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Michelle Obama rejects 'angry black woman' label

In TV interview, first lady challenges new book's depiction of her

By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune reporter

January 12, 2012

WASHINGTON

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— With a new book portraying Michelle Obama as an assertive force within the White House, the first lady has challenged the notion that she's "some kind of angry black woman."

Obama, entering the fourth year of a mostly gaffe-free White House run, made the remark in an interview aired Wednesday with CBS' Gayle King, a friend.

A careful and largely admired first spouse, Obama gives media interviews sparingly. And although some people have criticized how she is portrayed in "The Obamas," at least one expert on first ladies questioned Obama's decision to speak out Wednesday.

"Every first lady gets hit, and if the first lady hits back, she becomes the word that rhymes with witch," said Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., who thought Obama would have been better off taking the high road.

Top Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod, who was among those interviewed by author Jodi Kantor for the book, told the Tribune that "any of these books is skewed a little bit by the perspectives of those who cooperate and the absence of those who don't." At the top of the latter list are the president and first lady.

Axelrod rejected suggestions that there was warfare between the East Wing (her side) and West Wing (the president's). He also downplayed the "angry black woman" comment as a "passing remark" and said that early during Obama's first presidential bid, "there were efforts to make her someone she wasn't."

His overall take? "She's been splendid at what she's done," he said, "and she's had a real impact as first lady. She's never pretended to be a politician, and she's not performing for the approbation of a political science professor."

Watson, the professor, said first ladies have come under criticism since Martha Washington was ridiculed for having too many horses pull her carriage. Eleanor Roosevelt was taken to task for "buck teeth," Julia Dent Grant for having slightly crossed eyes and Ida Saxton McKinley for suffering from epilepsy, the professor said.

Watson, who would give Obama a grade of B-plus as first lady, said he's not surprised she is sometimes in the cross hairs in the new book.

"There's a very long history of unnecessary criticisms of the first lady, since the position is unelected, unappointed and unpaid, and in a democracy, power is not supposed to be vested in a wedding band," he said.

In the CBS interview, Obama denied friction with White House aides such as former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago mayor. "Rahm is — and Amy (Rule), his wife, are some of our dearest friends," Obama said. "Rahm and I have never had a cross word. He's a funny guy."

The first lady, who said she had not read the book, added: "I guess it's just more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here. 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."

Late last year, a USA Today/Gallup poll found Obama the third most admired woman in the country. A Marist Poll in mid-September found 63 percent of registered voters have a positive impression of her.

Once touted as mom-in-chief to two young daughters, Obama has expanded her portfolio while settling in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. She's won applause for embracing military families, fighting childhood obesity, mentoring young people and planting a vegetable garden, all while taking care of Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, with her live-in mother.

In April, she'll make her debut as an author with a book on the now-famous garden.

She's hit 20 foreign countries, with ecstatic receptions. She's graced more than 20 magazine covers, from Vogue to Reader's Digest. She's appeared at 28 Obama campaign fundraisers in the last eight months.

While performing on the world stage, there have been some missteps for the 47-year-old Chicagoan who has two Ivy League degrees, one from Harvard Law.

In August 2010, while the country was mired in a recession, she took heat for a luxurious trip to Spain. Tall as a runway model at 5 feet 11 inches, she's won bouquets — and brickbats — for wearing couture clothing with flair. There was criticism in September, when in New York, according to press accounts, she wore borrowed diamond bracelets valued at $42,000 to a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.

Letitia Baldrige, top aide to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, said her late boss was always taken to task during JFK's presidential run for her attire. "She was always criticized for being too royal, too expensive, too glamorous."

Watson, the American studies professor, said it's the rare first lady who doesn't come under withering scrutiny, naming Grace Coolidge and Laura Bush as exceptions.

Anita McBride, now with American University, was chief of staff to Laura Bush. No one is going to be more invested in the president's success than his wife, she said, and first lady is the president's "closest adviser — whether people like it or not."

As for Obama bringing up the "angry black woman" characterization, McBride saw it as an attempt to "take it head on and try to put an end to it."

"I don't know if it's wise or unwise," she added, "but she's trying to dispute it."

Meantime, Baldrige has no problem with the first lady striking back at critics. "She's smart to have made that public, because it's true," she said. "People are always trying to catch her on this and that. I think she's a remarkable woman."

kskiba@tribune.com