"Ma priorité est de ramener les valeurs publiques ou collectives au centre du débat," said President-elect Barack Obama in an interview running in today’s Le Monde newspaper.
Mr. Obama was not speaking in French; his words had been translated.
And in fact he hadn’t uttered them in more than 12 years.
The French newspaper Le Monde on Saturday took the Obama team by surprise by publishing an interview with Barack and Michelle Obama from 1996 in which the two spoke at length about their marriage, only four years after they were wed, and two years before their oldest daughter Malia was born.
Many themes will not surprise those who know or follow the Obamas.
Sitting down to talk about their future the same year Obama eventually ended up running for state senate (and winning), his wife Michelle in the interview expresses reservations about whether a life in politics is what they want.
And while her husband is less uncertain of his calling, he wonders aloud about his ability to maintain a balance between private and public life. He also sounds out some notes about restoring civility in discourse to public life and the notion that we’re all in this together, themes that have stayed with him throughout his career up through this week.
The interview, entitled "An Intimate Conversation with Michelle and Barack Obama," was conducted for a book about American marriages and was never published before today. The story was noticed in Le Monde by Tom McCarthy at the ABC News desk and translated from the French by Maeva Bambuck and Jean Fievet in ABC News’ London bureau. (When assessing the precise accuracy of the quotes below, keep in mind they have now been translated from English to French to English.)
"If You Look Deep Into Her Eyes, There’s a Certain Vulnerability"
President-elect Obama, who turned 35 that year, describes growing up with a single mother and absent father, and says, "I think that in a certain way, I’ve tried all my life to fabricate a family through stories, memories, friends or ideas. Michelle’s family life was different, very stable with two parents, a stay-at-home mom, a brother, a dog, that kind of thing. They’ve lived in the same house all their lives. And I think that in a certain way we complement each other, we represent two common models of family life in this country. One very stable and strong, another that frees itself from the constraint of a traditional family, travels, separates, is very mobile."
"A part of me was wondering what a strong, reassuring family life would look like," he says, "while Michelle in a way, wanted to break from that model. In a way only, because she’s very attached to family values, but I think she sometimes sees in me a more adventurous way of life, more exotic, and in that respect, we’re complementary."
Describing Michelle as "alluring" and with "a strong personality," the future President says, "if you look deep into her eyes, there’s a certain vulnerability. In any case, I see it even if most don’t realize it: she goes through life tall, beautiful, confident, very able…There’s a part of her that is fragile, young, sometimes scared, and I think these are contradictions that attracted me to her. And she makes me very happy. She is very familiar to me and so I can be myself around her, she knows me well, I completely trust her, but at the same time in certain respects she remains a mystery to me."
"Sometimes, when we’re lying together," he says, "I look at her and I feel dizzy with the realization that here is another distinct person from me, who has memories, origins, thoughts, feelings that are different from my own. That tension between familiarity and mystery meshes something strong between us. Even if one builds a life together based on trust, attentiveness and mutual support, I think that’s it’s important that a partner continues to surprise."
"I Was Thinking, ‘He’s Probably an Idiot, Whatever’"
"It was strange, that excitement over this first-year student," then-32-year-old Michelle Obama recalls when describing the buzz about a new summer associate at the law firm Sidley and Austin. "So smart, so good-looking, so intelligent, everyone was talking about Barack. I’m more of the skeptical kind, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, he’s probably an idiot, whatever.’"
Why was she skeptical? "Because I always thought that when lawyers rave about someone, they always neglect the relational qualities," Michelle says, "so I told myself, ‘He might be brilliant, but he’s probably very ordinary.’ And then on the first day, he showed up late. He was late because it’d been raining! And then he walked into the office and we got along right away because he was charming and very good-looking, at least I found him good-looking. I think we were attracted to one another because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously, like some others did. He liked my dry humor and my sarcastic comments. I thought he was a good man, interesting, and I was fascinated by his personal story, so different from mine."
The first lady-in-waiting clearly liked the fact that he was different and perhaps even a bit exotic.
"It’s not every day that a girl from the South Side of Chicago meets someone who speaks Indonesian, who has traveled and has seen many fascinating things," she says. "It gave him a rather rare dimension in my higher middle-class work environment. Usually, these people are all cast from the same mold, but he came from elsewhere. He had a high level of conversation, while still remaining an average guy. He had an impressive curriculum, but was very down to earth and liked playing basketball. That’s what I found attractive in him. Our relationship was first a friendship. It took off from there."
"There’s a strong possibility Barack will pursue a career in politics"
Asked how she envisions her future with her husband, Michelle says, "there’s a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a career in politics, although it’s not very clear yet. It’s an interesting challenge, the Illinois senate, although we’ve had disagreements on that topic. Once you’re involved in politics, your life becomes public and the people who scrutinize it are not always well-intentioned. I’m rather secretive and I like to surround myself with people I care about and who’s loyalty I trust."
"When you start in politics, you have to confide in all sorts of people," she continues. "We may go in that direction, even though I also want to have children, travel, and spend time with my family and friends. It’s not certain that we will succeed. But we’re going to be very busy with a number of different things, and it’s going to be interesting to see what life has to offer to us. We’re ready to take on that adventure for various reasons, for instance, for the opportunities it can open to us."
Her husband was clearly leading her down the path.
"Barack helped my overcome my shyness, take on risks, and try a less traditional path, just to see how it would go, because that’s how he was raised," she says."I’m the more traditional in the couple and he’s the more audacious. I’m more cautious. I think it shows in photographs. He’s more extroverted, more expansive, me I’m more ‘let’s wait and see how things present themselves and how it can benefit us.’"
Mr. Obama seems more sure that he will, in fact, enter politics.
"What concerns me the most are children and the way they are treated," he says about why he will pursue a career in public office. "As an African-American, I am very concerned about children from poor neighborhoods, the problems they deal with, the total lack of a stable environment to enable them to grow and develop. It depends a lot on the economy, the opportunities they are given, their own selves and their parents. It also depends on values, for instance on the kind of family values that get talked about a lot, especially by politicians."
He continues, saying, "values don’t just belong to individuals, they are also collective. Children are exposed to the values around them, and if they come to believe that the lives of their parents and their community cannot be rewarded, if their schools and homes are crumbling, how ca
n they come to believe in their own values when they don’t have any to begin with? My priority is to return social values to public debate, because we are all one big family, transcending racial or class differences. We have obligations and responsibilities towards one another."
He says, "perhaps that’s where the private and public spheres meet, when it comes to couples, relationships, families or tribes. What’s important is empathy, an understanding of shared responsibilities, the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. That’s why my marriage to Michelle is vibrant, because we are able to imagine the hopes, the pains, the personal battles of other people, and the challenge for everyone is to transfer that ability (for empathy) from the family sphere to the public sphere."
"The Issue Will Be Finding a Balance Between Public Life and Private Life"
Describing his father, Mr. Obama said "he studied economy in the United States, at the University of Hawaii and at Harvard. He wanted to contribute to development of Kenya but in the end, he was disappointed, he found himself implicated in political rivalries and the government blacklisted him because he’d protested against nepotism and tribalism. He had a bitter life and died young. Michelle’s father also had to overcome challenges and was stricken by multiple sclerosis. He too died young, but I think he had a steadier and more established life."
Speaking of his mother’s death just months before, Mr. Obama says, "she was only 53 years old. And when you have a small family, where every relative is very close to you…it was a difficult time for me. I have a sister on my mother’s side, she is half Indonesian like my mother’s second husband, and I also have brothers and sisters on the Kenyan side. They are very scattered, some live in Germany, others in Kenya, some here in the U.S."
Mr. Obama says that for him and his wife, "kids are an important priority. We really look forward to having them. I think that the issue will be finding a balance between public life and private life, which will mean finding a balance between my temperament that leans towards risk-taking and ambition, and Michelle’s instinct for stability, family and strong values. The way we go about dealing with these issues will be crucial."