by Jeremy Holden/media matters
Right-wing media figures are distorting a passage in the just-released book, The Obamas, by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor, to suggest Michelle Obama harbors antipathy toward "white Irish Catholics." In fact, in the book, Michelle Obama never makes such an assertion -- the phrase was injected into the book by Kantor herself and should in no way be portrayed as the thoughts of Michelle Obama.
Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet cited passages in Kantor's book Monday and reported, "When Michelle Obama worked in Mayor Daley's City Hall in the early 1990s, she was "distressed" by how a small group of 'white Irish Catholic' families -- the Daleys, the Hynes and the Madigans -- 'locked up' power in Illinois."
While the right-wing media have seized on this quote to suggest that Michelle Obama had a particular problem with "white Irish Catholics" wielding power, the full context of the passage makes clear that the concern Kantor ascribed to Michelle Obama's was with entrenched power and political dynasties.
Indeed, the phrase "white Irish Catholic" is Kantor's. It is not sourced to Michelle Obama.
In her book, Kantor wrote:
[Michelle Obama] particularly resented the way power in Illinois was locked up generation after generation by a small group of families, all white Irish Catholic - the Daleys of Chicago, the Hyneses and Madigans statewide. "Someone doesn't have the right to be elected because of whose womb they came out of," she would say a few years later to Dan Shomon, her husband's political advisor. "You shouldn't have a better chance if you're a Kennedy than if you're an Obama. Why is it that they have the right to this?" [The Obamas, p. 18]
It is no surprise that Kantor's thoughts, and not those of Michelle Obama herself, would come to be used against the first lady. White House press secretary Eric Schultz explicitly criticized Kantor for injecting her own thoughts into a book ostensibly about the first family, noting that Kantor had not spoken to either President Obama or Michelle Obama since 2009:
"The book, an overdramatization of old news, is about a relationship between two people whom the author has not spoken to in years. The author last interviewed the Obamas in 2009 for a magazine piece, and did not interview them for this book," Schultz's statement reads. "The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the President and First Lady, reflect little more than the author's own thoughts. These second-hand accounts are staples of every Administration in modern political history and often exaggerated."
Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple has said that the narrative in Kantor's book "suffers from the lack of input from the principals."
Nevertheless, it did not take long for the phrase "white Irish Catholic" to make its way through the right-wing echo chamber.
Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft linked to Sweet's post and accused Michelle Obama of being "'distressed' about the power of 'white Irish Catholics in Illinois." The passage was also quickly trumpeted by Drudge and Fox Nation.
From Kantor's The Obamas:
In 1991, Michelle left Sidley to work as an aide to Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley, the new and still unproven heir to his father's machine. She and Barack were nervous about the job. Daley senior had opposed the desegregation of schools and presided over an ethically challenged political operation, and the new mayor's first run for the job had ended in ugly racial divisions. "Having grown up in a proud African American family, she wasn't sure if there was a conflict between her values and his," said Valerie Jarrett, the mayoral aide who recruited Michelle and became a mentor to both Obamas. Jarrett, young, elegant, and educated at top schools, was an example of how the younger Daley intended to be different. She was from one of the best-established African American families in Hyde Park, a generally anti-Daley neighborhood, but she believed in gaining power to change things from above.Some of Michelle's work was straightforward, like helping downtown businesses during a massive flood, but when she served as a liaison to agencies that provided for the city's most vulnerable -- seniors, the disabled, and children -- she was distressed by how heavily the projects were influenced by connections and favors. It was "the ugly underbelly in city government on how decisions are made -- or not made," Kevin Thompson, who worked with her, said. Underlying issues of poverty and education had little chance of being addressed. She disapproved of how closely Daley held power, surrounding himself with three or four people who seemed to let few outsiders in -- a concern she would echo years later with her own husband. At work, Michelle always seemed crisp and professional, but she could be harshly critical of the mayor's administration behind closed doors.She particularly resented the way power in Illinois was locked up generation after generation by a small group of families, all white Irish Catholic -- the Daleys of Chicago, the Hyneses and Madigans statewide. "Someone doesn't have the right to be elected because of whose womb they came out of," she would say a few years later to Dan Shomon, her husband's political advisor. "You shouldn't have a better chance if you're a Kennedy than if you're an Obama. Why is it that they have the right to this?"She lasted only two years before moving on to a job leading a program that spoke volumes about her conclusions. It was called Public Allies, and its aim was to train a new generation of urban leaders from more diverse backgrounds -- an alternative to the established power structure. Two years later, in 1995, Valerie Jarrett was unceremoniously dumped from her post: she was standing in the way of powerful developers, who convinced the mayor to let her go, and even though Jarrett and the mayor were close, he never spoke to her about the decision. The Obamas were horrified, their worst suspicions about that world confirmed. [The Obamas, 17-18]