Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional RoundTable art series on Evanston authors.

Peter Slevin, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School, is a veteran journalist who has traveled extensively around the country and the world. In addition to teaching college students, his journalism career has included stints at three newspapers and a magazine. He has spent more than three decades covering local news, politics and world events.

Slevin’s reporting has included stories about the collapse of communism in central Europe and the Soviet Union, Supreme Court decisions, U.S. foreign policy, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their aftermath, abortion politics and political campaigns.

One political campaign Slevin closely followed ultimately became the impetus and passion for writing a book about a certain former first lady in modern American history.

Students and visitors to Slevin’s tidy fourth floor Medill office will see bookshelves filled with books and periodicals, though the eye-catcher in the room is a large framed poster near the window: Michelle Obama wearing an orchid-pink dress commands the center of the poster, a replica of the cover of Slevin’s biography, Michelle Obama: A Life.

Peter Slevin said what struck him most about Michelle Obama was that “she focused on race and class in a way that none of her predecessors, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, had. She was determined to use her platform and say things she’d been thinking for a long time.” Credit: Judy Chiss

After college graduation from Princeton and Oxford, Slevin’s first job was at an afternoon paper in Hollywood, Florida, followed by work at the Miami Herald that included a seven-year assignment as European bureau chief. In 1998 Slevin joined The Washington Post and was chief diplomatic correspondent before moving to Chicago to become the Post’s bureau chief for six years. Now he is enjoying being a contributing writer for The New Yorker at the same time that he’s teaching undergraduate and graduate courses such as Politics, Media, and the Republic.

“I’d just begun to teach at Northwestern when I started writing the book about Michelle Obama,” said Slevin, “and from beginning to end it took about four years. “I was lucky to be able to draw on interviews I had done while reporting on the Obamas, starting in 2006 as they got the 2008 presidential campaign underway.”

In the acknowledgments at the end of Slevin’s book, he noted that “this book, much like the Obama presidency, got its start in Iowa.” As Michelle Obama traveled across the state and then on to New York, Texas, South Carolina, Indiana and Ohio, she talked to crowds of people about her husband and his life.

She also talked about herself and her life growing up as a Black girl on Chicago’s South Side. Slevin followed her, watched her in action and assiduously took notes.

From the beginning, Michelle Obama intrigued Slevin. In the introduction to her biography, he uses many of her own words from a graduation speech she made in 2010.

While speaking to the small graduating class from Anacostia High School in one of Washington’s most troubled Black neighborhoods, she told the students she could relate to experiences of not feeling good enough, of not believing in yourself and of being written off.

The book relates her words: “Maybe you feel like destiny was written the day you were born and you ought to just rein in your hopes and scale back your dreams. But if any of you are thinking that way, I’m here to tell you: Stop it.”

Slevin wrote, “There were no cheap lines in Michelle’s speech that day, seventeen months after she arrived in the White House as the unlikeliest first lady in modern history. In a voice entirely her own, she reached deep into a lifetime of thinking about race, politics, and power to deliver a message about inequity and perseverance, challenge and uplift.”

An admittedly good multitasker, Slevin said that he’s loved teaching at Medill. His students are motivated and they want to make a difference, he said.

However, Slevin also felt liberated when he was writing the book. “I really loved working on it every day. I enjoyed putting the puzzle of her life together – and the puzzle of the world she lived in,” he said.

Slevin got his road map for the sequencing of the book by asking himself what drove Obama – and then thought of her own words spoken during the 2008 presidential campaign: “Whenever I have a difficult decision to make, the voice inside my head is my father’s voice. I wonder what he would have done.”

Official 2013 portrait of first lady Michelle Obama. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/White House photo

Slevins is a good storyteller and starts telling Obama’s story by introducing readers to her beloved father Chicago South Sider Fraser C. Robinson III, who remained her “north star,” as she told voters. Readers are reminded that her father’s steadfastness, grit, devotion to family, compassion and self-sacrifice were what inspired and shaped her.

Readers follow Obama’s journey, including her father’s illness and death from multiple sclerosis, her Princeton and Harvard triumphs and challenges, and her marriage to young legal colleague Barack Obama.

The book delves into her struggle to raise a family while striving to keep career and family life in balance, the exhausting presidential campaigns and the Washington work of carving out a meaningful identity in the White House. As first lady, she drew support from her level-headed mother, Marian Robinson, who moved into the third floor of the White House with the family.

Obama’s brother Craig Robinson, loyal friends, civil rights struggles and corrosive political conflicts are also parts of Slevin’s story of her life.

Slevin’s book, a finalist for a Penn Award, was published by Knopf in 2015. What makes a biography published seven years ago relevant?

Obama has resonated so much with Americans and people living abroad that to date over 17 million copies of her memoir, Becoming, have been sold, with her new book, The Light We Carry, is scheduled to be released in November.

And People who identify as Chicagoans will find their city is a vibrant character in Michelle Obama’s story, a book that is far more than a first lady story.

In 2021, ground was broken for the Obama Presidential Center to be built on 19.3 acres of land in Chicago’s Jackson Park on the South Side. The center is scheduled to open in 2025 and projected to welcome thousands of visitors a year.

Interest in Michelle Obama doesn’t seem likely to wane soon.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....

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