created among many women, as well as the key role single women play in Obama’s political base (Obama and other Democrats increasingly have trouble getting votes from married women). Michelle and the kids are an important retaining wall to keep women from fleeing his camp in 2012.
But it was still stunning to read Kantor report that Barack Obama himself managed the pushback on the New York Times story in the fall of 2009 that the Obama White House is a boys club. Obama was “personally dictating talking points to the aides who would speak to the reporter,” she writes. (That the Obama White House is not a great place for women has since been confirmed by Ron Suskind’s book and others.)
Then, ten days after the Times story appeared, Obama consigliere Valerie Jarrett convened an unusual dinner meeting with Obama and the senior women working in the White House. The attempt to prove Obama can work with women did not go so well:
The attendees couldn’t quite tell if Obama really wanted to be there. He began by glancing at his watch . . . .
“MSM” eat their own for deviation from the (Democrat) party line
One of the most outrageous aspects of the coverage and reviews of the Kantor book (other than the First Lady’s race-baiting) has been the Democratic Media’s attacking Kantor for publishing the book without having interviewed the Obamas since 2009 – a talking point first advanced by the White House itself. Why did she not interview the First Couple after 2009? Because the Obamas strung her along then ultimately refused to grant her an interview!
Journalists should condemn, rather than parrot, the Obama White House suggestion that Kantor’s book should be ignored because she did not have a more recent interview. This is a blatant threat to journalists by the Obamas to cut off access for anyone who does not completely toe the Obama line. In any event, she conducted dozens of interviews with White House staff, as well as close friends of the Obamas. Since when can public figures block public discussion of themselves by refusing to sit for an interview?
That the “MSM” would embrace this line of attack is particularly shameful, since reporters have long decried how politicians (and other famous people) dole out access to reward lap-dog reporters and punish tough journalists.
Deppgate: the lavish Obama party kept hidden from the public
As you probably have already read (and if not, this is a great place to catch up on the story), Kantor reveals in her book that the White House held a glitzy and expensive Halloween party in 2009 that included actor Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton. White House aides, rightly concerned about how Americans might react to the over-the-top celebration as the American economy was in the toilet, decided to keep the role of Depp and Burton secret. They did not appear in the White House visitor logs, as conservative bloggers reported earlier this month; nor did the Democratic “MSM” Media report their involvement at the time.
When Kantor’s reporting about the secret party was revealed early this month, the White House responded by noting that there had been a media pool report, and even pictures, from a White House party that day that included the kids of military personnel and DC-area children. That was enough to brush back much of the media, and even fooled a writer at NRO.
But could the “MSM” have found Johnny Depp at the White House not newsworthy? Simply impossible. So either the White House or the media was covering it up. Check out this Reuters report, typical of much of the national media coverage: zero mention of Depp or the most extravagant excess of the party. Or check out the pool report, which again is focused on the wonderful outreach to area children and children of the military, but has no mention of the parts the White House wanted kept hidden from voters. The most interesting line of the pool report might be this (emphasis added):
As the pool was being ushered out, the president spoke briefly. He told the military families “We are so grateful to you,” especially those who are separated from family members. He thanked staffers and their children, at which point FLOTUS piped in, “They’re so cute!”
Maybe it was at that point, with media gone, that the real party took place.
Other random tidbits in the book
* During the 2003-04 Senate race, Michelle Obama ripped into then President Bush at an Edwardsville, Illinois campaign event, using surprising language for a would-be Senator’s wife:
. . . to hear a “rich, spoiled president” lecture about family values was insulting, she told the audience.
* Barack Obama’s staff developed a word to describe when he seemed unable to connect with regular people: “Barackward,” a combination of “Barack” and “awkward.” But Barackward is also a great shorthand for how Obama is taking our economy and our nation backward. The RNC is now trying to use it.
* Conspiracy freaks take note: Valerie Jarrett was raised in Iran!
* Kantor’s recreation of the Gibbs-Jarrett tussle is a great read. A nice summary of it is here.
* Kantor accuses former North Florida Democrat Allen Boyd of trading his vote on Obama’s jobs-killing energy bill in exchange for a visit by the First Lady to his district to try to help stave off his African-American primary challenger. (Trading your vote for personal gain is a felony, no?) Emanuel allegedly worked out the trade, and the First Lady did the event, though Kantor says Obama did not know she was being used to thwart an African-American challenger to the white Boyd. Kantor also says Michelle Obama’s staff did not tell her Rep. Boyd was planning to vote against Obamacare because “they were too afraid of how she would react.” Boyd narrowly won the primary against the challenger, and later voted for Obamacare after opposing it the first time around. But he lost the 2010 general election to GOP Rep. Steve Southerland. Boyd is now a lobbyist.
* The idea pushed by Democrats that Kantor is some sort of anti-Obama attack dog is obviously absurd. Consider this description of one of the most offensive episodes of Michelle Obama’s career, when she worked with David Axelrod to try to keep poor people of color out of her “nonprofit” hospital and push them off to local clinics, to reserve her hospital for those who could afford to pay full freight. Here is Kantor’s entire description of that scandal:
One of her big projects at the hospital had been to divert the tide of uninsured patients from the emergency room into local clinics where they could get regular primary care.
* Pathetic if true: “After an embarrassingly low bowling score became public during the presidential campaign [Obama bowled a 37 in Altoona, PA, before quitting after seven frames], he practiced in the White House basement alley, his wife poking fun at him for wanting to stay for just a few more frames.”
Kantor does not tell us if this was before or after the president went on The Tonight Show and mocked Special Olympics participants while discussing his bowling with Jay Leno.
* Michelle Obama tried to deflect Kantor’s reporting about Rahm Emanuel’s wariness of Michelle by saying that she had “never had a cross word” with him. The only problem is Kantor never suggested she had. Their battles were always conducted through third parties and over differing governing philosophies (and perhaps also stemmed from Rahm’s paranoia from having worked with Hillary Clinton when Bill was president). So her denial may be literally true, but does not contradict anything reported in Kantor’s book. Too bad CBS and other media outlets did not explain that.
* The White House spin also tried to dismiss Kantor’s book, in part, by calling it an “an overdramatization of old news.” Any time you hear the White House call something “old news” – Bill Clinton’s shop was a master at this – it means they are desperate to kill discussion of accurate information. Treat the phrase “old news” as a red flag for you to pay attention.
* There was a final, telling moment from that CBS interview with Michelle Obama designed to kill the Kantor book. After playing tape of the interview, the co-host of the CBS Morning Show, Charlie Rose, tried to ask a serious question of Gayle King, who had conducted the Michelle Obama interview. King replied that she thought Rose would ask about the First Lady’s dress. Rose ignored her idiotic comment and repeated his substantive question. King answered, but right before they went to a commercial King again brought up the dress and called out, as the shot faded, that Obama’s dress was from “J. Crew from four years ago!”
And so it goes, the Democrat Media desperately adhering to the myth, demolished by Kantor’s meticulous reporting, that Michelle and Barack are just like you and me. $500 shoes to feed the homeless? Nothing to see there, move along. Let’s talk about the 4 year-old dress and the obvious racism of any reporter who would challenge the Democrat narrative.
The attacks on Kantor appear to have worked. The book, foolishly released on January 10, while we all had unread Christmas and Hanukkah gifts sitting on our desks, had fallen to #95 on Amazon’s book sales rankings as of January 18. While some conservatives are discussing the book, Michelle’s attack seems to have killed the book’s most likely market – Democrat women. 30% of its Amazon reviews are from liberals who gave it one star (and most of whom have obviously not read it) – clearly responding to the First Lady’s messaging.
But Kantor and her publisher may have the last laugh. The paperback version is due out August 7, 2012, as the general election campaign heats up and just weeks before the Democratic Convention. Kantor, who has cause to feel embittered by how the Obamas derailed her book and suggested she is a bigot, has every incentive to pen a new foreward. What tidbits had she left on the cutting-room floor out of her respect for the First Family? What new reporting will she do between now and when the paperback version goes to press? Stay tuned. The Harvard Law dropout may yet even the score with the Harvard Law graduates in the White House.
The writer is a conservative activist and co-author of From Bailouts to Beer Summits.