Eight years ago, toward the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, Michelle Obama asked me, “Klein, are you going to write a book like Primary Colors about us?” referring to my satirical novel about the 1992 campaign. I spluttered a bit; the thought had never occurred to me. Her husband started to laugh. “Klein can’t write a book like that about us,” he said. “We’re too boring.”
That was nonsense, of course. The first African-American President of the United States was never going to be boring. But Obama was right too. There would be little melodrama and absolutely no hint of scandal during his time in office. The conservative fever swamps would be no less pustulent than they were during the Clinton presidency–indeed, the level of race-based hatemongering was frightening–but somehow the Obamas never let it get to them. They radiated a sense of militant normality, a mother-knows-best family on the world’s brightest stage. The First Lady let the White House staff know that Sasha and Malia would make their own beds. The President went up to the residence for family dinner most nights. The First Lady planted a vegetable garden. She gave her husband grief when he got too full of himself.
When the President received the Nobel Peace Prize, he was asked to sign his name and leave a brief message in the same book that previous recipients, like Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr., had signed. Obama sat before the book and, in his precise, architectural left-handed script, began to write and write … and write. Finally, Michelle intervened: “Honey, are you writing a book?”
Their physical, emotional and intellectual grace was daunting. They never lost their cool in public. He controlled a supersharp sense of irony; he was never harsh. He made plenty of mistakes, as all Presidents do. He declared a “red line” in Syria and did nothing when it was crossed. He did not pretend to like the social ceremonies of politics; he despised flattery. I once asked a top aide why the President didn’t invite his opponents over to the White House for a drink or a movie more often and was told, “He believes they’d see right through it.” True enough, but there isn’t a soul in Washington who isn’t thrilled by an invitation to the White House.
The impact of the Obamas on American culture was subtle but substantial. In the Klein household these days, Dad is reading a book (Sapiens, by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari) that the President included in his list of 10 essential books, while the kids are watching the First Lady’s epic Carpool Karaoke and the whole family dances together to the President’s daytime playlist. The Obamas demonstrated that you can get down without losing your dignity. Their tastes were an eclectic combination of high and low: her sophisticated and never-errant fashion sense; his unabashed love of ESPN and late-adopted passion for golf.
He will be remembered for his eulogies, the terrible skein of laments over the bodies of American citizens murdered. He could convey a cathartic sadness, and the potential for uplift, in the face of tragedy. His most perfect moment came at the funeral of the Charleston, S.C., churchgoers who had been killed by a sick white man. The families of the dead had already forgiven the shooter–a stupendous act, but not uncommon in the black church and the African-American experience. How to respond to that? Words couldn’t cover it … so he sang “Amazing Grace,” a moment of bravado, humility and passion entwined.
Boring? Not for a moment. Thank you, Mr. President and First Lady, for leading us so elegantly.
This appears in the December 19, 2016 issue of TIME.
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