My appreciation for Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”

Written Feb 3, 2019

It kind of ended out with perfect timing, but my January read for 2019 was the masterpiece that is Michelle Obama’s Becoming. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly suggest you do. Especially if you happen to be a woman and a minority – most, if not all of it, will hit home.

I hope in sharing some of the pieces that most impacted me I can spike your curiosity to devour this gem even more. As Michelle says in the closing, “there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”

Foundations

In the first few chapters of Becoming, Michelle speaks about her upbringing on Chicago’s South Side. The quaint home that her family shared with her aunt on Euclid Avenue. Her mother and father’s humble backgrounds but keen focus on her and her brothers’ education. Hearing her describe her childhood reminded me so much of mine and enveloped me more and more into her story. Growing up in a lower class family with a single mom who’s entire life revolved around myself and ensuring I’d have a better future than she did, I empathized deeply with the sense Michelle felt of needing to succeed.

Her relationship with her stern, no time for nonsense, mother was extremely heartfelt for me as well. I’ve struggled for a long time with how my mom was growing up. Never much for emotions but the first to offer constructive (brutal) advice on the things I was not doing while I waste time complaining. I’ve often caught myself wondering if I’m the only one in this pickle?! “Advice, when she offered it, tended to be of the hard-boiled and pragmatic variety.” I laughed reading that and gained immediate relief. If she’s molding me to be even half of a version of Michelle Obama, then I guess it’ll all be for the best!

Relationships

LAWD! First and foremost, Barack… do you have a cousin or something you can send a girls way because SHEESH!!! I will not spoil this for you all because you their love story is so much more beautiful heard from Michelle’s view. The following were my major takeaways:

1) If Barack Obama (who didn’t like making phone calls) can find the time to call his girlfriend at the time because this was her preferred mode of communication then guess what folks??? Y’all better move on from that buster that leaves you on read. (Repeats to self 500 times)

2) If you stumble upon a man/woman in your life who’s sense of purpose seems clear, focused, and ever present compared to yours – don’t stray away from them because you’re intimidated. Michelle recounts how at one point she starts a journal because Barack’s clarity of what he wanted to become was overwhelming to her (Yea, Princeton/Harvard grad and all, she sometimes had her moments. Be kind to yourself sis). She had realized by this point in her life that much of what she had done was because she felt it was “right” and she had never considered what it was she was passionate about. Instead of shying away from the relationship however, she made it a focus to then find these passions for herself. With a partner by her side that encouraged her to be everything she wanted to be and much more, she was able to do so. If the person you happen to be in a relationship with happens to both inspire you, and also awaken doubts about yourself, take that as an opportunity to learn and develop. That person might’ve been placed in your life for you to become something you haven’t yet discovered.

3) Even the Obama’s went to couple’s counseling. Drops mic and exits left. – All jokes aside though, I will rave about the benefits of counseling forever just because it’s helped me so much personally and I can only imagine how powerful it is for a relationship. Get to it.

Giving Back is the Only Way to Continue Empowering Our Communities

Once she becomes First Lady, Michelle has to navigate how she’ll be able to be effective in a role which historically, no one really expected much of other than smiles and graceful appearances at grand events. That wasn’t on Michelle’s radar, and her dedication to get through Princeton and Harvard to later create an incredible career for herself was not about to allow her to sit on the back burner while Barack thrived as Commander in Chief.

Through the programs she built like Lets Move! and Reach Higher, she created spaces in communities which were otherwise forgotten. Her work focused on helping children whether it was through nutrition or education, because she realized that had it not been for the many lucky opportunities that she was afforded growing up, her future could have looked totally different.

This is one of my biggest goals for this next year. I’ve come to realize how lucky I’ve been and how so many people around me have helped me to be where I am now. So, if you catch me posting about volunteering events around the city don’t be surprised at all. If I can help even one chica from the block to grow into something she never dreamed of becoming one day, then I’ll know I’ve made a mark on the world around me.

Obama, Michelle. Becoming. Viking, an Imprint of Penguin Books, 2018.

Sweat pants, hair not tied, chillin with no makeup on – and a book. My happy place

The Most Powerful Man We Don’t Vote For

Written Sep 3, 2018

Who can tell me what a chief of staff does?

Most of us could take an educated guess I’m sure, but after reading Chris Wipple’s The Gatekeepers, I learned a lot about the power and influence a chief holds. Wipple’s book gracefully describes the tenures of everyone from H. R Haldeman to Reince Priebus and opens the door to the lives and experiences that these men faced while serving their presidents.

Appointed directly by the residing president, chiefs of staff have involvement in everything from the presidents’ speeches, his/her scheduled meetings, and act as a daily advisor on most of the issues the president makes decisions on. The chief of staff must have a superior ability to organize and prioritize the president’s time so that they can use their best efforts on the issues that hold the biggest importance.

Most importantly – the chief of staff has to be bold enough to be the “no” guy. They are the source of reason that a president can turn to when they are unsure of what to do in any given situation, the guiding spirit in tough times. Imagine the boldness required to tell a president “Yea no fam, that is an awful idea and you should consider these consequences.”

They are basically the Mike Ross to our country’s elected Harvey Specter.

Except, although I love Harvey, I don’t know about making him president so let’s not go there.

Below are a few of my favorite tidbits from each of them and some of the monumental changes that shaped their tenures within their respective administrations.

H.R Haldeman –Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon

Haldeman was brutally loyal and his lying and cover-up of Nixon’s actions led to his eventual incarceration after the Watergate scandal. Haldeman never figured out a way to control his president; he was too weak to stop him when he needed to be, and more than willing to help him when he wanted something done.

Unfortunately for Haldeman, we all know how that presidency ended.

Donald Rumsfield- Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford

Don Rumsfield, Dick Cheney – does that combo sound familiar? YUP! Who knew their relationship started wayyy prior to the George W. presidency? Not I said the bee.

The Cheney/Rumsfield duo helped Ford create a presidency that tempered the storms it faced, and came incredibly close to re-election despite the dismal retreat in Southeast Asia.

It also gave birth to a tenant followed by almost all presidents to follow: “beware the spokes of the wheel.” In order to lead a successful and organized White House, the president had to have a chief that acted as his linebacker – defending him from the hundreds of people that want to put their priorities at the top of the presidents to do list.

Hamilton Jordan – Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter made two mistakes very early on in his presidency that deeply weakened him. He began his presidency by having, as Cheney and Rumsfield so adamantly opposed, a multiple chief approach. When he finally decided to choose one sole chief, he chose the wrong man.

A buddy from his campaign trail, Ham Jordan created tensions and disorganization for Carter’s administration despite being him being an incredibly bright president. Although the Carter White House saw success with the Panama Canal and energy policies, his too little too late decision of appointing Jack Watson as chief during the last months of his term weren’t enough to win him re-election.

James Baker III – Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan

Baker was my favorite to read about because well – he is a smart, loyal, Texan. No shame.

His time with Reagan was very personally burdensome. Surrounded by Ronald’s loyal team of Californian’s – he was not welcomed by most of the staff. That still did not deter him from completing the task at hand.

He made the record for longest serving chief and set a precedent for how the role should be executed for generations to come.

Don Regan and Ken Duberstein – Second term Chiefs of Staff to Ronald Reagan

While Baker had just set forth the best example of what to do in this role – Regan took it upon himself to do the COMPLETE opposite. His mishandling of information and self-absorbed decision making before, during, and after the Iran-Contra scandal made him extremely disliked within the Reagan administration.

Regan failed to understand the crucial responsibility of a successful chief; he had to be selfless in the pursuit of achieving not his own, but his presidents’ agenda.

Towards the end of Reagan’s second term, Ken Duberstein was appointed as chief eventually helping Reagan’s administration reach the pinnacle address to the Soviet Union where he stated the famous line “tear down this wall!”

John Sununu and James Baker III – Chiefs of Staff to George H. W. Bush

Sununu, rough around the edges and with a no tolerance for nonsense approach, worked incredibly well with the diplomatic Bush. Together they brought about changes such as the Clean Air and Civil Right Acts and despite their reluctance towards it, were wise enough to let up Bush’s promise of not raising taxes in an effort to control spending. Unfortunately, as so often happens to people in positions of power, Sununu led to his own demise and the Bush administration ended its tenure with Jim Baker back in the Chief of Staff driver’s seat.

Bush and Baker, longtime friends, completed their invasion of Iraq to obliterate Hussain’s army and together saw the end of the Soviet Union.

Thomas McLarty and Leon Panetta – Chiefs of Staff to Bill Clinton

Despite having chosen Thomas McLarty as chief, Clinton’s early days proved to be chaotic. A longtime friend of Clinton’s, McLarty found it difficult to manage the president and eventually resigned his position to Leon Panetta.

Panetta immediately asked for the President’s (and First Lady’s) trust, clearance to make changes as needed, and freedom to tell him exactly when he thought he was wrong. Committed to his goals, Panetta stayed in his role for two years leading the way for Clinton’s last chief, Erskine Bowles, to take the position.

Plagued by scandal, Bowles time as chief was short but his help to the Clinton administration during the impeachment trials was critical and even more so, his appointment of John Podesta as his deputy opened the door of opportunity for John to become Clinton’s final chief. Podesta and Clinton brought in many initiatives using the presidents’ Executive Order powers- a method that continued in popularity thru today.

Andrew Card – Chief of Staff to George W. Bush

George W. Bush’s presidency led way to some of the most critical changes in our foreign policy, surveillance measures, and overall security. Despite Andrew Card’s attempt to start his role on the correct intention of having full honestly and acting as a singular chief to the president, Cheney’s interference and butting in on any and every foreign policy issue led to disaster.

Card was unable to control the clash of ego’s within the Bush administration and the chaos resulted in mass casualties and gross mishandling of the war in Iraq.

Joshua Bolten, Bush’s second chief, saw the end of the Bush administration. Despite their best attempt to fare the 2008 economic crisis as smoothly as possible, the Bush legacy will forever be tainted with the history of why and how the turmoil in Iraq was started.

Rahm Emmanuel, Denis McDonough – Chiefs of Staff to Barack Obama

Rahm Emmanuel, the kind bully who would after 2 years leave Obama to become Chicago’s mayor, worked diligently in helping the president pass Obamacare. A grueling, all democratic win, the Affordable Care Act continues intact.

Denis McDonough became the 4th and final chief in the Obama administration. Despite his mistake of not ensuring the healthcare.gov website would work flawlessly upon the Affordable Care Act’s launch, he did eventually recover from this mistake and was crucial in helping the president use Executive Orders to fulfill the Iran Nuclear Deal and Cuba among other resolutions since bipartisan votes became fictitious by the end of the Obama White House.

Reince Priebus- Chief of Staff to Donald Trump

As if it was an omen of things to come, the briefs the Obama administration left behind for the Trump team to review were all left untouched. Preibus, forced to be an equal to Steve Bannon, was afraid to leave Trump alone from the very early days of his election.

Despite his willingness to submit to embarrassment, Preibus ended up being ousted from his role, which is currently still occupied by John Kelly.

Throughout the book, the importance of having integrity and authority in the role of Chief of Staff are glaring. Only time will tell how John Kelly’s tenure in the position will fare, especially with a president that is so determined to do things in whatever way he sees fit.

I’d highly recommend reading thru this amazing recount of the lives of these men as it so vividly describes another snippet of how each role within the White House is so important and how, if we aren’t careful, malignant forces can persuade our Commander in Chief

Wipple, Chris. (2017) The Gatekeepers. New York. Broadway Books.

Cover design by Christopher Brand

Cover Photographs: (top) David Hume Kennerly/Hulton Archive/Getty Images;

(center) Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library; (bottom) The White House/Handout/Getty Images