News & Politics

5 Takeaways From Michelle Obama’s New Book, “The Light We Carry”

The former first lady's memoir delves into the Trump presidency and Sasha Obama's martinis.

Photo by Evy Mages

Michelle Obama’s second memoir The Light We Carry comes out today, offering new insights into the former first lady’s life before, during, and after Barack Obama’s presidency. A follow-up to her 2018 autobiography Becoming, the new book delves into recent events such as the pandemic and the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, while also providing a window into Michelle’s family and friendships. Here are five things we learned.

Michelle started knitting during the pandemic

Like many of us during lockdown, Michelle took up a new hobby. Armed with a set of needles, she began knitting, consulting books for instruction on the craft. Also like many of us, the former First Lady eventually swapped the how-to texts for YouTube tutorials. A perennial “doer,” Michelle writes that the act of knitting allowed her to rest her mind, letting her hands do all the work. Another relatable moment: Michelle describes stocking up her Kalaroma digs with toilet paper and board games in the first weeks of the pandemic. (Yes, even former Presidents were panic shopping.) Former first daughters Malia and Sasha Obama returned home as their schools went remote, and the family would come together for movie nights and puzzle sessions.

Sasha and Malia are IKEA queens

The book offers a peek into the lives of Malia and Sasha, who entered the White House at ages ten and seven. Some of the stories give us a sense of what it’s like to grow up under the presidential spotlight: Michelle notes a time when one of her daughters posted a bikini photo on Instagram, prompting a request for removal from the East Wing communications team. In another instance, Michelle describes a high school rite of passage—with a twist. “Someone once had to be dragged by Secret Service agents from an out-of-hand, unsupervised high school party just as local law enforcement was arriving,” she writes.

Other anecdotes provide insights into their adulthood. Last summer, the sisters—now 24 and 21 years old—moved into an apartment together in Los Angeles. (At the time, Barack recommended a natural disaster response briefing, courtesy of the Secret Service; the girls declined.) Although Malia and Sasha grew up surrounded by priceless historical artifacts, the pair opted to furnish their space with finds from yard sales and the everyman’s furniture store, IKEA. In fact, according to Michelle, the girls slept on mattresses perched on box springs—no bed frames in sight. When Barack and Michelle visited, elder daughter Malia bemoaned the cost of cheese while constructing a charcuterie board for her parents, a coming-of-age-moment for many a cash-strapped Gen-Zer.

That famous DNC speech in 2016 almost didn’t happen

Michelle spends a chunk of the book unpacking the now-famous line from her Democratic National Convention speech in 2016, “When they go low, we go high.” But the address almost didn’t happen because of inclement weather. The plane hit turbulence while cruising to the convention, which almost lead to an emergency landing in Delaware—an hour before Michelle was slated to speak. Instead, they flew into the storm. Michelle recounts the terror around her as lightning surrounded a plane dropping and twisting in the air. But her mind was elsewhere: “I wasn’t thinking about dying. I just wanted to give that speech,” she writes. “I knew that if anything was ever going to toss me off course at this point, it would have to be a whole lot bigger than a layer of unstable air over Philadelphia.” The plane made a safe landing, and Michelle took the stage, uttering the line that would adorn all sorts of anti-Trump swag for years after.

Speaking of that merch, Michelle also takes a few jabs at the resistance-chic fashion marketplace. “And yet the problem with any simple motto, I suppose, is that it can be easier to remember and repeat (or to emblazon on a coffee mug or T-shirt, tote bag, baseball cap, set of No. 2 pencils, stainless-steel water bottle, pair of athleisure leggings, pendant necklace, or wall tapestry, all of which can be found for sale on the internet) than to put it into active daily practice,” she writes. Later Michelle explicitly states: “A motto stays hollow if we only repeat it on products we can sell on Etsy.”

Michelle gets honest about Trump

While Michelle abides by the “When they go low, we go high” mentality, she’s blunt about the hardships of watching Trump take office. “I couldn’t help but return to the choice our country had made to replace Barack Obama with Donald Trump,” she writes. “What were we to take from that?” She goes on to talk about how the Obamas dedicated their lives to promoting certain principles, and how painful it was to watch that be erased:

Whether or not the 2016 election was a direct rebuke of all that, it did hurt. It still hurts. It shook me profoundly to hear the man who’d replaced my husband as president openly and unapologetically using ethnic slurs, making selfishness and hate somehow acceptable, refusing to condemn white supremacists or to support people demonstrating for racial justice. It shocked me to hear him speaking about differentness as if it were a threat. It felt like something more, something much uglier, than a simple political belief.

Later in the book, Michelle explicitly calls out the birther claims that Trump pedaled throughout Barack’s presidency, describing the 45th president as “the chief instigator of that bigotry.” She also writes plainly about Trump’s role in the January 6 riots: “Watching an American president encourage a siege on his own government was perhaps the most frightening thing I’d ever witnessed.”

The Obamas love martinis

Last month when the Obamas were spotted at glam Italian restaurant L’Ardente, a tipster told Washingtonian the couple started the meal with olive martinis. The classic cocktail also makes an appearance in the book, nodding to a possible signature for Barack and Michelle. In the book, Michelle writes about clinking martinis on a rooftop in Hawaii at sunset, and she describes Sasha mixing martinis in water glasses for her parents—or, as Michelle describes them, “a couple of weak martinis.” Michelle displays her astonishment that her daughter even knows how to make martinis, but we’re mainly impressed a 21-year-old college student is drinking anything fancier than UV Blue.

Daniella Byck
Lifestyle Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in 2022. She was previously with Outside Magazine and lives in NoMa.