President Obama: Public Intellectual
The November 5 issue of The New York Review leads off with the first of a two-part conversation between Marilynne Robinson, the distinguished novelist and theologian, and President Obama. The setting is Des Moines, September 2015. The subject is American citizenship and the role of Christian thought in a democracy, now fraught subjects because of growing sectarianism and exclusiveness in this country.
As the President and Ms. Robinson converse, they sound earnest and thoughtful. Robinson speaks of “a terrible darkening of the national outlook” as a result of growing “in-group” distrust of “the other,” while Mr. Obama looks at the longer term: “I’m always trying to push a little more optimism,” and to allay her discouragement, he says, “Well, we go through these moments.” He shows an easy familiarity with Robinson’s writing, suggesting that the characters in her novels show that it’s not “easy for them to be good Christians.”
Early in their conversation, it becomes clear that both the writer and the politician, who is also a good writer, share a Midwestern low-Protestant background, so that that when she describes her upbringing in Idaho, he says it “sounded really familiar to me when I think about my grandparents who grew up in Kansas.” They share a “sense of homespun virtues.” This Obama is one that is often obscured by the snide, bigoted rejection of him as nonnative, Muslim, and black. But he is after all half-white and a Protestant. When he reads Robinson’s novel Gilead, he recognizes that she is “thinking about American democracy, or, for that matter, Christianity …” and treating “the issue of ‘the other.’”
I look forward to the continuation of this conversation in the next issue of The New York Review, and I heartily recommend this first part for two reasons. One is that it shows we have a President as conversant with the writing and ideas of his time as any president of France. Our Obama is an articulate public intellectual. And second, the conversational form allows him to be both professorial and empathic in talking with another prominent public intellectual, Marilynne Robinson. (Her initials, by the way, match those of Mrs. Obama, née Michelle Robinson.) As chief executive, President Obama sometimes falters by sounding too professorial, intellectually detached, pensive as Hamlet. But in conversation with an intellectual equal, President Obama reveals a compelling grasp of significant issues in our troubled republic and in doing so, deserves our attention.