Becoming Unbecoming

NOW THAT SHE IS NO LONGER presiding over the East Wing in the White House, Michelle Obama is grateful for the little things. One of them is toast, or rather toast she makes herself. As she recounts in her mega best-selling memoir, Becoming, nothing feels more liberating than tiptoeing to the kitchen of her own home and making toast, specifically cheese toast. It is a relief, she notes, to not have someone offer to make it for her, and a delight to walk to her back porch and eat it, alone and in shorts and with the Secret Service a hundred yards away.

It is an endearing story, with its Oprah-endorsed (she told the story on Oprah’s “SuperSoul Conversations” podcast) appeal underscoring the everyone-loves-her charisma of the most admired woman in America. There is lots more of the same in Becoming; it is laden with curated-for-cuteness interludes. Indeed, sometimes you can almost hear the collective gasps of an invisible Oprah audience rise up from the page: they’re there when she tells of Barack staring at the ceiling one night in bed during their courtship and admitting he was thinking about “income inequality”; they cheer, too, when Michelle recounts how the couple was applauded by diners at a restaurant in New York when they went on a presidential date night; and they hem with smug approval when Michelle talks of laying down the law over family dinnertime at the East Wing regardless of what was going down at the West Wing.

There is nothing wrong about writing a book designed to please Oprah audiences; the office of First Lady has, over the decades, been a roost of soft-celebrity interlaced with doses of middle-class wifely virtue, the venue, so to speak, for a very American kind of royalty. Popularity is the job requirement, and the First Lady wins it by performing with convincing devotion the job of wife and mother that landed her there in the first place. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, arguably one of the most rebellious of First Ladies, had to bend to this demand in some way, obediently resigning from her position at the Democratic National Committee and promising not to air her political views in any future magazine articles. Wifely devotion and deliberate de-politicization appear to be de rigueur, then and now, so why should Michelle Obama deign to be any different?

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Rafia Zakaria is an altM advisor.

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