Please Note: This article was published prior to the US Election 2008
Before I met Michelle Obama, her brother, Craig Robinson, told me that to really understand her, I'd have to know a little bit about their father. Fraser Robinson worked swing shifts for the city of Chicago, tending the boilers at a water-filtration plant. "My father was not college-educated," said Craig, head basketball coach for Oregon State University, but was "full of integrity", the "gold standard" of husbands, and "a hard working man who raised two kids when he had multiple sclerosis."
When I sit down with the potential first lady at her husband's Chicago campaign headquarters, I see what her brother was getting at. In nearly an hour with Michelle and her 70-year-old mother, Marian Robinson, nothing comes across more clearly than the extent to which 44-year-old Michelle was moulded by the years she spent watching her father, whose determination defined strength for Michelle. She came to see complaining as a moral failing and a show of self-indulgence.
"Seeing a parent with a disability moving through the world and living life as if that disability didn't matter," Michelle says, "always made us think, What do we have to complain about? We wake up, we bound out of bed, we are healthy, we're happy, and our father is struggling to get out of bed. But he never missed a day of work, never talked about being sick. So it made it hard to wake up and say, 'I don't want to go to school.'"
Michelle is candid, yes, sometimes to her detriment, and can come across as over confident in a way a man similarly lacking in self-doubt might not. But victimhood is not her style. On the contrary, she's disinclined to take political jabs personally and so disinterested in dissecting or answering them that when I invite her to take umbrage, she practically yawns. She's a big girl, she says, and sees that those attacks are not about her, not at all.
Here in the Midwest, the highest compliment that can be paid someone who has done well in life is that he or she is "still so normal". Michelle Obama easily qualifies for the participant ribbon in that event, turning up at Obama headquarters on time to the minute, in a simple black-and-white cotton skirt and sleeveless blouse, with one arm around her mum. (Marian, who is on her way to pick up her grandkids at camp and agreed to come only because her daughter promised her that she wouldn't have to have her picture taken, has never given an interview with her daughter before.) Because campaign spouses tend to keep a wary eye on the political mercenaries who run these operations, it's a bit startling that even the volunteers call her Michelle and shout a casual greeting as she arrives. I don't know that I've ever seen a presidential candidate's wife inspire less fear in the troops.