Hail to the First Granny
My love affair with the divine, demure, and undeniably sexy Marian Robinson. By Mo Rocca
My love affair with the divine, demure, and undeniably sexy Marian Robinson.
It all started on Election Night. That’s when I fell in love with Mrs. Robinson. Let’s go back:
Even as Barack Obama delivered his very earthbound address at Grant Park that night, millions of Americans were in a daze: On stage, a black man was addressing us as president-elect. In the crowd, Oprah Winfrey was nuzzling a giant nerdy white man from behind. Was this really happening?
It was all so heady, the cameras didn’t know where to focus: On the always adorable Obama girls? (For the record, I prefer the cool skepticism of Malia—“Beyoncé who?”—over Sasha’s indiscriminate exuberance.)
Then there was Michelle’s brother, Craig, and his beautifully polished pate, shining bright as the star of Bethlehem on this night of promise.
Think the sass of Tyra Banks, combined with the grit of Miss Jane Pittman. All in the package of a younger, sexier Ruby Dee.
A surprising amount of attention was given to Joe Biden's 90-year-old mother who is, candidly speaking, a poor man's version of John McCain's 96-year-old mother. (Spitfire Roberta McCain still vacations with her twin sister, Rowena. It's the ultimate Willard Scott twins fantasy!)
But I was transfixed: by the energy—by the light—emanating from this 71-year-old black woman. She was at once demure, even chic, and undeniably "real." Think the sass of Tyra Banks, combined with the grit of Miss Jane Pittman. All in the package of a younger, sexier Ruby Dee.
It was, of course, Michelle’s mother Marian Robinson. With barely any screen time, she was able to project dignity, humility, and warmth. (Plus, I really liked her hair color: dark brown with a lovely reddish hue.) I had to know everything about her!
Born Marian Shields in the hardscrabble Woodlawn section of Chicago’s South Side in 1937, she married at 23 and stayed home to raise her two kids in a four-room apartment. A divider put up in the living room gave Michelle and Craig their own rooms.
While her husband worked at a water-filtration plant, Marian kept her kids on the straight and narrow, before seeing them both off to the Ivy League. After Michelle left for Princeton (like her brother, on scholarship), Marian went to work as a bank secretary, retiring only last year and still living in the house where she raised her kids.
Rightly described as "the linchpin of Barack Obama's presidential campaign," she served as Malia and Sasha's protector-in-chief while Barack and Michelle were on their 21-month road trip. Even before the campaign began, she rarely let a day pass without visiting her grandkids. So it’s only natural that she’s moved into the presidential mansion with the rest of the family.
So why does this matter? Well, obviously with their granny in the White House, there's little chance that Malia and Sasha will fall prey to the pitfalls that have cursed previous First Kids. (No late-night carousing with the Jonas Brothers—not in Marian’s house!)
But it goes further: The First Mother-in-Law has been a pivotal figure in American history. She is the Woman behind the Woman behind the Man.
And so we have Dorothy Rodham’s Midwestern stolidness tempering (shaming?) an otherwise completely hedonist Bill Clinton. Then there’s serene Jenna Welch, mother and molder of Laura—perhaps the only reason that son-in-law George W. Bush didn’t blow up the whole world. Reaching further back, we have Harry Truman, who for years lived in his mother-in-law Madge Wallace’s house. Without her, Truman would’ve been out on his ass when his haberdashery went bust. How’s that for influence?
Through her influence on Michelle—and by her very presence now—Marian Robinson could very well be the best representative of the people President Obama was elected to serve. If Obama is even tempted to govern like a stereotypical big-government liberal—giving handouts to anyone who asks—he’ll get no backing from a woman who stopped working only last year.
Does egghead Obama, as so many critics suspect, lack a common touch? Not with a former bank secretary around.
In other words, Marian Robinson is the hardworking middle-class family-first citizen that’s made this country great. (In the only audio clips I could find, courtesy of the Boston Globe, she makes her own priorities clear.)
Oh, and she’s a black woman who grew up before Brown v. Board of Education. So it’s fair to say she’s faced just a few minor challenges of her own. President Obama movingly said as much to Steve Kroft when he talked about the First Granny-elect two weeks after the election:
“She was sitting next to me, actually, as we were watching returns. And she's like my grandmother was, sort of a no-fuss type of person. And suddenly she just kind of reached out and she started holding my hand, you know, kind of squeezing it. And you had this sense of, 'Well, what's she thinking?'”
So save all your mother-in-law jokes for the Gridiron Dinner. And raise a glass to the lady who’ll make sure that President Obama keeps it real.
(Scandalously this woman still does not have her own Wikipedia page. Can someone get on this?!)
Mo Rocca is an American writer, comedian, and political satirist. He is a regular panelist on NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! and a regular contributor to CBS' Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. He is a regular correspondent for NBC's Tonight Show, most recently providing 2008 election coverage, as well as for MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann . He was a regular contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart from 1998 to 2003.