When I arrive at the White House on a hot afternoon in late September to interview Michelle Obama, the place is so eerily quiet I worry for a second that I have come on the wrong day. I have been here every week for a month, sometimes twice a day, to interview people on the First Lady’s staff or to join Mrs. Obama in her motorcade and head out to an event on her schedule. There is usually so much high-stakes, highly choreographed pageantry unfolding that it’s hard to shake the feeling that if you made a move without permission you might get tackled. Indeed, the day I started following Mrs. Obama, I arrived around ten o’clock and had to “hold” in a reception room for ten minutes; then move to a hallway to hold again; then another spot, hold; until at last I was ushered into the Map Room because the First Lady wanted to say hello before we went off to Howard University. Wearing a purple-and-white striped sleeveless Laura Smalls dress, she enveloped me in one of her customary hugs. “I understand you’re going to be with us for a while.” She paused as a look crossed her face, that ornery one she makes when she’s about to deliver a line: “We’re doin’ a deep dive.”
But on this day, a month later: no tours or press conferences, no state dinners or medal ceremonies. Just an enormous, well-appointed mansion, the low fall sun slicing through the cleanest windows in America. Indeed, but for the guards stationed here and there, the place feels entirely empty. Which means that I am (sort of) free to wander around. In the Cross Hall that connects the East Room and the State Dining Room, the mother of all red carpets is rolled up and just sitting there, like it’s about to be hauled away. I bump into Angella Reid, the first (black) woman to serve as chief usher, whom I’d met a couple of years ago when I was here on another assignment. After some inevitable wistfulness about the end of an era, we peek into the Old Family Dining Room, which Mrs. Obama recently redecorated and opened to the public, mostly to catch a glimpse of the mid-sixties painting by Alma Thomas, the first piece of art by a black woman ever displayed in the White House.