Dr Vaidehi Nathan
The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage, Jodi Kantor, Allen lane, Pp 359 (PB), £14.99
The job of the President of the United States of America, considered as the most powerful in the world, would overawe anyone. Especially if ‘setting history’ is added to it. That is the weight of the position the Obamas carried when they first walked in to the White House. For the first time ever, an Afro-American had become the US president, a scene unimaginable even a decade ago.
How did the Obamas get adjusted to the new surroundings? Was it harder for them than their predecessors? How did life in White House affect the marriage and the family? These are just some of the aspects touched by Jodi Kantor, a journalist in her book The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage.
Kantor was the first journalist to interview the First Couple of America in their new home. White House is no ordinary home. It is also an office, and a museum. There is little separation between private, official and political. Privacy and family intimacy is almost always a public show with the staff moving around all the time. Kantor runs through the journey of the Obamas from the campaign days to Barack emerging winner in his first term as President. In a sense, it is in White House that Michelle and Barack stayed together the longest. Till then, Barack had been travelling, staying at home only between his engagements. Michelle was in charge of the home, her job and was helped by her mother, who represented a comfortable stability for the family. Even when Obama was President-elect, Michelle entertained the idea of continuing to live in their brick mansion home in Chicago, going to Washington when official protocol demanded. “She was a contrarian by nature, often suspicious of what others wanted or expected her to do; just because others assumed she would excited about something didn’t mean she would be” says Kantor. Unlike several other couple who rode to fame, power and position hand in hand, “Behind every one of Barack Obama’s decision about his political career, behind all the speeches and announcements and races, lay a series of heartfelt, sometimes contentious debate with his wife about the nature of politics.”
In the White House, Barack was not just another member of the family, which he had been before, picking up his dirty socks and giving a hand to Michelle in chores. Here he was treated special, marked apart from the others. The staff took over his wardrobe, washing and ironing his clothes, which they would not do for the First Lady. Everything went in an unchanged, practiced precision. Unlike the British Royal Household where the staff tended to reach out to the tabloid, in White House it was sacrilegious to even contemplate such a thing. Kantor quotes an amusing anecdote narrated by William Allman, the White House curator, in charge of historic furniture and art work. It goes like this: an elderly staff member returned to the White House Christmas party after his retirement. He was a bit unsteady on his feet and his former colleagues urged him to take a seat. “In forty years, I never sat in a chair here, and I’m not going to begin now,” he replied. Such was the code. Most jobs here went from parent to children, ensuring a loyalty that is beyond doubt.
Reading between the lines, Kantor’s narration has a suggestion of racial tension. The Obamas, more than anything else, are being seen, repeatedly, as Afro-Americans. Even the issue of Michelle’s appearance on the cover of the Vogue magazine is described as her desire to be a ‘role model‘for the girls of her ‘community. ‘ Michelle tried to personalise the White House, which did not go without resistance. She also had problems with establishing the power line with the staff of the President. “The First Lady’s complaints about the President’s team in the White House tended to sound a lot like Michelle’s personal complaints about her husband over the years. Not planning, not keeping her informed, focusing on his own needs, taking on risky projects without seeing their potential for failure…” says Kantor.
Barack Obama had built some very strong personal friends over the years. Marty Nesbitt and Eric Whitaker and their wives were in the immediate circle of the Obamas. The author discusses how they adjusted to the new scene, debating whether to continue to call him Barack or Mr. President. The Obamas‘India visit is part of the narrative, how there was a discussion on the possible damage it could do to the President’s image as ‘Indians were taking away jobs in America.
Jodi Kantor, a journalist with the New York Times began covering the Obamas for the paper in 2007. She has written about the Obamas after considerable interaction, study and research. It is about the early days of presidency when the whole family came to terms with the way their lives changed forever, in an atmosphere of expectation, euphoria and challenge. This is a very close peep into the lives of the Obamas, as intimate as it can get.
(Allen Lane, Penguin, UK, 80, Strand, London WC2R ORL, email: [email protected])
Grisham novel set in baseball track
Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Calico Joe, John Grisham Hachette India, Pp 243(PB), Rs 350
Calico Joe by John Grisham is a gripping story of a son who redeems his father’s guilt. Warren Tracey was a baseball player. His son Paul, an avid fan and keen player grew up in father’s shadow. Warren was a dark person, who abused and ignored his family.
Joe Castle, a young player bursts into the baseball scene locally. His game promises to take him to the national league. But his dreams are clipped by Warren who beans him. Beaning in baseball means a fastball thrown deliberately to hit a batter in the head. Joe is impaired for life. Paul is around 11 then and had adored Joe. While Warren claims the beaning as an accident, Paul is certain his father had done it with purpose and had aimed to seriously injure Joe. Soon, Paul’s parents separate and his mother re-marries. There is hardly ever any contact between the father and the son.
Then one fine morning, Paul gets a call from his father’s fifth wife that Warren was dying of prostate cancer. Paul decides to make his father confess to his decades old guilt and seek Joe’s pardon. Does Joe’s family agree to a meeting? Does Warren agree to Paul’s plans? Does Warren even have the time to do it? That is the gripping story of Calico Joe. The baseball game tends to disrupt the reading especially when one is not aware of the game. John Grisham has given an extensive introduction to the game before one gets into the novel. But still it does get heavy, in the early pages, till you settle into the now-familiar rhythm of Grisham writing.
(Hachette India, 612/614 (6th floor), Time Tower, MG Road, Sector 28, Gurgan 122 001)