Marilynne Robinson on The Day President Obama Interviewed Her

On September 14, Barack Obama interviewed one of his favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, in Des Moines, Iowa. Behind their conversation lies a deep friendship and shared theology.

10.20.15 5:05 AM ET

On September 14, President Obama interviewed his friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, at the State Library of Iowa in Des Moines, for The New York Review of Books.

The first part of their absorbing discussion was published last week (as well as in audio format); the second part will follow in the next issue.

It is fascinating to hear Obama talk deeply, and feelingly, about faith and personal and political philosophy far away from the land of sound-bite sentiment, and with such genuine pleasure to be alongside a writer he clearly respects as much as Robinson, to whom he awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2012.

It is also something to hear him doing the interviewing, and reveling in the role: asking the questions, considering them, rather than being questioned and answering.

Robinson’s 2004 book, Gilead, is something of a touchstone for Obama.

“One of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames,” Obama tells Robinson during the interview, “who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book…”

The Daily Beast conducted an email interview with Robinson, who is also F. Wendell Miller Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, about their friendship, beliefs, what Obama was like away from the cameras, and whether he would make a good novelist himself.

The Daily Beast: How long have you known each other? Who first got in touch with whom—and how?

Marilynne Robinson: While the president was campaigning for the nomination he read Gilead. He liked it and praised it very generously, and this was conveyed to me through newspaper articles about him. I met him when he presented a National Humanities Medal to me, then I was invited to a small dinner at the White House and we had some time to really talk. The conversation has gone on from there.

What were your first impressions of him, and how—if any—did they differ from the Obama you knew only as we know him, as president/figurehead/politician?

Of course my impression of him has become richer as I know him better, but it was never at odds with my expectations, really. I’ve never known anyone like him, at the same time so intense and so receptive. I could never have anticipated this. It is so distinctive in him. He is interested and curious, but never intrusive. He has a very generous imagination of other people’s lives, an actual fondness for them. He might make a fine novelist or historian for that reason.

What is he like off camera, and does it differ from the image he projects to the public?

When he is on camera it is usually because he has a statement to make. Off camera he is gracious and engaged and ready to laugh. A man with his résumé might be expected to be a little egocentric, a little self-important, but I have never seen a glimpse of this in him. I thought I was going to interview him in Des Moines, and he more or less interviewed me—so tactfully that I didn’t quite realize what was happening. He is like this in conversation. His interest in other people is striking.

Tell us about any interesting conversations you and he have had away from the camera/microphone. What things does he think about, and how did he raise them with you?

Some things he has said to me, things of a theological kind, have been so moving and impressive to me that I will never forget them. Nor will I attempt to paraphrase them. My friendship with Barack Obama is singularly precious to me because of what I have learned from him. He would make a fine theologian. That’s about the highest praise I can offer to anyone. It is bizarre that the press has been so deaf to this quality of mind in him, which should be somewhat apparent, at least, in his public statements and speeches.

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Have you met Michelle? What is she like?

Mrs. Obama is very much as she appears—a warm, gentle, imposing, self-possessed, and tremendously intelligent woman. I don’t think her interests are quite as literary as the president’s, but I could be wrong.

If he is a deep thinker, do you think the tone and context and confrontational nature of modern politics frustrates or depresses him? Or does he relish that too?

There is a point at which confrontation makes politics impossible. I can’t really speak for the president, but I think I can say that the normal functioning of the government, taking care of the needs of the nation for new infrastructure and so on, are things he would love to be able to see to. This endless scrum accomplishes nothing but a cheapening and darkening of public life. No one who wishes the country well could relish it.

How did this interview come about?

I’m not sure exactly how the conversation came about. The White House called to ask me if I would be receptive to the idea. And of course I was.

What was he like as an interviewer? He seemed pretty nimble at covering all bases, from your childhood to influences?

He’s a great interviewer. As I said above, his interest in other people is very genuine, and that’s the crucial thing. Frankly, I find it remarkably generous in a sitting president to turn from the pope and the president of China to interview a writer in Iowa, even a good friend. It still seems a little unreal to me. He knows that we talk easily together, that the conversation would grow out of exchanges we have had and take its own course as real conversations do. I can imagine that this would be a relief for him.

He said in this first part of the conversation that he was a fan of Gilead—and John Ames in particular as a character. What concordances or echoes do you think they share for him to make that what sounds like a profound identification?

Some of the identification might come from the fact that John Ames is a minister in the denomination the president and I both belong to. In his first campaign he would visit churches on Sunday if he could. His campaign called my church in Iowa City to learn the time for the service.

It was early, so he could not have come that morning without walking in late and creating disruption, so he didn’t come, out of consideration, which is very like him. He and I spoke once at a meeting of the denomination, when he had just announced his candidacy, before he would have been aware of my books.  Someone accused him then of violating the separation of church and state and even attempted some sort of legal action for his overt Christianity. 

That was before the right-wing media began to make him seem alien and sinister—before this calculated slander overtook his public image. He, I, and John Ames share a theology, a world view.

In your conversation, you say people are fundamentally good or want to do the decent thing, and then the “sinister other” comes along and infects both individuals and the body politic in general (I’m precis-ing, so apologies, correct me if I’m wrong). Do you think Obama is motivated by an idealism? If so, do you think he has been frustrated at trying to enact it by a poisonous body politic—including media—and suspicious, polarizing electorate?

You have misconstrued something very important. It is no objectively existing “sinister other” I was speaking of. I was speaking of the rumors of there being such elements or forces in the culture. The imagination of the “sinister other” feeds the conspiracy theories that are important at the moment, and it obscures reality and impedes public life by encouraging belief in these engrossing, scary fictions, which enrich the arms industry and the sensationalist “news” industry at huge cost to the rest of us. 

I think you can see from what he says in the interview that the president has—and clearly expresses—the deepest respect for the public and for the good potential of political life in this country. I have seen misinterpretations like the one you offer here take life in the media as if they were an authentic basis for controversy. I really do not know how this sort of thing is rationalized by people claiming to be journalists. 

I am very grateful to be in a position to speak with modest authority about a truly fine man, a man whom I revere, and I see how a point that is not obscure can be misread in a way that could do him harm. This is the sort of thing that gives the public excellent cause for suspicion—not of the political motives of the media, but of their good sense. If you have offered this interpretation as only the sort of thing liable to appear in the press, then your view of the matter is as dark as mine.

Do you think his vision, like yours, is of the best kind of democracy as a consequence or extension of religious humanism?

The president is the most idealistic person I have ever known. And his idealism is not easy. It has been through the fire. Certainly his faith in democracy is simultaneous with his religious faith.

Religion, in the U.S. at least, seems to infect political discourse in the most polarizing and poisonous ways—judging LGBT people, seeking to restrict women’s reproductive rights, and other areas. Why is that, do you think? Can religion ever be a force for holistic good in the U.S. again?

The press is always content with taking the loudest or harshest versions of Christianity for the thing itself. One need not look far to find religious institutions that were supportive of all sorts of people who suffered discrimination long before the discrimination became a public issue.

A dispassionate view of the matter would find that religion contributes a great deal to the well being of the country. My church and others collaborate with the synagogue and the mosque in Iowa City to identify and respond to the material needs of people there.

This is a practical acknowledgement that all our traditions teach concern for the poor, and an acknowledgement as well that we share and love one community. I am sure this collaboration is not unique.

Obama got you to talk about your own childhood. Was he good as a questioner? Did you sense he enjoyed having to ask the questions, rather than being asked?

The president has an interest in the mystery of identity, how people come together out of culture and history and experience to be who they are. This is clear in his memoir, which he wrote when he was quite young. I think there is an element of improbability in my life that makes me a sort of case in point, as he certainly is himself. 

Objectively speaking, there is not much in my childhood that would seem to have predisposed me to writing fiction. Nor is there much in his that would seem to have brought him to the presidency.

I’m often asked if there were not literary types in my family background somewhere, and the answer is no. It is rare among American writers to have that kind of background. We accept people for what they do, then try to come up with some rather determinist narrative of origins to explain them.

The president seems pleasantly interested by the fact that I cannot really explain myself in such terms. It is a strong argument against the kinds of biases that overstate the value of an apparently privileged background, and understate the value to the culture of broadly afforded, optimistic education.

He seems to be a thinking man, who relished having this time to mull some big questions? 

He is impressively reflective.

He was particularly taken with the Iowa setting, and what it had meant to him politically. He said he was surprised he made such inroads there, but felt it was maybe down to his Kansas roots, and being able to reach out to those kind of people. Why do you think he managed to reach out to people so well in Iowa? What is it about him?

As he says, when he first came to Iowa he was not seen through the fogs of tendentious misrepresentation that have obscured him from the public since then. Iowans are typically polite and open people, and the president is much inclined to love people who go honorably about their lives, creating the life of the country.

He associates Midwesterners with his mother and grandparents, and so he felt respectfully at ease with them. Iowans responded in kind. It must have given him a surprising and gratifying sense of homecoming to be in Iowa then. I looked on as it was happening, long before I met him, and it was a wonderful thing to see.

You and he also talked about “closing the gap” between decency and a despoiled politics and violence in the world. Do you think he has the answer, and if he does or doesn’t, what for you is the answer to that question you mulled together?

I hope people are beginning to realize that this rancor is not in their interest, not consistent with the wellbeing of the democracy. The people have always been the country’s one great resource, and after them the press, which ought to enable them to know and understand what is necessary to their governing a great power whose errors and illusions have consequences for the whole world.

Transparency would begin with a press that could restrain itself from sensationalizing sensationalism, from giving center stage to “politicians” who make a sideshow of our public life. I am not speaking for the president here, only as a concerned citizen. He is not so harsh. He is a better Christian than I am.

You defended the American education system, and seemed to say we forget how good we have it in the U.S. Do you think politicians and the public too often tear America down and the fabric of life here, and if so why?

I am not talking about “how good we have it” here. I am talking about the fact that we have created and maintained a system of great institutions that are disparaged now relative to unnamed arrangements elsewhere, on the basis of statistics we should be too smart to take at face value. 

The productivity of our universities is almost beyond reckoning in every area of study and research, and the productivity of their graduates is great by every measure. Why this attack on them I can’t imagine. The historical parallel would be the barbarian invasion that launched the Dark Ages.

Obama said to you he thought a “nagging dissatisfaction” was the spur to so much in American life and debate. Do you agree? If so, why, if not, why not?

I’m all for dissatisfaction, so long as it is intelligently directed toward change that solves problems. The president is more inclined to think of dissatisfaction as part of the historical sweep of change, without the impulse to prejudge it that I feel. He’s probably right to assume that it is too basic an energy to be channeled very effectively, and that its consequences, which can be good in unanticipated ways, should simply be allowed to unfold. Behind this is the trust he invests in the ultimate wisdom of the people.

You also spoke in favor of big, effective government—do you think he has overseen such a system effectively, and why is there such suspicion of it?

The phrase “big government” is charged with all sorts of negative associations. If we are to be a nation and not a congeries of states, then we will have a government that is at the scale of the population and terrain it will govern. If we are to have a national constitution, then the government will have enforcement powers throughout this population and terrain. It will be big, in other words.

There are regions in this country that differ philosophically with other regions about what rights should be protected, notably the right to vote. The federal government is designed to reconcile differences. When it favors, for example, the right of minorities to vote, some regions find this intrusive, therefore “big” in the pejorative sense. The cliché that “government is the problem” has had great currency. 

The phrase seems never to mean state or local government, which can be much more intrusive, if, for example, one wishes to vote. We can look around the world and see what happens to countries with weak and unstable governments. They are looted. This country would be quite a prize.

Do you feel you have much in common with President Obama? If so, what? If not, how do you differ? 

Obviously we differ in certain essentials—I did not go to law school, I have never held public office, I bear no measurable responsibility for the fate of the world. The list would be long. On the other hand, we’ve read each other’s books and had some good conversation. Affinity, a word others have used, reaches across differences effortlessly. We interest and enjoy each other.

Would President Obama make a good writing student at Iowa? What’s he already “got down,” and what could he usefully learn?

He has a wonderful, highly original mind. It’s delightful to imagine him at the Workshop. I can’t imagine anything less likely to happen, but it’s still fun to imagine. Of course he would come as faculty, not as a student, and he would teach us about the real world from a perfectly unique perspective. Whole new terrains would open for us.

Do you think he would make a good novelist? Or is non-fiction more his thing, do you think?

The demands made on his time and his energies by his present employment have, I think, precluded his making the kinds of experiments in language that would allow him to know where his greater strengths lie.

What are you publishing/working on next, in terms of books/other projects?

I’m working on some lectures I have to give over the next few months. I hope to find time to work on a novel I’ve been thinking about.