One sister works alongside Michelle Obama. The other counseled McCain during the last election. Laura Colarusso talks to the family about their different ideologies.
Kori Schake is as rock-ribbed a Republican as they come: a veteran of George W. Bush’s White House. A foreign-policy adviser to John McCain in the last campaign. A Washington fellow for the conservative Hoover Institution.
In short, she’s one of the last people you’d expect to heap praise on the Obama White House for its personnel decisions.
But Schake is an unabashed fan of Michelle Obama’s new communications director: her younger sister, Kristina.
Not that they see eye to eye on everything.
“We were raised to believe that people in good faith can differ in their opinions,” Kori says of her liberal sibling. “I don’t agree with many of her views, but I have to have my hand on my wallet when I talk with her about politics. She’s very persuasive.”
Kristina Schake sits on the board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, a nonprofit fighting for gay marriage in California. Kori Schake has spoken out against ending the military ban on gays who openly acknowledge their sexuality.
In 2004, Kristina spearheaded the outreach campaign that helped pass Proposition 71, a voter initiative that makes stem-cell research a constitutional right in California. Kori was Bush’s director of defense strategy at the National Security Council and also served at the State Department.
“They simply gathered different information about world," says their mother, Cecelia, a college instructor. “We are all over the map and that makes for interesting Thanksgiving dinners.”
Despite their obvious differences, the two sisters remain close confidantes. And no topic is off-limits. “Our political views are very different, but our analyses aren’t that different,” said Kori. “We’ll see similarities in opportunity or risk in certain situations. When I talk politics with my sister, I’m impressed with the things she notices—things that I wish I had noticed.”
Even though Kristina plays for the other team, Kori says the White House is “extraordinarily lucky to have her.”
For Kristina, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, landing a high-level post with the first lady caps a career working with celebrity Democrats. She was the chief PR strategist for Maria Shriver as the first lady of California sought to expand the Women’s Conference (an international event whose speakers have included, yes, Michelle Obama, along with Jill Biden, Laura Bush, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg). More than 30,000 people attended the event this year. Her left-wing cred extends to working with Al Gore in 2007 on the Live Earth concerts to raise awareness about climate change, and with Rob Reiner on the California Children and Families Commission.
Reiner, in fact, served as a mentor to this onetime cheerleader and student council president. Her dad likes to tell the story of how Kristina first met the Hollywood director and liberal activist. Reiner was working on promoting Prop 10—a California voter initiative that would add a 50-cent tax on cigarette packs to fund early childhood education. Kristina was making a pitch for why her public-relations firm should be hired.
She told Reiner that the firm doesn't make mistakes and that he could count on her to deliver. When she went to shake his hand, she knocked over a pitcher of water. Reiner apparently got a good chuckle out that and hired the firm on condition that Kristina lead the effort.
"Every two years, she likes a big change in her life," said Cecelia Schake.
Kristina is in some ways a product of the Cold War, having lived in Germany with her parents from 1984 to 1986. Her father, Wayne Shacke, was a Pan Am pilot who flew routes into Berlin to connect the city with West Germany. "It was an interesting time for her to live in Germany," he says. "The city was surrounded by Soviet troops and tanks would roll down the streets."
Even though Kristina plays for the other team, Kori says the White House is “extraordinarily lucky to have her.” In fact, she’s a little worried the Obamas just gained an advantage because Kristina can help them fix what Kori believes are the administration’s fatal flaws. The White House, in Kori Schake’s view, hasn’t been particularly persuasive in persuading folks who don’t already agree with them. But those around her say that is one of Kristina’s strongest assets.
Chad Griffin, Kristina’s business partner in the Los Angeles communications firm Griffin Schake, noted that her success—both with her sister and in the boardroom—has come from learning to transcend partisanship. When it came to fighting for gay rights, he and Kristina assembled the legal dream team of Ted Olson and David Boies, best known as the opposing lawyers in Bush v. Gore, to mount a legal challenge against Prop 8, the California initiative that banned same-sex marriage in 2008.
Her connections came in handy. Ten days after Prop 8 passed, Reiner and his wife invited Schake and Griffin to lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel to plot strategy.
Griffin says Schake is well positioned to help the first lady with such signature projects as eradicating childhood obesity and assisting military families. She has worked on childhood nutrition and health-care initiatives, her father is a Vietnam vet, and her brother served in the Persian Gulf War.
“I’ll miss Kristina,” Griffin says, “but I think she’s looking forward to being able to spend some quality time with her sister.”
Laura Colarusso is a senior news editor at Talking Points Memo.