Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When Michelle Obama took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she had a clear mission: to inject some inspiration into what had been a challenging campaign. The tensions within the Democratic Party, represented by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong showing in the primaries, had been roiling the convention since it began, and Hillary Clinton’s team had struggled to find the balance between the inspiring firsts of her nomination and the dark, chaotic energy of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
It was Obama who struck that balance, in a speech full of both urgency and possibility. The most memorable line would become a rallying cry for liberals: “When they go low, we go high.”
From another speaker, such a line might have carried a whiff of liberal smugness, more high-horse than high-ground. But from Obama, someone who had not sought the spotlight and remained torn about her role in politics, it was a reminder not to follow Trump down onto the low road, to model the world in which you wanted to live.
It was also a sign that Obama might someday produce a book like her latest. “The Light We Carry” comes four years after her memoir, “Becoming,” a book that sold 10 million copies in its first months on the market.
But “The Light We Carry” is not a follow-up memoir. It’s a self-help book, one that reflects all the conventions of the genre and shows that Obama understands her appeal: not as a former first lady who has done things few people will ever be able to do, but as a person who has faced familiar challenges despite her unusual circumstances. She has an intuitive sense of how blurred the lines have become between not only the personal and the political, but between influencer and politician. In this book, Obama shows her desire to use that tangle of emotion and power to bring people together, but the ease with which feelings and politics now blend is also a reminder of how easily it that combination could also be used to divide.
“The Light We Carry” grew out of both the “we go high” moment and the book tour around “Becoming.” If “we go high” became a marker of Obama’s role as a moral authority for millions of Americans, “Becoming” became a conduit through which they came to see her as someone who shared and understood their struggles.
In her new book, Obama writes about the tour that followed her memoir’s publication, when she spoke to sold-out stadiums and living-room-sized book groups. “With the space and energy to write a book and for the first time in decades being unharnessed from the political world my husband inhabited, I found myself putting in the left-out parts,” she writes about “Becoming.” “With the book, I showed myself from the inside out, less guarded than I had ever been, and I was surprised to find how quickly others dropped their guards in response.”
The moments where she felt connection were not over the glamorous bits of her life as first lady – “Nobody came up to me at book events desperate to talk about the time they’d worn a ball gown or interacted with a senator or done a White House tour” – or even her many professional accomplishments. Rather, they emerged over shared experiences of a parent living with multiple sclerosis, or an untrainable dog, or a lunch hour spent huddled in a car, the only place where, as parents of young children, they could find quiet and solitude.
That idea that her experiences could not only create connections but could be mined for useful advice became the basis for “The Light We Carry.” Though Obama is famously skeptical of politics, she is still invested in creating change. The way she thinks about change should be familiar: change first starts within, then happens in the home, then spreads to the wider community. “One light feeds another,” she writes. “One strong family lends strength to more. One engaged community can ignite those around it. This is the power of the light we carry.”
Familiar is a good way to describe this new book. Not just because it calls back to pieces of her memoir – Obama assumes you’ve likely already read “Becoming” – but because it follows the conventions of the modern self-help genre. She bolsters her advice not only with personal experiences, but also a mix of scientific studies, anecdotes and stories from both ordinary people and big-name celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Toni Morrison. The emotions she explores are also central to the genre: vulnerability, anxiety, authenticity.
What makes the book so unusual, and worth reading, is that it is a first lady rather than a life coach reaching into her experiences and emotions to write it. Not because she is the only first lady to have offered advice, but because the way she packages her advice shows how much the genre has changed.
For 20 years, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an advice column called “If You Ask Me,” which doled out practical advice on political, cultural and even romantic questions. The column ran in Lady’s Home Journal and then McCall’s, two women’s magazines that were popular in mid-century American culture. But it was a product of both its author and its time: practical, thoughtful, but also reserved – Roosevelt did not open up her innermost thoughts and private life to her readers. “There are some things in life which one should be allowed to keep to oneself,” she wrote.
But US culture would become more therapeutic in the years that followed, creating more space for public discussion of emotion and personal struggles. That became clear when First Lady Betty Ford divulged her struggles with addiction and disclosed that she had seen a therapist. It was both a sign of how much things had changed – such personal details about such public figures, especially political ones, had rarely been willingly disclosed in earlier eras – but also how new such sharing was that time. Ford’s disclosures startled Americans, while also helping create a culture that enabled people to talk more openly about their own struggles.
Self-help writing changed along with the culture, though it was not an area first ladies after Ford engaged with. First ladies wrote books that were not memoirs. Barbara Bush wrote a children’s book from the perspective of the first dog, Millie; Hillary Clinton wrote the policy-focused book “It Takes a Village”; Laura Bush wrote children’s books and a book on women in Afghanistan – but none like “The Light We Carry.”
Obama’s decision to write this book speaks both to her unusual position as, for some, a voice of moral uplift and guidance, but also her post-White House career. Through podcasting and documentaries, Obama has developed a particular brand, weightier than a lifestyle brand and more personal than a political brand. That, too, speaks to this particular culture and economic moment, when to stay engaged with people, celebrities must open the doors to their personal and emotional lives.
All of which makes “The Light We Carry” a fascinating read – whether for the reflections of how to deal with anxiety and relationships and the immense uncertainty of our lives today, or for the snapshot of a moment when politics, celebrity, self-help and authenticity became entangled in ways we’re still trying to understand.