By SHARON CHURCHER
Last updated at 22:32 23 February 2008
The dress, a purple shift, is almost ludicrously simple. The pearls around her neck are fakes, each one the size of a gobstopper, and deliberately so.
It is clear that the woman gazing out from the cover of Newsweek magazine has a message for anyone caring to glance at the news stand.
Yes, Michelle Obama is a glamorous lawyer with a big salary, a bigger house and a husband with one hand on the Presidency, but never forget that this is also the little black girl from Chicago who overcame the odds to change the face of American politics.
Scroll down for more…
Her impact on the race for the Democratic nomination has been enormous, and never more so than in the past few days, when victories in Hawaii and Wisconsin have seemed to give her husband near unstoppable momentum.
If Barack’s gifted oratory has won the hearts of sophisticated young urbanites, it is Michelle who has delivered the crucial female vote and the support of the working classes, including the blacks and Hispanics who had once been solidly for Hillary Clinton.
Michelle’s pitch is far from sophisticated, playing heavily on her humble beginnings and traditional values: “I was raised in a working-class family on the south Side of Chicago. That’s how I identify myself, a working-class girl,” she has told the voters, time after time.
It helps that she cuts a fine figure on the stump, tall and slender with a hair ‘flip’ reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy. And it does no harm that, while Barack, 46, comes from mixed Kenyan and white parentage, Michelle, 44, is authentically African-American, giving the Obamas an unmatched breadth of appeal.
Last week it seemed the mask had slipped when, speaking unscripted for once, a sharper, less emollient Michelle emerged. ‘For the first time in my adult life I feel really proud of my country,’ she said, an apparent lack of patriotism immediately seized on by her Republican opponents.
Yet even they have failed to scrutinise her seemingly remarkable story, or question how her homely rhetoric, full of jokes about Barack’s domestic failings, squares with the reality.
When The Mail on Sunday went back to the gritty district of Chicago where Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was raised, we found a rather different picture from the one so single-mindedly promoted by Camp Obama.
Instead of the one-room tenement that now appears in most accounts of her upbringing, we found a well-kept neighbourhood of red-brick Arts and Craft-style houses which have long been home to respectable black families.
Scroll down for more…
“Michelle was from a middle-class family,” confirmed one of her long-time friends, Angela Acree.
“She came from a regular family. They had a nice home. It wasn’t a mansion, but it was just fine. It was a decent neighbourhood.”
The Robinsons grew up on the upper floor of a house built in the Twenties. Number 7436 South Euclid Avenue – a classical reference to the Greek mathematician which found an appropriate echo in Michelle’s subsequent respect for traditional learning – even has a small garden, shaded by a large elm tree, and an ornate stone bench.
The South Side of Chicago has long had its share of gang-infested housing ‘projects’ but with the University of Chicago hospital close by, there were plenty of white professionals in the area as well as hard-working families in the Robinsons’ own image.
No one could pretend they were rich and it is true that her father, Frasier Robinson, spent some time as a maintenance worker for Chicago’s Department of Water Management.
However, he was a good deal more than the labourer that many seem to imagine.
Indeed, according to family friends, Michelle’s father was a volunteer organiser for the city’s Democratic Party, a by-word for machine politics in America, and his loyalty was rewarded with a well-paid engineering job at Chicago’s water plant. Even before overtime, he earned $42,686 – 25 per cent more than High School teachers at the time.
Michelle’s mother stayed at home and devoted her energies to her and her older brother Craig. Marian Robinson nurtured great ambitions for both her children, along with the traditional values which are now serving Michelle so well.
Television was all but banned in favour of homework, debates about the issues of the day and improving games of chess.
Bright and determined, Michelle was awarded a place at one of Chicago’s first ‘magnet’ schools, which offered special programmes for gifted children. By the time she was 13, she was taking a college-level biology course.
Even as a child, she was not to be underestimated, says Craig, now 45, who works as the head basketball coach at high-flying Brown University. There was no doubt who was in charge.
“We had this game where we set up two rooms and played ‘Office’,” he recalled. “She was the secretary, and I was the boss. But she did everything. It was her game, and I kind of had nothing to do. My sister is a poor sport. She didn’t like to lose.”
She rarely did. Michelle beat huge competition to win a place studying sociology at Princeton, one of America’s most venerable and expensive universities.
Once she had arrived amid the fauxgothic precincts, however, she found herself surrounded by spoilt white students from wealthy families. She, in contrast, was obliged to take out loans to pay her way and this rankled, as she revealed in a 1985 thesis.
The document, now locked away by the university until after the election in November, betrays an angry, campaigning brand of politics which in no way fits with the mild-mannered advocate of common sense now winning hearts and minds from coast to coast.
Scroll down for more…
“My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before,” she wrote. “I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus, as if I don’t really belong.”
One solution, she continued, was to “utilise all of my present and future resources to benefit (the black) community first and foremost”.
There was something of this same angry Michelle that inadvertently slipped out last week – although it will take far more than a minor hiccup like that to block Obama’s sensational progress to the nomination.
There are those who, in any case, suggest that her ideological roots have always remained rather shallow and that, for the most part of her life, politics have been overshadowed by the straightforward business of ‘getting on’.
Even at university, Michelle was well aware that there was more to life than politics, admitting in that same thesis that a ‘high-paying position’ could prove more attractive than a life of placards and late-night meetings.
It was little surprise to those who knew her at the time that it was commerce not campaigning that claimed her when she graduated with a law degree from Harvard, taking a post with Sidley Austin, an eminent Chicago law firm. Her specialist area was not human rights or family law, but the lucrative detail of copyright and trademark cases.
An acquaintance of Obama’s family compares her with another political wife, another lawyer as it happens, with a keen interest in making money.
“Michelle is very much like Cherie Blair. She is a middle-class girl who has discovered that money is nice and doesn’t see that as a contradiction with having radical beliefs,” he said.
Chicago’s veteran political consultant and pundit Joe Novak agrees, saying: “She [Michelle] is now motivated more by personal gain than by social consciousness.
“She saw her opportunities, and she took them.”
Scroll down for more…
The rewards have been significant. Despite the image she projects on the Newsweek cover, Michelle owns an impressive collection of diamond jewellery, designer outfits and £400-a-pair Jimmy Choo shoes.
When she is wooing working-class voters, however, she favours austere black skirts and white blouses. “Our lives are so close to normal, if there is such a thing when you’re running for president,” she declared during a campaign stop in Delaware, shortly before her husband’s latest victories were announced.
“When I’m off the road, I’m going to Target [a U.S. chain store] to get the toilet paper.”
She did not bother to mention, however, that the paper, like the rest of the family shopping, is taken to an £825,000 three-storey red-brick Georgian revival mansion, set amid beautifully manicured lawns in one of Chicago’s most affluent districts.
Even the house became a source of controversy when it emerged that the wife of a Chicago slum landlord, Tony Rezko, helped them buy land to enlarge its grounds.
Renowned for leaving tenants of one of his squalid buildings without heat in the city’s brutal winter, Rezko now is facing federal corruption charges.
More contentious still was Michelle’s appointment as the £150,000-a-year vice-president of external affairs at the University of Chicago hospital in 2005.
It came only two months after Barack was sworn in as a U.S. senator, and was attacked by critics as a blatant attempt, critics claim, by the hospital’s hierarchy to curry favour with her husband, in an era when some politicians want to rein in the vast profits of America’s medical system.
They questioned why the wife of a committed Democrat would work for a hospital that has been accused of ruthless greed.
Michelle’s image was further tarnished in May 2006, when it was revealed that the centre – despite earning some £50million a year – had refused to treat a man who could not afford to pay his bill. He died.
All of which has led some political veterans to accuse Michelle of the very lack of compassion and moral scruples that her husband has lambasted in his Republican rivals for the White House.
Scroll down for more…
Unlike Hillary Clinton, they point out, neither Obama has endorsed far-reaching healthcare reforms.
Michelle also is under attack for joining the board of a food company where she allegedly took part in a 2005 decision to close a pickle and relish plant in La Junta, Colorado, putting 150 mostly Hispanic labourers out of work.
The small town was devastated.
“It totally amazed me when they closed it,” said La Junta Mayor
Don Rizzuto, who had believed that Michelle and her husband were “the champions of the little guy”.
In their most recently publicised tax returns, for 2005, the Obamas earned £800,000.
This included royalties from the senator’s autobiography Dreams From My Father, and his £82,600 Senate salary.
Under a three-book deal which he subsequently-signed, he stands to earn at least £1million.
To Joe Novak, this only goes to prove that Michelle is distorting reality when she attempts to depict herself as a champion of the masses.
“For the past year (she and Barack) have jetted around the country with Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro, enjoying penthouse parties and living the high life,” he said.
Perhaps, when she contrasts her current red-carpet lifestyle with the unassuming world of South Euclid Avenue, she genuinely may think that her childhood was impoverished. And the one thing that is certain about the incredible Mrs O is that she never intends to have to live that way again.