The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michelle Obama says her mother was the most popular person in the White House

Marian Robinson, 81, had a job unlike any other during her eight years in the White House. Now, after nearly a decade, she's talking about it. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Marian Robinson, the mother of former first lady Michelle Obama, said in an interview that aired Wednesday on “CBS This Morning” that she kept a low profile during her son-in-law’s administration because she feared making a faux pas.

“I figured if I didn’t say anything, I wouldn’t say the wrong thing,” she said in a rare TV interview alongside her daughter, who is publicizing her new memoir, “Becoming.”

Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ racks up most preorders since ‘Go Set a Watchman’

But though Robinson shied away from publicity, in private she was the most popular resident at the White House, her daughter told CBS’s Gayle King. Michelle Obama said staffers would frequently visit Robinson’s quarters. “She had a stream of people," she said. “Grandma’s room was like the confessional. They would come by and unload.”

Robinson’s own admission? Her first reaction to her son-in-law’s election was fear.

“I felt like this was going to be a hard life," she said. “I was worried about their safety and about the girls.”

When Robinson moved in with the Obamas, it helped create a sense of normalcy for Malia and Sasha, then 10 and 7. As part of the down-to-earth grounding, Robinson said she persuaded White House staff to let her do her own laundry. And Obama recalled that she taught the girls how to do their own, too, saying they visited Robinson for “laundry lessons.”

Another way Robinson offset the decidedly not-normal environs was to ride with the girls' motorcade to school. “Mom would ride in the car to make them feel like a regular car pool,” Obama said.

The interview ended on a sweet note when King asked Robinson what about her daughter made her the proudest.

“When I grow up I would like to be like Michelle Obama,” she answered.

Which seemed to touch the former first lady. “Mommy!” she said.

In a separate interview with King, Obama also recalled the most “painful” chapter of her book to write, about her experience on the campaign trail for her husband’s presidential run in 2008.

“My whole persona was distorted — I was called an ‘angry black woman,’ Barack’s ‘baby mama,’ that I didn’t love my country,” Obama recalled. She said those comments and her struggle are often now eclipsed by the popularity she enjoys. But, she said, “It’s important to remember that.”

Obama also talked about her famous line, “when they go low, we go high,” saying she still believes in the maxim despite the current state of political rhetoric.

Going low, she said, means that you’re operating out of emotion — and that you probably won’t get results, she said.

“Vindication in the moment is so short term,” she said.

“When you’re in the White House and you have that platform and that responsibility where every word matters, you know, you’re often thinking — at least Barack and I often thought — is what we’re about to say going to help? Is it going to move the needle forward? Or is it just going to make us feel vindicated in the moment?” Obama said. “The goal is moving forward.”