The garage of a Los Angeles comedian with a popular podcast series is a long way from the Oval Office, but President Obama stopped by there and recorded an hour-long show about his youthful insecurities, the problem of race in America and the “grip” the National Rifle Association has on Congress.
After the interview became public Monday, the big news was the president’s utterance of the “N-word” often used to disparage African Americans. Obama’s use of the epithet, to make the point that racism persists even if the word has dropped from most people’s vocabulary, produced a lot of headlines.
“It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public,” Obama said. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
Obama — who also used the word 19 times in his first autobiography “Dreams From My Father” — used the Monday podcast to respond to questions about race in the wake of the shooting deaths of nine African Americans at a Charleston, S.C., church, the latest in a series of events from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore that have thrust race to the forefront of national issues.
On Friday, Obama will travel to Charleston to deliver the eulogy at a funeral service for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel AME Church, where the shootings occurred. Pinckney was also a state senator whom Obama had met. First lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden will also attend.
“It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours and that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact,” the president said. Yet he added that “what is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — that casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.”
The venue for Obama’s conversation, recorded Friday, was the garage of Marc Maron, a stand-up comedian who has been recording extremely popular podcasts since 2009. By Maron’s own admission, it lacks the style of California mansions where Obama was doing fundraising events on the same trip. The garage sports a “Gimme Shelter” poster and pictures of Dennis Hopper and Muddy Waters.
“I like my house, but I imagine it’s going to be different,” Maron said before the president arrived. “It’s cozy.” Maron also said that “it’s been crazy” and that the Secret Service security tent covered his whole driveway. “I had to hide my cats in the bedroom,” Maron said, while security sweeps were performed in other parts of the house.
Obama and Maron dove quickly into Obama’s thoughts and frustrations.
Obama called the shootings in Charleston another reason to adopt tougher gun control laws, but he said he wasn’t optimistic about that happening.
“The question is just is there a way of accommodating that legitimate set of traditions with some common-sense stuff that prevents a 21-year-old who is angry about something or confused about something, or is racist, or is deranged from going into a gun store and suddenly is packing, and can do enormous harm,” the president said.
Yet, he added, “unfortunately, the grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong.” He said: “I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress” and that ordinary Americans had to speak up because “if you don’t have that kind of public and voter pressure, then it’s not going to change from the inside.”
At the same time, Obama sounded some of his familiar themes of progress, reason and what he called “the goodness, decency, [and] common sense of ordinary folks.” Despite the shooting and unrest in black communities, Obama said, “progress in a democracy is never instantaneous, and it’s always partial, and you can’t get cynical or frustrated because you didn’t get all the way there immediately.”
He said: “It’s because societies don’t turn 50 degrees; democracies certainly don’t turn 50 degrees. And that’s been true on issues of race. That’s been true on issues of the environment. That’s true on issues of discrimination. As long as they’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, then government is working sort of the way it’s supposed to.” The conversation also meandered through Obama’s feelings as a college student, his declining prowess on the basketball court, parenthood and his favorite comedians — Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K.
Obama said he admired skilled performers and how they get better with practice.
“I was talking to somebody the other day about why I actually think I’m a better president and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been,” Obama said. “And it’s sort of like an athlete — you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to, but I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless.”