"We couldn’t afford to make a mistake, we couldn't afford to look cavalier. We had to watch our language," Michelle Obama said

By Karen Mizoguchi
November 30, 2018 10:11 PM
Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

Michelle Obama continues to reflect on her time in the White House as well as the changes she has witnessed since Donald Trump became her husband Barack Obama‘s successor.

The former first lady discussed the importance of moral leadership in a presidential administration during her appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Friday during which she promoted her best-selling memoir, Becoming.

“When you’re the first of anything the bar feels higher. You don’t have room to make mistakes,” she said. “One of the things I don’t talk about in the new book, but I talk about on the road is that I do remember at the end of that last flight that we took out when I was leaving from the Capitol, we waved and got on Air Force One for the last time … I cried for about 30 minutes.”

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Recalling the January 21, 2017, moment, Obama also described how the pressures of leading by example had weighed on her during the eight years.

“It was just the release of eight years of feeling like we had to do everything perfectly. That there wasn’t a margin for error. We couldn’t make mistakes. We couldn’t slip, our tone had to be perfect. That was the bar that was set for us,” she told host Stephen Colbert.

“But it was also the bar that we always set for ourselves thinking that as the first, people will measure every one of our race, of our gender by what we do. There is pressure that comes with that so that’s how we carried ourselves. And that trickled down to all of our staff. The pressure was on everyone,” Obama continued. “We couldn’t afford to make a mistake, we couldn’t afford to look cavalier. We had to watch our language.”

Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

The mother of two added, “We also knew everything we said, we thought about how it could be viewed by children. Not just our children, but all of our children. We knew we were the moral compass. We had to speak carefully and clearly and intelligently — and we couldn’t say things off the cuff.”

Though she did not mention Trump by name, Colbert couldn’t help but ask how her how she felt “to see the next occupant of the Oval Office who seems indifferent to that responsibility?”

“I have been very clear about how I felt about that. I gave a speech about it at the 2016 convention,” Obama remarked, referencing her famous “when they go low, we go high” quote.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is, how does the country feel about it? I don’t think it matters how I feel about it. I felt torn about it since the day I watched it happen,” she shared. “The country has to ask itself, what do we want, what is the bar we are setting for ourselves? … What kind of moral leadership do we demand in the White House? Regardless of race, regardless of party, regardless of gender, regardless of where you are: what do we want our president to look like? How do you want him to act. If we vote for one set of behavior, then that’s obviously what we want, until we vote differently.”

At Thursday night’s Philadelphia stop on her Becoming stadium tour, Obama sounded a similarly sharp and somewhat bitter note as she discussed the pressures she and her husband felt—as the nation’s first black president and first lady—to be “perfect.”

“The margin of error was small, and we felt that. Barack couldn’t golf. You know, we could just start there. There’s so much that would have been an outrage for us and we knew it. There was any room for anybody in our administration to be indicted. … We had to be highly ethical. We showed our taxes, we divested our money. This isn’t shade. This is just the sort of stuff we had to think about doing. This isn’t shade, it’s truth!”

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert airs weeknights (11:35 p.m. ET) on CBS.