Michelle Obama: A first lady undercover and carving her own path
Michelle Obama: A portrait of a first lady who's transforming the job, shopping at Petco herself, and reaching out to Washington DC's black community.
(Page 4 of 5)
"You know there's a playbook in Washington about what you're supposed to do—well, she's not following the playbook," says Malone. "She's doing it the way she wants to do it by being very involved in the community."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The first lady has made regular visits to schools in Anacostia, one of Washington's poorest, most difficult neighborhoods. She has initiated a high-octane mentoring program, linking White House aides with urban minority high-school students—and, NEWSWEEK has learned, she presses famous entertainers eager to perform for the president at tony events for a quid pro quo: an agreement to conduct a music workshop for selected students at the White House while they are in town. In late March, Motown greats Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson worked with a couple of hundred musically gifted students from across the country. At an earlier workshop, music students found themselves jamming one afternoon with five members of the Marsalis family—New Orleans jazz royalty—under the sparkling chandeliers of the East Room.
Washington's A-listers may not have swarmed across the Obamas' threshold, but the first lady assured the middle-schoolers invited to the White House one day, "While we live here, we're your neighbors. And we want you to feel welcome at the White House."
During a recent visit to Anacostia's Ballou High School, she took questions for 30 minutes. Asked what she would tell a teen mom who hoped to go to college, Michelle said she would say, "Good for you." She advised the students to think about what kind of careers they would want. "College is no joke because it is so expensive," she said.
The visit was part of an ambitious mentoring program she has held for students in Washington, Detroit, and Denver since 2009. In D.C., she has brought together a diverse group of female high-voltage celebrities who fan out to public schools. Students are later invited back to the White House to mingle with stars such as Geena Davis, Hilary Swank, Alicia Keyes, and Michelle Kwan.
"Nothing in my life's path ever would have predicted that I would be standing here as the first African-American first lady," Michelle has often told inner-city students, her voice breaking with emotion. "I wasn't raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of."
From the beginning, Michelle seemed intent to play down her career credentials. A Princeton and Harvard--educated lawyer who held a high-powered job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, she promptly referred to herself as the mom in chief after Barack was elected.
In staffing her office, she surrounded herself with friends and some politically inexperienced loyalists from the campaign or Chicago, which led to a rocky start and some drama.