CHICAGO — To read the worshipful press coverage you’d never know that, for Democrats, the unthinkable has happened: Michelle Obama has revealed herself as just another guru for sale.
On Tuesday night, the former first lady kicked off her 10-city North American book tour, which more closely resembled a cult-of-personality-propaganda-rally, at the United Center in Chicago. (Dates have been added in London, where scalped tickets are going for over $90,000 each, and Paris.)
A sliver of the 20,000 seats available for the Chicago event were priced at $29.50, and those sold out within five minutes of going on sale in September. What remained were tickets ranging from $500 to $3,000. The cheapest ticket I could find, five days after the on sale date, was for $920.81, and that came with no extras: No meet-and-greet, no signed book, no free book, no T-shirt or tote bag or even a food court coupon. Just the privilege of sitting on an uncomfortable folding chair for three hours as Michelle Obama engaged in the kind of sleazy cash grab/ego stroke normally the province of Hillary Clinton.
That the tour’s promoter Live Nation says they’re donating 10 percent of proceeds to charity and schools seems a cynical salve. Obama is hardly lacking for tour sponsorships, among them SoulCycle, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Chef Art Smith, Ellen, Sweetgreen, and Barry’s Bootcamp. This is a tour for sophisticated women of means; on this night, the young, adoring students from Obama’s magnet high school were stuck in the back, in the cheap seats.
Even more dispiriting: The first third of Obama’s memoir “Becoming” — part of a $65 million joint book deal that includes her husband’s forthcoming memoir — is all about her childhood of poverty and dispossession on Chicago’s South Side. She writes, movingly and without self-pity, of the cramped one bedroom, one-bathroom apartment she and her brother were raised in, sleeping side-by-side in the living room, the young Michelle dreaming of a house with stairs. Her grandfather had no teeth. Her mother brought their own food to the drive-in. Pizza was a luxury. In summer, the family would stretch a single pint of ice cream for days. Her parents never went out to dinner and her family never took a vacation.
The young Michelle’s origin story is the American dream: She sacrificed, worked hard, got straight A’s and acceptance to Princeton, where she marveled at the curious behavior of children of privilege, who left their valuable earrings on communal sinks or their expensive bikes unlocked and unattended. “Their trust in the world seemed infinite,” she writes, “their forward progress in it entirely assured.”
Meanwhile, she didn’t know what it meant when other kids talked about “rowing crew,” or what duvet sets or extra-long bedding were. As a result, she spent her freshman year sleeping on too-short sheets, her feet sticking out “on the exposed plastic of the dorm mattress.”
How nice it might have been for the poorest of today’s Chicago, the little girls who currently live as the young Michelle Obama did, if they could have attended this event. It’s hard to believe that this thought didn’t occur to her, or anyone on her team, but she’s clearly that far gone.
Lest that seem an exaggeration, note that the audience was subjected to a full hour of adulatory video packages set to female hero anthems — Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” — depicting Michelle Obama as the American Woman Nonpareil, with testimonials from students, veterans, teachers, celebrities, late-night hosts, even her own media-shy daughters. This is a dangerous exercise in hagiographic narcissism, one too easy for the subject to believe. It’s impossible to imagine any figure on the right getting such a pass from the media, let alone praise for it.
In these Oscar-caliber trailers, Obama runs through her resumé — Harvard Law, corporate attorney, working at the Chicago’s mayor’s office, the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago Medical Center, advocate for military families, girls’ education, spearheading a movement against childhood obesity, advocate for bygone days of fairness and decency, devoted wife and mother, humble yet strong, joyful yet pensive, the lone person besides her husband to understand the pressures of the presidency — as if to prove, despite her current denials, that she has the bona fides to run for public office.
Obama has artfully depicted herself as she is, both groundbreaking historical figure and a celebrity. She may be running for president, or may be #becoming a lifestyle guru. These days, such career paths are interchangeable.
So who better to moderate the first date on this 10-city tour — billed as “an intimate conversation,” but really just a rehashing of the book’s apolitical anecdotes —than Oprah Winfrey, herself touted earlier this year as the Dems best hope for 2020? Michelle Obama has stolen liberally from the Winfrey playbook, grafting her own hero’s journey on to a distinctly feminine, vague, non-controversial self-help template that promises personal fulfillment through consumption.
Before taking the stage, six ordinary people stood and offered their airy testimonials. “I am becoming the new face of 40,” said one to rapturous cheers. “I am becoming a better leader and a better person,” said another. #IAmBecoming is poised to go viral, and her forthcoming interlocutors, Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Jessica Parker among them, only underscore Obama’s soft push into branding herself.
Among the items on sale at the event: a “Find Your Voice” mug, just like the one next to Obama at tonight’s inaugural event, for $20; a “Find Your Flame and Keep It Lit” candle, $35; “Becoming” hoodie, $65, baseball cap, $35, and tote, $30; a “When They Go Low, We Go High” t-shirt, $35; a keychain, $15, pencils and a bookmark, $10, any and all purchases in a plastic bag emblazoned with the “Becoming” book cover, Michelle Obama’s face everywhere.
“The economy must be good,” said one attendee.
As for the conversation itself, it was curiously free of substance. Ironically, Obama writes in her memoir, which clocks in at over 400 pages, that she isn’t particularly introspective. She was a self-described “box-checker,” seeking achievement for achievement’s sake, until she met her husband and her life took his admittedly more exciting direction. It’s a confused message for 2018, and even Obama, in her new incarnation as a would-be feminist heroine, still can’t explain how her own career and ambition continually came second to her husband’s.
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It’s possible that without her most unusual fate as our first African-American First Lady — a job she did to perfection — Michelle Obama herself wouldn’t be all that interesting or deep. The qualities certainly weren’t on display Tuesday night; there were moments even Winfrey seemed to check out, as Obama devolved into vagaries. “I love my story,” she said towards the end, when asked the takeaway. “My story is the quintessential American story. My story does matter.”
Once upon a time, it was hard to imagine the Obamas as anything like the Clintons, themselves about to tour with tickets going for up to $2,000 each. As Barack Obama infamously said in 2010: “I do think, at a certain point, you’ve made enough money.”
Today, the Obamas have raked in hundreds of millions in book sales and advances, a multi-year deal with Netflix, and speaking gigs to the Wall Street bankers they one vilified, righteously decrying the abandonment of the 99% as they breathe ever more rarefied air. Yet on Tuesday night Michelle told the crowd, with zero self-awareness, that one should never make decisions based on finances, quoting her Barack telling her, as she mulled quitting law: “Money is not the all-important thing.”
Is it any surprise that nearly 50 percent of Democrats, as of April 2017, said that their own party is out of touch with the worries of average Americans?
Even diehard Michelle Obama fans, priced out of events housing tens of thousands, are angry. “I think there’s a disconnect,” writer Michelle Duster told CBS News in Chicago. “What they stand for, what they have stood for and worked for, and the ticket prices.”
“[Her fans] have reason to be upset,” political consultant Delmarie Cobb added, “because I’m sure they felt that if she was going to be [doing] a book tour, it was going to be for the masses, not just for the elite.”
For readers, a clue to the Michelle Obama of today comes in her dedication, preceding the book’s otherwise poignant first line about her simple childhood aspirations. Thanks, she writes, “to my loyal and dedicated staff, who continue to make me proud.”
And to all the unblinking fans, who continue to make this would-be Woman of the People beyond their very own grasp.
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