Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The cruel gaze of inspection


WASHINGTON—My recent column about Michelle Obama, which I wrote to counter the negative responses to Jodi Kantor's new book, "The Obamas," apparently has been misinterpreted by some. I did not intend to indict Kantor, who, in fact, wrote a mostly complimentary portrait of the first couple. Nor did I intend to cast doubt on her reporting. Kantor is a thorough reporter, and she has provided a provocative, insightful peek behind the draperies at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The purpose of reporting, after all, is to tell what you have learned.

But of course the negative details are what get the most attention, and those are what compelled Mrs. Obama to speak up in her own defense, thus prompting me to rally to her aid. It isn't what Kantor wrote that concerned me as much as the reactions it was causing among a particular segment of the population. These would be the Obama haters, as distinguished from legitimate critics, and especially those who despise the first lady and express these feelings in often-racist, certainly sexist terms. I've read hundreds of these comments on Web and blog threads and won't repeat them here. Anyone with one eye half-cracked knows what I'm talking about.

Thus, I wrote: "The recent discussion about Mrs. Obama's manner and temperament, thanks to Jodi Kantor's new book, 'The Obamas,' is maddening. Yet again, the first lady is being characterized as the thing women can never be—angry."

Kantor's book provided fodder, but my own emphasis was on "the recent discussion," which was widespread at the time and focused on the perceived angry aspect of Mrs. Obama's personality. Kantor never spoke of the first lady as an angry person, though she mentions occasional bouts of unhappiness and/or pique, neither unique to this first lady. Otherwise, Kantor's portrait is of a strong, strategic-minded, fiercely independent woman who came to the White House determined to succeed. Did she stub her toe a few times? Certainly, but nothing to invite the invective aimed her way.

In part, Mrs. Obama helped advance the angry narrative by her own objections during a recent interview with CBS' Gayle King. She said that her critics have been trying to characterize her as an "angry black woman" since her husband began running for office.

I do not disagree.

Alas, my passionate defense of the first lady, who does suffer a surplus of scrutiny far greater than any other by virtue of her First-Ness, has helped mobilize new legions of disgruntled Americans. Poor Kantor has been besieged with angry mail from Obama defenders and, worse, valentines from Obama haters. I've received quite a bit of mail myself, though mostly from appreciative readers and not only from women. Some of those who wrote to object to my perspective only succeeded in allowing me to rest my case.

It should come as no surprise that the White House doesn't like Kantor's book. And though Mrs. Obama says she hasn't and won't read it, she's surely been informed of those sections that aren't especially complimentary.

We can all imagine how painful it is to feel mischaracterized or to see inferences drawn from what amounts to a sliver of a slice of a piece of a moment in one's own life. Or, as here, having one's marriage and family life examined under the klieg lights while trying to perform the toughest job on the planet. Anyone who has ever been written about knows this particular insult. And, really, everyone should have a turn at such inspection, especially journalists.

Kantor is getting hers. But then again, you don't go after the big game and expect to be greeted with flowers and dancing in the streets. Didn't we learn that somewhere rather recently? It is also fair to ask, who, really, can judge or interpret another's feelings or experience based on third-party recollections by, perhaps, a disgruntled staffer? A political outcast? The housekeeper, the librarian, Miss Scarlet or Colonel Mustard?

Few thoughts are more horrifying than that of having a writer observing and interpreting your personal life. For better or worse, presidents and their spouses will have to suffer these intrusions and potential indignities. It is the world in which we live. This is a shame for the nation, ultimately. When Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, recently asked in a column why the Republican field is so weak, my immediate thought was, It's not so weak, followed by: Why would anyone submit to such torture?

In the end, this query may provide the moral of our story. The fittest nation may not survive because our strongest leaders won't bother to run.

Kathleen Parker's email address is (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group.

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