I first talked with Michelle a short while after that Washington speech. When we met, instead of shaking my hand, she hugged me—the first hug I've gotten on the campaign trail in 15 years of political reporting. She was wearing a sleeveless black dress, her arms slender and toned. Her black Jimmy Choo pumps sat neatly at her side. Looking at her peach-painted toenails, I found myself thinking of recent First Wives. Hillary Clinton, the Bushes Barbara and Laura, Nancy Reagan—I can't imagine them going barefoot in front of a reporter. Or hugging me. For all her discipline and self-control, Michelle is looser, more open than the women she hopes to succeed.
I asked her if the Obama campaign was changing how we think about race. "I hope so," she said. "What we lose sight of, when we separate ourselves along race lines, is how connected we are. There are definitely different experiences you have if you are black, but when I met Barack's grandmother, a little old white lady from Kansas, she reminded me more of my family than a lot of people I meet. It was her Midwestern values, how she prepared food, her pragmatic nature—no high highs, no low lows, you just do what you have to do. That's how I was raised. I connected with her immediately. But there are still communities in this country where you can live without ever seeing anyone different from you. We live with a level of isolation when it comes to other cultures."
One of the goals of the campaign, she says, is to "break down some of those walls." Yet in a race that could end with the election of someone other than a white male, it's hard to get away from identity politics. I reminded her about an exchange I'd witnessed in New Hampshire, when she was approached by a woman named Nancy Carter, who brought up one of the recurring challenges facing the campaign. Carter said she'd worked for years to get women into public office. Now, she wanted to know, with the first real chance to elect a female president, why should she support Barack Obama instead?
"I told her to vote for the best candidate, for the person who is needed at this time, and I deeply believe that it's Barack. I respect Hillary Clinton and all that she has accomplished, but I don't think there is anyone better suited to unite the country," Michelle said. "Don't make a knee-jerk reaction because you are black or because you are a woman. Really get to understand the candidates and understand what we need as a country."
It was a fine answer, but I had to ask: It doesn't thrill her to think that she could wake up someday soon and find herself married to the first black president in U.S. history? She looked at me and, with a slight shake of her head, said, "He's Barack."