Normally President Obama is the one answering the questions — as he did somewhat testily Sunday in an interview with “60 Minutes.” In the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, Obama is the one mostly asking them.
His interview subject: Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist from Iowa. Obama asks her about her upbringing, her faith and her writing process, before the two take some time to talk about Christianity and the noxious state of American politics.
“How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you … with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Obama asked.
Robinson essentially replied that those Christians, whipping up fear of a “sinister other,” weren’t practicing their faith properly. “I mean, when people are turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves and so on — against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously,” she said.
Obama has made some pretty unconventional media moves of late. He sat for an interview with the “Vice,” the edgy media company, in a federal prison, took questions from GloZell, a green-lipped YouTube star, and spent an hour in Marc Maron’s Pasadena, Calif., garage for a chat with the comedian that aired on his “WTF”podcast.
The Robinson chat was definitely the most highbrow, at times the weirdest and, in moments, the most revealing. The president said he read Robinson’s novel, which is set in Iowa, during his downtime while running for president in the state in 2008. “There’s a lot of downtime when you’re driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning,” Obama said.
The president often sounded wistful for that time in Iowa when his image in the American imagination wasn’t so fixed and immovable.
“I had the benefit that at the time nobody expected me to win. And so I wasn’t viewed through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary,” Obama said. “At the time, I didn’t seem scary, other than just having a funny name. I seemed young. Sometimes I look at my pictures from then and I say, I can’t believe anybody voted for me because I look like I’m 25.”
Robinson and Obama spoke in September when the president was in Iowa for a political event. After their meeting and the president’s Iowa speech to a group of high school students, he and the novelist held hands affectionately as Obama walked across the tarmac to a waiting Air Force One. The first part of their two-part chat will appear in the Nov. 5 issue of the New York Review of Books.