My recent cover story on Marianne Williamson — best-selling self-help author, spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey and presidential hopeful — generated almost 700 comments online. Most readers fell into two, not terribly surprising, camps. In one corner: Get ready for a miracle, America! In the other: Dear God, not this woman.
The piece also garnered comments of a third type: Why is The Washington Post covering her?
One commenter seemed to marry the latter two perspectives. Susan Kannel, a 70-year-old retired nonprofit executive from Denver, wrote: “Hey y’all. Ever think that after the last election, that maybe we deserve her? PS WaPo: Disappointed in you for giving this so much real estate in your magazine.”
I called Kannel a week after the story’s publication. During our conversation, she made clear that the first part of her comment was “cynical.” “I don’t think we really deserve her,” Kannel said. “But after electing this corrupt moron, maybe we do. I definitely notice some similarities between them.”
I understood her skepticism, since I went into this story with my own. I’d never heard of Williamson before receiving the assignment, and I had no previous experience with either spirituality or self-help. Williamson’s best-selling books — like the 1992 blockbuster that made her a spiritual star, “A Return to Love” — struck me as both esoteric (meditations on how fear is a hallucination taking us away from God) and oversimplified (if you surrender to God, you will receive what you need). But their message is one of love and community, and during our time together, I found Williamson compelling. Despite the similarities to Trump that I outlined in my piece (her lack of experience; her celebrity; her reliance on family members as close advisers), she felt, in many ways, like the inverse of Trump, exhibiting deep historical knowledge, compassion and a weirdly effective tactic of pointing out Americans’ own culpability in where we’ve wound up as a country.
“She talks about [how] one of the ways to disarm Trump is to go for the core truth of something and just say it out loud,” Kannel said of Williamson’s aggressive honesty. “I think she’s right there,” she admitted. “I suppose she’s addressing a hole, or a need, or something that has been exposed in the last three or four years. I think a lot of us are absolutely sick of the anger. I think we’re sick of the corruption.”
But, Kannel added, “you might address it her way in church.” (“Not that I go to church,” she clarified.) “I want somebody in the White House that knows how to run a government and who values government.”
So did Kannel take issue with the article because she doesn’t want the magazine to cover a candidate she doesn’t support? “Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “I mean, George Will is pretty conservative, and I love a lot of stuff that he writes. I don’t think The Washington Post should have a political bent necessarily. But my God, you guys are giving her a lot of free publicity.”
I asked if she thought I glamorized Williamson in the piece. She said no. In fact, as we talked, it became clear that her concern was less with the magazine’s decision to assign the piece, and more with the level of public interest in Williamson — and the possibility of another inexperienced president. (At this point Kannel would vote for a “coffee cup” over Trump, she said, and conceded Williamson would likely be better at governing than a mug.)
In the run-up to 2020, we will be drowning in a deluge of political profiles. Some candidates will be obvious to write about; some won’t. But even the non-obvious candidates might offer ideas that have the potential to attract a significant following or shed light on our political situation. It makes sense for reporters to explore those ideas. Williamson might be the “longest of long shots,” as one of her staffers told me, but her candidacy says something notable about the state of America today — and that makes her worth the real estate.
Anna Peele is a writer in New York.