Follow by Email

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Coach Robinson Knows Real Michelle Obama Amid Attacks

By Kim Chipman

July 22 (Bloomberg) -- Craig Robinson says the criticism of Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, shouldn't come as a surprise: ``When you get to the Final Four, you aren't going to run up against guys who say, `Well, we are happy to have gotten this far; you can have it.'''

Robinson, 46, knows what he's talking about: He's the head basketball coach at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He's also Michelle Obama's older brother, and few know her as well.

During a recruiting trip outside Los Angeles last week, Robinson provided a first-hand account of the woman who may become the next first lady. He dismissed any notion that she is an unpatriotic radical. Such charges -- satirized by a New Yorker magazine illustration showing her in the Oval Office with a rifle over her shoulder, and expressed without irony in an April National Review article dubbing her ``Mrs. Grievance'' -- are unfair portrayals of his sister, he says.

``The people who are throwing the stones are throwing them for a reason: Either they haven't taken the time to get to know them or they know them and know they are going to win, or think they are going to win, and they are trying to knock them down,'' Robinson said July 15.

Robinson says he and his sister were imbued by their parents with a strong sense of self worth and a thick skin. These traits have sustained Michelle in the mounting frenzy over her husband's historic candidacy.

Raised for This

``In a funny way, she was raised to be in this position,'' Robinson says. ``To be political you have to care about what people think about you. We were raised the complete opposite.''

Michelle, 44, drew controversy in February when she said her husband's candidacy made her feel proud of her country ``for the first time in my adult lifetime.'' She later said she meant to say she was proud that her husband's candidacy had sparked such enthusiasm.

The comment fed critics' claims that she is a black militant whose patriotism is suspect. Her words have even been reprised in campaign ads by the Republican parties in Tennessee and Washington.

A New York Times/CBS News poll published July 16 showed that 24 percent of white voters viewed her favorably, compared with 58 percent of blacks. Overall, 29 percent of voters saw her favorably, while 16 percent didn't, 17 percent were undecided and 37 percent said they haven't heard enough about her, according to the poll.

Cindy McCain

Cindy McCain, wife of presumed Republican nominee John McCain, was viewed favorably by 20 percent of white voters, compared with 9 percent of blacks. Overall, 18 percent of voters saw her favorably, 8 percent didn't, 17 percent were undecided and 55 percent didn't have enough information.

The survey's findings tracked the Obama campaign's own private research on people's attitudes toward Michelle. The campaign reached out last month to tap veteran Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter to be her chief of staff.

Michelle's brother says her detractors are missing the true story: that she is an ordinary woman who stumbled into extraordinary circumstances by being married to Democratic presidential nominee Obama, 46, a U.S. senator from Illinois.

``Nothing is fake,'' Robinson says of Michelle. ``She hasn't been in it long enough to have a fakeness about her.''

While he says their parents -- Fraser and Marian Robinson -- didn't discuss politics at home, they weren't oblivious to political realities. Living on a block on Chicago's South Side that the last white family had left when Michelle and Craig were still young, the couple sought to give their children the armor needed to withstand the racially charged 1960s and '70s.

Awareness of Issues

``You can't grow up being a black kid and not be aware of racial issues,'' Robinson says. ``Our parents always talked to us about it.''

Robinson and his sister have gone through life on parallel paths. They made their way from a modest upbringing in a single-income home to Princeton University.

While both siblings majored in sociology and remained close in college, Robinson, two grades ahead of his sister, says their experience was different. Michelle wrote in her senior thesis that Princeton made her ``far more aware of my `blackness' than ever before.''

``Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second,'' according to the thesis, ``Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.''

`Elite Institution'

``Princeton is still a predominantly white, elite institution that is foreign to kids from the South Side of Chicago,'' says Robinson, whose time at the university was easier than Michelle's in part because he was a star basketball player there.

Robinson says his sister has always been more outspoken than he.

``She was the type who would go to the teacher and tell them `you aren't teaching this class right,''' he says. ``It's still hard for me to do stuff like that.''

Another difference between the two was Michelle's reluctance to play basketball.

``As she got older, because she was tall and black, people assumed she played basketball; she hated that,'' he says. She ``would never do anything because other people think it's the right thing to do.''

On to Harvard

After Princeton, Michelle attended Harvard Law School, while Robinson, considered one of the top players in Ivy League basketball history, took a job as a bond trader at Morgan Stanley in New York after getting an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Eventually, both siblings grew disenchanted with corporate life. Robinson returned to basketball, this time as an assistant coach at Northwestern University. In 1991, Michelle entered the public sector as an aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, leaving a job at the prestigious law firm of Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago once she became aware of how hard it would be to juggle a legal career and a family.

Craig says Michelle received her ``work ethic and compassion'' from their father, who died in 1991 due to complications related to multiple sclerosis. Fraser Robinson was the sole earner in the family, working at a local water- filtration plant and rarely missing a day, even when he was using a walker to get there, he says.

Their mother, Marian, 70, still lives in Chicago and helps Michelle take care of her two grandchildren, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

No `Foolishness'

Robinson, who coached at Brown University before moving to Oregon State, says his brother-in-law is a major asset for him in recruiting players, what Sports Illustrated called the toughest job in college basketball.

``The notoriety that comes with being related to the potential future president has been positive, and I don't see it becoming less if he wins,'' Robinson says.

Robinson says he immediately took to Obama when his sister brought him home to meet the family.

That impression was confirmed after Michelle asked her brother to take Obama out on the basketball court.

``My father used to say you can tell a guy's personality on the basketball court,'' says Robinson. He reported back to his sister that Obama was a ``great guy.''

``My sister didn't have long-term boyfriends,'' Robinson says. ``She didn't suffer any fools, so if there was any foolishness to him they wouldn't be married right now.''

No comments: