Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama interviewed author Marilynne Robinson for the New York Review of Books, and the two luminaries discussed Christianity and their shared Midwestern background. Now, the promised second half of the interview has finally arrived. Obama once again opens by praising novels in general, saying they taught him how to be a citizen.
“When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels,” Obama says. “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”
As Obama’s conversation with Robinson goes deeper into American culture and history, the president brings up everyone’s favorite musical of the moment, Hamilton. Obama knows what he’s talking about here. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda first previewed a song from Hamilton at a White House poetry jam years ago, and the First Family famously attended the show this summer.
“It sounds initially like it would not work at all,” Obama says of the musical. “And it is brilliant, and so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career—it speaks to this vibrancy of American democracy, but also the fact that it was made by these living, breathing, flawed individuals who were brilliant … But what’s most important about [Hamilton] and why I think it has received so many accolades is it makes it live. It doesn’t feel distant. And it doesn’t feel set apart from the arguments that we’re having today. And Michelle and I, when we went to see it, the first thing we thought about was what could we do to encourage this kind of creativity in teaching history to our kids.”
In fact, Obama appears more abreast of current pop culture happenings than you might expect from the leader of the free world. Are you worried about too much TV? So is Obama. Frustrated by Twitter and the rapid news cycle? Same, says the president.
“And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about. Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized,” Obama says. “When I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country … that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about. Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise.”