Jonathan Van Meter: Michelle Obama: A Candid Conversation With America’s Champion And Mother in Chief
Once she got her daughters acclimated—she routinely referred to herself as “Mom in chief”—the Harvard-educated lawyer took on issues like support for military families and healthy eating. “It was pooh-poohed as a sort of soft swing at the ball,” she says. By the middle of the second term, she had become more ambitious—launching two education initiatives, Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn—and over the past year and a half finding her métier, turning herself into the First Lady of Popular Culture, mastering social media (thanks to her proximity to a certain couple of teenage girls), appearing as herself on shows like NCIS and Parks and Recreation, singing karaoke with James Corden, and basically charming the pants off of everyone. Somewhere along the way, she became the greatest political communicator of our time—better than Bill Clinton, better than her husband—someone whose speeches actually start national conversations. And throughout all of this, she has remained one of the most glamorous women in the world—admired by teenagers and grandmothers alike—
whose daring fashion instincts have won her near-universal accolades from an industry that had a champion in the White House for the first time in decades. When she wore that showstopping Atelier Versace rose-gold chain-mail column to her final state dinner in October, the Internet worked itself into a state of collective mourning over the fact that there will be no more Michelle Obama fashion moments to obsess about. The White House has changed quite a bit in the past eight years, becoming much warmer, far less formal, and distinctly more diverse. Obamalot, if you will. They have created an ecosystem that is so effortlessly inclusive that, for example, Joe Mahshie, a trip coordinator for the First Lady, and Brian Mosteller, director of Oval Office operations, were married by Joe Biden at his home just a few months ago. Mahshie, my minder today, tells me that he first met Mrs. Obama when his then boyfriend Mosteller took him to join the SoulCycle class that the First Lady goes to once a week with White House staffers. Mahshie and Mrs. Obama struck up a conversation; one of her staffers was taken aback by his forwardness: “Do you know her?” No, we just met, he replied. “Was I not supposed to talk to her? Should I have curtsied?” He laughs. “She creates that possibility.”
Taylor Lewis: President And Michelle Obama’s Legacy Lives On In October Issue Of ESSENCE
It’s the end of an era. While the Obamas are hoping that their initiatives—My Brother’s Keeper, Let’s Move, Let Girls Learn, to name a few—will live on, the couple hopes to hold onto the memories that they’ve made during their eights years in DC. Some of my fondest memories of the White House are just being with the girls on a summer night and walking the dogs around the South Lawn, talking and listening to them, trying to get Bo to move because sometimes it’s hot.”
“I think when it comes to Black kids, it means something for them to have spent most of their life seeing the family in the White House look like them,” Mrs. Obama said. “It matters. All the future work that Barack talked about, I think over these last few years, we’ve kind of knocked the ceiling of limitation off the roofs of many young kids; imaginations of what’s possible for them. And as a mother, I wouldn’t underestimate how important that is, having that vision that you can really do anything—not because somebody told you, but because you’ve seen and experienced it. I think that will be a lasting impact on our kids.”
Ted Johnson: Michelle Obama Interview: How FLOTUS Used Pop Culture Stardom To Make An Impact
“What I have never been afraid of is to be a little silly, and you can engage people that way,” Obama says in an interview with Variety in her upstairs White House office, decorated in an eclectic mix of abstract art and framed mementos from her tenure. “My view is, first you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen. Has it worked? A case in point: The Carpool Karaoke segment highlighted one of Obama’s key initiatives, Let Girls Learn, a worldwide plan of action to promote girls’ access to education. She and Corden also sang “This Is for My Girls,” According to Nielsen, digital sales of “This Is for My Girls” climbed a whopping 1,562% in the week after the segment aired. And it generated almost 40 million views on YouTube. Her first major push to engage the entertainment community came in June 2011, when she appeared at the Writers Guild of America, West to talk about her initiative to support military families, called Joining Forces, and to encourage content creators to incorporate stories about military families in their shows and movies. “Army Wives” creator Katherine Fugate says that shows like “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy” followed suit by featuring episodes with military characters. She credits the first lady’s ability to connect with audiences — and with people individually.
“For so many people, television and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them,” she says. “And when I come across many little black girls who come up to me over the course of this 7½ years with tears in their eyes, and they say: ‘Thank you for being a role model for me. I don’t see educated black women on TV, and the fact that you’re first lady validates who I am….’”She adds, “My mom says it all the time: ‘People are so enamored of Michelle and Barack Obama.’ And she says, ‘There are millions of Michelle and Barack Obamas.’ We’re not new. We’re not special. People who come from intact families who are educated, who have values, who care for their kids, who raise their kids — if you don’t see that on TV, and you don’t live in communities with people like me, you never know who we are, and you can make and be susceptible to all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes and biases, based on nothing but what you see and hear on TV. So it becomes very important for the world to see different images of each other, so that, again, we can develop empathy and understanding.”
Ryan joined the Navy when he was 20 years old, and he was deployed to Iraq for the first time a few years later. He served on a team that disarmed roadside bombs and IEDs, and when those bombs exploded, they would rush to the scene to clear any remaining explosives while sorting through unimaginable wreckage and carnage. In recognition of his incredible valour, Ryan was awarded a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal. But when Ryan returned home to his wife and two young daughters after his second deployment, the war stayed with him. He had constant splitting headaches, nightmares and panic attacks, and his ears just wouldn’t stop ringing. He would pace his home at night, worried that his family was in danger. One evening, he finally hit rock bottom. After laying awake in bed crying, he got up, headed to the bathroom, and prepared to take his own life. Through my work with service members and veterans as part of Joining Forces – the initiative Dr Jill Biden and I launched to rally Americans to honour and support our veterans and military families – I’ve seen that Ryan’s experience isn’t unique.
But the veterans and service members who do struggle are not alone – not by a long shot. In fact, roughly one in five adults – more than 40 million Americans – suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition like depression or anxiety. These conditions affect people of every age and every background: our kids and grandparents, our friends and neighbours. That’s why the Affordable Care Act expanded mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections for more than 60 million Americans and required new plans to cover depression screenings for adults and behavioral assessments for kids. That’s also why my husband put more mental health counsellors in place for veterans and signed a bill to help prevent veteran suicide.