Opinion: Michelle Obama picks up where Betty Ford left off | Rare Techy
Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center on the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Reshaping of American Politics and the forthcoming Partisans: Conservative Revolutionaries Who Reshaped American Politics in the 1990s. He hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History”. The views expressed in this comment are his own. See more opinion from CNN.
When Michelle Obama took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she had a clear mission: to inject inspiration into a campaign that had been challenging. Tensions in the Democratic Party, represented by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong showing in the primaries, had rocked the convention since its inception, and Hillary Clinton’s team had struggled to find a balance between the first events that inspired her candidacy and the gloom. , the chaotic energy of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
It was Obama who struck that balance in a speech filled with both urgency and opportunity. The most memorable line would be the Liberals’ rallying cry: “If they go low, we go high.”
From another speaker, such a line might have carried a touch of liberal self-righteousness, high horse rather than lofty. But from Obama, someone who hadn’t sought the spotlight and struggled with his role in politics, it was a reminder not to follow Trump down the low road of modeling the world you want to live in.
It was also a sign that Obama might one day produce a book like his latest. The Light We Carry comes four years after his memoir Becoming 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 that embraces all the conventions of the genre and shows that Obama understands her appeal: not as a former first lady who has done things few people ever do, but as someone who has faced familiar challenges despite her unusual circumstances. He intuitively senses how blurred the lines have become, not only between the personal and the political, but also between 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 emotions and politics mix also reminds us how easily this combination can be used to divide people.
“The Light We Carry” grew out of both the “we’re going high” moment and the “Send” book tour. While “we’re going high” became a sign of Obama’s role as a moral authority for millions of Americans, “becoming” became a channel through which they saw him as someone who shared and understood their struggles.
In his new book, Obama writes about the tour that followed the release of his memoir, speaking to sold-out stadiums and living room-sized book groups. “Having the space and energy to write a book, and for the first time in decades freed from the political world my husband lived in, I found myself leaving out the parts that were left out,” she writes on “Becoming.” “With the book, I showed myself from the inside out, less guarded than ever before, and I was surprised to find how quickly others let their guards down in response.”
The moments she felt connected didn’t end with the glamorous parts of her first lady life — “No one came up to me at book events desperate to talk about the time they wore a ball gown or dated a senator or wore white. House Tour” – or even his many professional accomplishments. Rather, they arose from the shared experiences of a parent with multiple sclerosis or an untrained dog, or during a lunch hour spent huddled in the car, the only place to find silence and solitude as parents of young children.
The idea that his experiences can not only create connections, but also useful advice, became the basis of “The Light We Carry”. Although Obama is famously skeptical of politics, he has been committed to creating change. The way he thinks about change should be familiar: change first begins within oneself, then takes place at home, then spreads to the wider community. “One light feeds another,” he writes. “One strong family gives strength to many. One 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 references parts of his memoir—Obama assumes you’ve probably already read “Getting”—but because it follows the conventions of the modern self-help genre. He backs up his advice not only with personal experience, but also with scientific research, anecdotes and stories from everyday people as well as well-known celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Toni Morrison. The emotions he explores are also central to the genre: vulnerability, anxiety, authenticity.
What makes the book unusual and worth reading is that it was written by the first lady rather than a life coach who reaches out to her experiences and emotions. Not because she’s the only first lady to offer advice, but the way she packages her advice shows how much the genre has changed.
For 20 years, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an advice column called “If You Ask Me,” which offered practical advice on political, cultural, and even romantic matters. This column appeared in Lady’s Home Journal and then in McCall’s, two women’s magazines popular in mid-century American culture. But it was a product of its author as well as its time: practical, thoughtful, but at the same time reserved – Roosevelt did not reveal his innermost thoughts and private life to readers. “There are things in life you should allow yourself to keep,” he wrote.
But US culture would become more therapeutic in the following years, creating more space for public discussion of emotions and personal struggles. This became clear when First Lady Betty Ford opened up about her struggles with addiction and disclosed that she had been seeing a therapist. It was both a sign of how much things had changed – such personal information about such public figures, especially political figures, was rarely made public in earlier times – but also a sign of how novel such sharing was at the time. Ford’s disclosure startled Americans while helping to create a culture that allowed people to talk more openly about their struggles.
Self-help writing changed with the culture, though it wasn’t the first ladies since Ford’s engagement. First ladies wrote books that weren’t memoirs. Barbara Bush wrote a children’s book from the perspective of the first dog, Millie; Hillary Clinton wrote the politics-focused book It Takes a Village; Laura Bush wrote 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 to his unusual position as a voice of moral upliftment and guidance for some, as well as his post-White House career. Through podcasts and documentaries, Obama has developed a solid brand that is more compelling than a lifestyle brand and more personal than a political brand. It, too, speaks to this particular cultural and economic moment when celebrities have to open the doors to their personal and emotional lives in order to connect with people.
All of this makes The Light We Carry a fascinating read—whether as a reflection on how to deal with anxiety and relationships and the overwhelming uncertainty of our lives today, or as a snapshot of a moment when politics, celebrity, self-help, and authenticity got stuck in ways we still don’t. we try to understand.