Cont... To the First Lady, With Love Four thank-you notes to Michelle Obama, who has spent the past eight years quietly and confidently changing the course of American history. By CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, GLORIA STEINEM, JON MEACHAM and RASHIDA JONE

By Jon Meacham:

On a lovely early autumn day in her final October in the White House, Michelle Obama stepped out onto a sunny South Lawn and, in a way, bid farewell. The setting was her celebrated organic kitchen garden, but the subtext seemed to go far beyond any single initiative. “I have to tell you that being here with all of you, overlooking this beautiful garden — and it is beautiful — it’s kind of an emotional moment,” Mrs. Obama said at a ceremony to unveil a bigger, fortified version of the garden. “We’re having a lot of these emotional moments because everything is the last. But this is particularly my baby, because this garden is where it all started. So we’re really coming full circle back to the very beginning.” She recalled conversations in 2008 about the role she might play in an Obama presidency — and noted, tellingly, that the garden emerged after “Barack actually won,” to which she added: “He won twice.” The gathered guests happily applauded.

Jon Meacham Credit Gasper Tringale

There, in a way, was the essential Michelle Obama, or at least the essential observable version of herself: speaking of broad public good (the garden, which was part of her campaign against childhood obesity) while revealing an arch sense of competitiveness.

My husband won; he won twice. As their history-making time in the White House comes to an end, it’s worth pondering the lessons of the Age of Obama. My own view is that both the president and the first lady have conducted themselves splendidly in the White House, managing the most difficult of tasks with apparent ease: projecting a grace that masked the ambition and the drive that took them, at early ages, to the pinnacle of American life.

In this they have kept faith with a tradition that, in our country, is as old as George Washington, who embodied the classical ideal of Cincinnatus, the reluctant leader summoned from his plow to lead the nation. President Obama gets much of the public credit for handling his eight years coolly, but the first lady has been a critical element of his success. She has chosen her shots carefully — not least in choosing to make the case against Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2016 — and is leaving the country with a warm impression of an excellent mother, a steady spouse and a sensible, devoted American.

Not everyone agrees, of course; not everyone ever does. The Obama skeptics and the Obama haters have from time to time questioned her patriotism, but this is the same country that managed, in some quarters, to hold Eleanor Roosevelt in contempt. The important thing is that Mrs. Obama, a clear-eyed lawyer, found a way to withstand the scrutiny of the spotlight. In point of fact, she did more than withstand it. To borrow a phrase from William Faulkner, she not only endured it; she prevailed over it.

How? By finding, or appearing to find, that most elusive of things in the modern world: balance. She was not Mrs. Roosevelt or Mrs. Carter or Mrs. Reagan or Mrs. Clinton, playing roles in affairs of state. Instead she did what the first African-American first lady arguably had to do to play a successful public role. In Voltaire’s terms, she cultivated her own garden, never threatening and never intimidating her neighbors. Much more doubtless unfolded beneath the surface or behind closed doors; history will sort that out. For now, it is enough to say that she is leaving the White House a strong and popular figure with a lifetime of good will and great reservoirs of capital on which to draw as she and her husband write their next chapters.
Back in 2008, musing on the life she was about to enter, Mrs. Obama recalled doubts about her garden — a bit of projection, one suspects, for doubts about the entire presidential enterprise. “What if we planted this garden and nothing grew?” Mrs. Obama asked. “We didn’t know about the soil, or the sunlight. And it’s like, oh, my God, what if nothing grows? … It was like afterwards I remember telling Sam [Kass, the former White House senior advisor for nutrition], ‘This better work, buddy. This better work.’” And so it did.
Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, is the author, most recently, of “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.” 

By Rashida Jones:

The first time I met Michelle Obama was at the White House as part of a mentoring initiative, for which the first lady had brought together a dynamic group of women to speak to urban teenage girls about their career goals. Olympians, actresses, producers, writers, an astronaut and an Air Force general gathered in the West Wing to greet Michelle before we headed out to various local schools. She was warm, gracious and charming. She thanked us for coming, hugged everybody and made us all feel like her friends. As first lady, she has ticked all the boxes: loving wife, protective mother, health and fitness advocate, garden enthusiast and, yes, style icon. These accomplishments have left traditionalists feeling satisfied.

Rashida Jones Credit Noam Galai/Getty Images

But, as is always the way, her reputation as the perfect hostess invited criticism from progressives. Enter Michelle Obama, outspoken activist, a woman who isn’t afraid to remind us she is a proud African-American woman, which is, in itself, revolutionary. 

A former lawyer who speaks out on behalf of gay rights and gun control, she delivered an unforgettable speech at the Democratic National Convention earlier this year, shining a clear, bright light on our country’s shameful history. Suddenly, the progressives were pleased and the traditionalists were confused. The media wants to pin her down — they’ve been trying since Barack Obama took office in 2009. But you simply can’t.

Michelle Obama embodies the modern, American woman, and I don’t mean that in any platitudinous or vague way. Rarely can someone express their many identities at the same time while seeming authentic. My female friends and I often talk about feeling like we’re “too much.” We’re complicated; we want to be so many things. I want to be a boss and also be vulnerable. I want to be outspoken and respected, but also sexy and beautiful.

All women struggle to reconcile the different people that we are at all times, to merge our conflicting desires, to represent ourselves honestly and feel good about the inherent contradictions. But Michelle manages to do this with poise, regardless of the scrutiny. 

That, to me, is the best thing for feminism. Her individual choices force us to accept that being a woman isn’t just one thing. Or two things. Or three things. The position of first lady is, unfortunately, symbolic, and that makes it fair game for media analysis ad nauseam. But no think piece can fully encompass a real woman.

If feminism’s goal is equal opportunity and choice, Michelle makes me feel like every choice is available. You can go to Princeton and Harvard, you can rap with Missy Elliott, you can be a mother and a lawyer and a powerful orator. 

You can champion the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, while also caring about fashion. You can dance with Ellen and also fearlessly remind people, on live television, of the reality of your position: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” You can be your husband’s partner and supporter, and also use your cultural and political capital to campaign for Hillary Clinton, unflinchingly standing up to her “locker room talk”-ing bully of an opponent with the battle cry “enough is enough!” — eloquently putting into words what a lot of people, myself included, had been feeling.

Michelle Obama will have her own legacy, separate from her husband’s. And it will be that she was the first first lady to show women that they don’t have to choose. That it’s okay to be everything. 
Rashida Jones is a writer, actress and producer who stars in the TBS comedy series “Angie Tribeca,” and most recently co-wrote an episode of “Black Mirror,” premiering later this month on Netflix.

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Source: nytime.com

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