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Extraordinary Journey: Michelle Obama Turns 50

Aired January 17, 2014 - 22:00   ET



NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's never been a first lady like her.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The statement she made that night in that gown was, I'm a different kind of first lady.

TURNER: Chicago native and career woman.

JAY NEWTON-SMALL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": She was a high-powered lawyer. She was earning an enormous amount of money at Sidley Austin.

TURNER: Mother of two and the president's better half.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She keeps me straight every single day. She is the best mom in the world, and she's cute.


TURNER: She's elegant and influential.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, OBAMA 2012 DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: She was a hit, and it's been that way ever since.

TURNER: Fun, confident, and occasionally controversial.

NEWTON-SMALL: She really sacrificed essentially what could have been an incredibly high-powered career.

TURNER: It's a milestone moment, an unimaginable story, and an extraordinary journey. Michelle Obama turns 50.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please welcome the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.

TURNER: December 16, 2013, Michelle Obama shares a stage with Santa Claus at a Washington, D.C., children's hospital. One 13-year- old patient has a very important question.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know your birthday is coming up, and I just wanted to know what you're going to be doing.

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: You know, I'm going to be 50. Yes, 50.


M. OBAMA: Fifty and fabulous January 17, and I'm not exactly sure yet what I'm going to do, but it might involve some dancing.

SANDRA SOBIERAJ WESTFALL, "PEOPLE": It's all about dancing. The guests have been told to wear comfortable shoes.

TURNER: "People" magazine reporter Sandra Sobieraj Westfall scored an exclusive interview with the first lady about her milestone birthday.

WESTFALL: She had a girls week with her girlfriends from Chicago, Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King. They spent a week in Hawaii. And now she's coming back for a dance party being thrown by her husband. Michelle had thrown him an epic 50th birthday. And they are so competitive that he really wants to one-up her.

TURNER: Mrs. Obama was extremely candid about aging and fitness.

WESTFALL: She was open to talking about her body, how she's changed her workout, menopause.

TURNER: Surprisingly, when it comes to Botox, Mrs. Obama says she wouldn't rule it out.

WESTFALL: She said, when it comes to Botox or plastic surgery, that she can't imagine herself going that route, but she's learned to never say never.

TURNER: And how does she imagine life after the big 5-0?

WESTFALL: The first time she talked about maybe I will have another professional career, maybe I will be a mentor, working on education.

TURNER: She would like to travel and savor new places and, down the road, balance work with being a grandma.

WESTFALL: Michelle Obama is a forward thinker. She's always got the next step in mind.

TURNER: Taking that next step with gusto, one of the most influential women in the world. Michelle Robinson Obama could hardy have picture where five decades would take her.

M. OBAMA: Who would have imagined that a girl from the South Side of Chicago would have the opportunity to go to Princeton and Harvard and be married to the president of the United States?

TURNER: It began with what seemed an ideal childhood.

B. OBAMA: She had an "Ozzie & Harriet," "Leave it to Beaver" childhood, the mom and the dad, the brother. All they were missing I think was the dog. CRAIG ROBINSON, BROTHER OF MICHELLE OBAMA: We didn't know how poor we were. We had a really good childhood. Although I was 18 months older, she usually ran the show. And I usually let her.


TURNER: Born January 17, 1964, Michelle Robinson and her brother, Craig, were raised in this second-floor apartment on Chicago's South Side.

NEWTON-SMALL: They divided the dining room into three portions with sheets essentially. One was Michelle's bet, the other portion was Craig's bed, and then there's a study area in the middle.

TURNER: Michelle's mother ran the house and raised the kids. And her father was a city worker at the municipal water department. He suffered from multiple sclerosis.

ROBINSON: Our sense of hard work comes honestly. We watched a man who was disabled get up and go to work every day.

TURNER: The tight-knit family ate every meal together, played "Monopoly" and loved drive-in movies. But the emphasis in the Robinson household was on education. Michelle excelled from the start. She learned to read by the age of 4, and skipped second grade.

MELANIE WOJTULEWICZ, FORMER BIOLOGY TEACHER OF MICHELLE OBAMA: She would have not gotten into my class if she wouldn't have been able to perform.

TURNER (on camera): She says she attributes that directly back to her parents, even though they were not college-educated.

WOJTULEWICZ: She was very well-grounded. And I believe that it speaks very well of her family life.

TURNER: Do you tell them, "I was the first lady's teacher"?

WOJTULEWICZ: I tell everybody.


WOJTULEWICZ: Are you kidding? I tell everybody.

TURNER (voice-over): Melanie Wojtulewicz was Michelle's high school biology teacher at Whitney Young High, Chicago's first magnet school.

WOJTULEWICZ: I think that her mother and her father believed that this was the place where Michelle could blossom. She was on the National Honors Society. She was a class officer. She had the academic record to get into advanced placement classes. And that's not an easy thing.

TURNER (on camera): We're passing a sign over here that says "Phenomenal Woman." And when I look over here, we see a little shrine to Michelle Robinson Obama. Oh, these are her school pictures, freshman, sophomore, junior and senior class. By the senior year, she was wearing a little lip gloss there.

WOJTULEWICZ: She always presented herself meticulously, even in her dress. She was not a jeans and T-shirt person.


WOJTULEWICZ: She was just an all-American girl. She could pose for an American Girl doll, you know?


ROBINSON: Very popular, had a lot of friends. And she didn't suffer from fools.

TURNER (voice-over): Big brother Craig was a high school basketball star. And when she was recruited to play ball at Princeton University, Michelle wanted desperately to follow her.

ROBINSON: The story she tells about how, well, if Craig can get in there, I certainly can, that's how she thinks.

TURNER: Michelle was accepted into her dream college in 1981, but she had a hard time fitting in.

NEWTON-SMALL: A lot of her Princeton classmates talked about how she felt really out of place there. It was a time when Princeton was extremely white, and all these kids came from boarding school and prep school and were incredibly elite.

TURNER: Though she struggled with the racial decide at Princeton, Michelle continued to achieve at an elite level, went on to Harvard Law, then to one of Chicago's most prestigious law firms. Michelle was a rising star at Sidley Austin and just one of a few black attorneys there when she was asked to mentor an intern named Barack Obama.

M. OBAMA: At first, I thought, what kind of name is Barack Obama? My assumption was, this guy has got to be kind of weird. I had already created an image of this very intellectual nerd.

B. OBAMA: I thought she was gorgeous. I noticed that there was a certain wit to her and mischievousness to her that appealed to me a lot.

M. OBAMA: He was cuter than I thought he would be.

TURNER: But Michelle wasn't interested when he asked her out.

B. OBAMA: She thought it was inappropriate to have an interoffice dating.

TURNER: She tried to set him up with friends, but he was relentless.

B. OBAMA: She had all these theories, and I basically knocked them down one after the other, until finally...

M. OBAMA: I said, OK, we will go on this one date, but we won't call it a date. I will spend the day with you.

B. OBAMA: At that point, I thought, OK, I think I got something going here.

M. OBAMA: We went to the Art Institute in Chicago, and he impressed me with his knowledge of art.

B. OBAMA: And we took a long walk and went to "Do the Right Thing," which was a great film.

M. OBAMA: And probably by the end of that date, it was over. I was sold.

TURNER: Michelle was smitten. But Barack needed to win the whole family over.

M. OBAMA: One of the things that my father always taught us was that you could tell the character of somebody by how they played team sports.

ROBINSON: And she said, just call up some of your friends and play. I want to see what kind of guy this guy is. She was testing him. Let me tell you, he was confident without being cocky. He was a team player. He had integrity.

M. OBAMA: He passed the ball, which is critical in basketball. And he played hard.

TURNER: Barack earned the Robinson family seal of approval, and the couple got engaged in 1990. Michelle was on a roll personally and professionally when she made a surprising decision to leave the corporate world for the mayor's office.

NEWTON-SMALL: She was earning an enormous amount of money at Sidley Austin. And then, you know, all of a sudden, she was a public servant.

TURNER: But coming up: Michelle Obama's ultimate sacrifice.

NEWTON-SMALL: All of her friends from Harvard Law were aghast, sort of saying, are you crazy to do this?




TURNER (voice-over): October 3, 1992, the biggest day so far in Michelle Robinson's life. And, yet, the bride-to-be wasn't even flustered.

M. OBAMA: No, no, I wasn't nervous at all. I mean, this Barack and I, we had dated for a couple of years, and I knew him and I trusted him. It was the most natural next step in the world.

TURNER: The groom, however, wasn't feeling quite as fantastic.

ROBINSON: Because he had a cold, and I remember thinking -- we were teasing him about, whatever you do, don't sneeze while you're saying your vows.

M. OBAMA: He was really congested. When he got to the altar, it all cleared up. And for that moment that we were at the altar, he said his nose was completely clear.

ROBINSON: My sister has that effect on people.


TURNER: Soon after the wedding, Mrs. Obama left her job at the mayor's office to head a Chicago nonprofit called Public Allies, where she mentored Craig Huffman.

CRAIG HUFFMAN, FORMER CO-WORKER OF MICHELLE OBAMA: And Michelle really, I think, felt some connection to me, almost like a little brother. And so, when I met her, it felt like the big sister I always wanted.

TURNER: And like my big sister, she was no-nonsense with Craig when the time called for it.

HUFFMAN: One of the things about Michelle is, she's pretty blunt. If you wanted to talk to her, you needed to have your facts correct. You needed to really be focused. And she didn't suffer B.S.

TURNER: By 1998, Michelle Obama was working at the University of Chicago, while Mr. Obama was an Illinois state senator, and then daughter Malia was born.

M. OBAMA: I remember taking her home that first night. We were nervous. Barack had to get the car seat in right. He was driving slowly, just like you hear in the movies.

TURNER: Three years later, along came Sasha. But Mr. Obama's political career as an Illinois state senator soon put the family under strain.

M. OBAMA: You have got a spouse who is traveling back and forth to Springfield, is home on the weekends, not there most of the week. That created stress and tension that I think a lot of couples find themselves in. And we had to really work through that time in our lives.

TURNER: But the Obamas hit their stride, and, in 2004, everything changed dramatically, when Mr. Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate.

B. OBAMA: Thank you so much, gentlemen.

TURNER: Cassandra West was a "Chicago Tribune" reporter who interviewed Mrs. Obama in this time of transition.

(on camera): At that point, how important was her career?

CASSANDRA WEST, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": I think her career was still important to her. The candidate's wife part was new to her. That -- when I talked to her later, that was never part of her plan.

TURNER: And just three years later, another curveball. Mr. Obama planned to run for the White House. She was stunned.

M. OBAMA: No, you can't be serious, because we had just come off of a few years ago a tough U.S. Senate race. We're going to press the easy button for a little while, right?

TURNER: Wrong. The campaign hit full swing and sacrifices had to be made. One of those sacrifices? Mrs. Obama's own burgeoning career.

NEWTON-SMALL: It was not an easy decision.

TURNER: Jay Newton-Small covered Mrs. Obama for "TIME" magazine.

NEWTON-SMALL: It was something that they obviously spoke a lot about. And they used to have these sort of kitchen table sessions where they would sometimes take margaritas. That was their thing. They had like a whole group of friends that would come out around, like Valerie Jarrett.

VALERIE JARRETT, SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: Well, Michelle is the planner. And so she asked a lot of practical questions. Well, how many days are you going to be away at a stretch? What is your expectation of me? Because her view was her first priority had to be the children.

TURNER: The campaign novice didn't have a passion for politics at first.

M. OBAMA: Good morning. My name is Michelle Obama. I'm married to this guy, Barack Obama.


TURNER: And she came under fire for this controversial statement.

M. OBAMA: For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.

NEWTON-SMALL: And it caused this enormous firestorm, and it was just one example of several that the campaign sort of cringed over.

TURNER: After some polish, and some practice, Mrs. Obama's campaign skills would culminate here.

M. OBAMA: And, you see, that is why I love this country.


CUTTER: As soon as the American people could see her and judge her for themselves, she was a hit. And it's been that way ever since.

TURNER: The sacrifices, travel and hard work would pay off in an historic election result.

B. OBAMA: The nation's next first lady, Michelle Obama.


TURNER: Coming up, an unconventional first lady.




B. OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

TURNER (voice-over): After a day of pomp and circumstance for the president...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Mr. President.


TURNER: ... it was the new first lady who stole the show, stunning the world in her inaugural ball gown.

B. OBAMA: How good-looking is my wife?

KATE BETTS, "TIME": I thought it was beautiful.

TURNER: Kate Betts is the fashion editor for "TIME" magazine.

BETTS: It had so much symbolism to it, a freshness, new beginnings, innocence. It just had so much promise.

WALLACE: The statement she made that night in that gown was, I'm not like every other first lady.

TURNER: A first lady whose fashion would become a constant topic of conversation, starting with those green leather gloves and the girls' J. Crew coats.

BETTS: The J. Crew makes them look very down-to-earth. So I think that made a huge connection to people, because not only is it more affordable than designer clothing, but it's also something very recognizable and you can relate to it.

TURNER: Relatable, practical, down-to-earth. The first lady's style would help define her.

BETTS: I think many first ladies, when you look over the course of history, dressed to fit into kind of the Washington political wives uniform. She does not want to dress like everybody else. She's dressing for herself and she's dressing to stand out.

TURNER: Standing out as a bold fashion icon and independent woman. But most important to Michelle Obama would be standing out as a mother.

KRISSAH THOMPSON, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Michelle Obama came into the White House declaring herself mom in chief.

TURNER: Krissah Thompson covers the first lady for "The Washington Post."

THOMPSON: It was quite interesting and it spurred some debate, because here's a woman with a background of having graduated from Harvard Law School and done undergrad at Princeton and held these really big and important jobs, and folks just kind of were hoping that she would come into the White House and take over the world.

TURNER: Michelle Obama's priority would be making sure Sasha and Malia grew up grounded.

M. OBAMA: We have worked to make sure that our girls have a normal life, even though they're the children of the president. So it's important for us to make sure that they have friends and sleepovers. They go to school. They do everything that kids do.

WALLACE: She made it clear when they moved to the White House that the staff should not treat them, in her words, as -- quote -- "little princesses," that they should have responsibilities and chores, making their beds, doing laundry, and, until they do those chores, they can't have other time such as maybe TV or computer time on the weekends.

TURNER: Even with the president's busy schedule, the first family has dinner together almost every night.

B. OBAMA: When we're in town here in Washington, in the evenings, 6:30, we want to be at the dinner table with our kids, and I want to be helping with their homework.

TURNER: And just like with her girls, the first lady looks for normalcy for herself, whether it's walking the first dog , Bo, or sneaking into Target.

WALLACE: She went to Target and was in a disguise with the ball cap. And she said, it was so great, because a woman said, excuse me, and she was all ready for the woman to say, aren't you Michelle Obama? And the woman just said, can you help me get this? I think it was detergent. And she said, sure. And she got her the detergent and handed it to her, and she loved it. It was a real moment.

TURNER: A real moment is a rarity, and something Mrs. Obama relies on close girlfriends to give her.

WALLACE: Her friendships are vital. She describes them -- I believe there's a Hawaiian word called hui, and it is your core, your circle, your connection of people around you, her friends she has that keep her grounded. They call her Miche.

TURNER: When the first lady isn't being Miche or mom, she's promoting causes close to her heart, mentoring inner-city girls, supporting military families, and campaigning to end childhood obesity.

M. OBAMA: And it wasn't that long ago that I was a working mom. There were plenty of nights when you got home so tired and hungry, and you just wanted to go through the drive-through because it was quick and it was cheap. And one day, my pediatrician told me, you might want to think about doing things a little bit differently. And, for me, that was my moment of truth.

TURNER: But some say the first lady should be more politically active.

THOMAS: Some of the criticism of Michelle Obama has arisen over this idea that she has chosen what some people have called soft policy initiatives.

TURNER: But with approval ratings outranking the president's, it's clear most of America loves her.


M. OBAMA: Yes.

TURNER: She's done pushups with Ellen DeGeneres and danced with Jimmy Fallon, her Dougie skills so impressive, the late-night host couldn't keep up.

WALLACE: She seems real. For her, that's always been really important, might be in Washington, might be in the White House, might be in this bubble, but that she never is really losing sight of who she is and where she came from.

TURNER: What's next for the first lady who is turning 50?

WESTFALL: She does feel this sense of calling. For a South side Chicago girl who really did work her way up from nothing, she wants to make sure other kids in every corner of this country have that opportunity. She wanted them to see that anybody, with hard work, can grow up to be Michelle Obama.

TURNER: From the South Side to the White House, from working mom to mom in chief, for five decades, Michelle Obama has chartered her own course, corporate powerhouse, regal first lady, and now role model to women the world over.