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New book shows Obamas holding on to true selves

Updated: March 1, 2012 8:22AM

Much has been made about Jodi Kantor’s new book, The Obamas, but above all the breathless headlines it has inspired, the book is a fascinating study on the isolating, constantly scrutinized nature of living in the White House in the age of 24 distinct one-hour news cycles daily, ubiquitous high-resolution picture-taking smartphones and Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

Kantor’s thoroughly reported avalanche of anecdotes — relayed through friends, aides and close observers of the first family — paints a portrait of four happy and grateful Chicagoans who nonetheless pine for home and surround themselves with what little pieces of it they can hold on to.

During a recent appearance on WTTW’s public affairs show “Chicago Tonight,” Kantor told host Phil Ponce, “I really wrote this book to answer the questions that I thought voters, and especially Chicagoans, would have going into the 2012 race. How do two pretty normal people turn themselves into president and first lady? How does a marriage become a kind of political partnership in the White House, what is the behind-the-scenes of their adjustment to White House life? Why don’t they come back more often? Do they still love us?”

The answers are all provided, and for me the big “aha!” was finally learning why the Obamas, far to the east of their Hyde Park stomping grounds, continued to socialize almost exclusively with the Nesbitts, Whitakers and Robinsons. For the past three years, I’ve been following the first family’s every move via the pooled reports journalists get from the White House press office and it has always seemed weird how much Obama’s Chicago friends were entwined in their Washington, D.C., life.

Kantor is skillful at illustrating how desperately Michelle and Barack — two very unique African-American superstars, who came from the humblest roots, powered through prestigious universities and became part of Chicago’s ultra-elite before arriving at the White House — needed their friends. Sharing the same unique backgrounds, their closest friends keep the Obamas connected to the selves they were before moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The new president had given Nesbitt and Whitaker a special charge: they were the ones who were supposed to keep him normal while in office,” Kantor writes. “They were black men in a sea of white advisers, a midwestern businessman and a doctor among Washington regulars.” That protection sometimes added to the Obamas’ isolation, but arguably the friendships have been a precious lifeline.

The detail that Kantor devotes to outlining the distinct challenges that accompany being the first black first family never degrades into an easy fish-out-of-water story. It brings home for readers the intensity of being under pressure and in the spotlight with the added stress of being very different from predecessors.

She details the difficulties the Obamas encountered the first time they returned home after four weeks in White House — it was a big, painful trial. Not only were the Obamas mortified that they clogged up traffic and shut down their neighborhood, but for their own protection giant curtains were pulled down the side of their house, further reinforcing the feeling of total isolation.

Ultimately, The Obamas bears witness to what happens when someone’s dearest wishes come true: They are thankful and ecstatic but have to find ways to cope with all the parts that don’t make it into the final draft of the official fairy tale.

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