The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?
The President: It’s hard. And it’s supposed to be hard. Now, you grew up in Idaho, in a pretty—it wasn’t a big, cosmopolitan place.
Robinson: The word “cosmopolitan” was never applied.
The President: Which town in Idaho did you grow up in?
Robinson: [Coeur d’Alene] is where I really grew up.
The President: How big was the town when you were growing up?
Robinson: 13,500 people.
The President: All right. So that’s a town.
Robinson: Yes, the second-largest city in the state at the time.
The President: And how do you think you ended up thinking about democracy, writing, faith the way you do? How did that experience of growing up in a pretty small place in Idaho, which might have led you in an entirely different direction—how did you end up here, Marilynne? What happened? Was it libraries?
Robinson: It was libraries, it was—people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice, right?
In Part II, in the November 19th NYRB, the conversation becomes more substantial. They talk about the problems facing the country – facing the nation, is a better way to put it: consumerism, income inequality, the dumbing down of the education system, political polarization, pervasive fearfulness and lack of confidence, historical amnesia. And the odd thing is that Obama is the more pessimistic of the two.
The President: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture?...
Robinson: I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.
The President: Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.
Robinson: And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….
The President: Do you pay a lot of attention to day-to-day politics these days?
Robinson: I do actually. I read the news for a couple of hours every morning.
The President: Right. And how do you think your writer’s sensibility changes how you think about it? Or are you just kind of in the mix like everybody else, and just, ah, that red team drives me nuts, and you’re cheering for the blue?
Robinson: Well, if I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be. I think in my essay on fear I was talking about the assumption of generosity in this culture, you know?* We have done some very magnanimous things in our history.
The President: Yes.
Robinson: Which seem in many ways unifying, defining. And then you see people running on what seem to be incredibly mean-spirited, tight-fisted assumptions, and you think, this is not us. This is not our way forward. Well, I’m getting all too political, but insulting people that you know will become citizens—however that’s managed—giving them this bitter memory to carry into their participation in the national life. Why do that?
As in a good conversation, they learn from each other.
Robinson: It’s amazing. You know, when I go to Europe or—England is usually where I go—they say, what are you complaining about? Everything is great. [Laughter.] I mean, really. Comparisons that they make are never at our disadvantage.
The President: No—but, as I said, we have a dissatisfaction gene that can be healthy if harnessed. If it tips into rage and paranoia, then it can be debilitating and just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we end up blocking progress in serious ways.
Robinson: Restlessness of, like, why don’t we do something about this yellow fever? There’s generous restlessness.
The President: That’s a good restlessness.
Robinson: Yes, absolutely. And then there is a kind of acidic restlessness that--
The President: I want more stuff.
Robinson: I want more stuff, or other people are doing things that I’m justified in resenting. That sort of thing.
The President: Right.
This is a conversation about the same issues, cast in the same terms, that one participates in at dinner parties or reads articles about in Harper’s or The Atlantic or hears pundits discuss on public radio or Sunday television talk shows. These are subjects that underlie political discussions both on the American left and the American right.
I have been disappointed with Obama, dismayed by Obama, angry at Obama, but nothing he has done or not done has filled me with such bitter malice towards him as this conversation with Marilynne Robinson.
At one point, Obama talks about the plight of the worker.
When you were growing up, when I was growing up, the majority of people had confidence that if they lost their job, it would be temporary, that they often would be with the same company for years, that there would be a pension in place, that they would be able to support a family, and that their kids would probably have a better life than they did. And people feel less confident about that because workers have less leverage, and capital is mobile and labor is not. And we haven’t adapted our systems to take into account how fast this is moving.
Blah, blah, blah. I have said the same thing, so have you, so has everyone else and their brother. And then Obama goes on to say:
What’s frustrating to me is just that it wouldn’t take that much for us to make the system work for ordinary people again.
When I read that, I threw the thing on the floor and screamed, “But you’re the fucking President of the United States!”
If Obama is frustrated about something (especially something which he thinks “wouldn’t take that much” to correct) why doesn’t he do something? And don’t give me that excuse about Congressional deadlock. Obama has a bunch of regulatory agencies at his fingertips. If he is so frustrated he could, by fiat, raise the minimum wage through the Department of Labor, or tariff goods made abroad by American companies through the Department of Commerce, or make company officers responsible for corporate malfeasance through the Department of Justice, and then let Congress take the heat if it wants to go to the Supremes to overturn him on constitutional grounds.
Sure, Lincoln often felt frustrated, so did FDR and Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman – but not for long. After all, they were the fucking Presidents of the United States.
The country is in trouble. Everyone, right and left, sees it. The President sees it too. But the President is not everyone. He is the most powerful man in the world. If he will not fight tooth and nail for the country, then what is he doing in the White House?
What is he doing? Wringing his hands and commiserating with Marilynne Robinson and the rest of us – the powerless.
If I were President, or if my friend Ted, or my friend Richard, or my friend Tom, or Paul Krugman or James Fallows or Andrew Sullivan or Robert Reich or Noam Chomsky or, for that matter, Irving Kristol or Pat Buchanan or Ron or Rand Paul were President of the United States, faced with the existential democratic dysfunction in Washington, I do not think any of us would remain mired in frustration: we might end up politically incapacitated, impeached, assassinated – but not frustrated.
There’s kind of a game among some people to try and figure out who, in history, Obama most resembles. He’d like to think he was a Teddy Roosevelt. Fat chance. I’ve been thinking he was like Wilson – a well-meaning, ineffectual academic. But after reading this conversation with Marilynne Robinson I know exactly whom he reminds me of. Obama is a Nero – instead of fiddling, kvetching while Rome burns.