Obama and Marilynne Robinson chat

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson had a conversation that appeared in the New York Review of Books. Here's Part II.

The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. 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, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And 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—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.
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. Because, look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.
But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it also is the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history.
If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

Reservoir of goodness

As a poetic companion to Justice Kennedy's majority opinion for marriage equality for SCOTUS today, read Andrew Sullivan's piece on the momentous ruling. A recollection, an appreciation, a victory lap, beautiful throughout.

In fact, we lost and lost and lost again. Much of the gay left was deeply suspicious of this conservative-sounding reform; two thirds of the country were opposed; the religious right saw in the issue a unique opportunity for political leverage – and over time, they put state constitutional amendments against marriage equality on the ballot in countless states, and won every time. Our allies deserted us. The Clintons embraced the Defense of Marriage Act, and their Justice Department declared that DOMA was in no way unconstitutional the morning some of us were testifying against it on Capitol Hill. For his part, president George W. Bush subsequently went even further and embraced the Federal Marriage Amendment to permanently ensure second-class citizenship for gay people in America. Those were dark, dark days.
I recall all this now simply to rebut the entire line of being “on the right side of history.” History does not have such straight lines. Movements do not move relentlessly forward; progress comes and, just as swiftly, goes. For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back. History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.
But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God; that their loves and lives are equally precious; that the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence has no meaning if it does not include the right to marry the person you love; and has no force if it denies that fundamental human freedom to a portion of its citizens.
We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings. It took courage to embrace this fact the way the Supreme Court did today.

I turned on CNN in my hotel here in Italy after dinner tonight. I've watched maybe 15 minutes of television this entire month I've been traveling, distance and the preoccupations of exploring a foreign country have a way of making all news seem too local, but tonight I happened to catch Obama in the midst of his eulogy in Charleston, live. I will always stop to watch Obama speak in a black church, just to hear the cadence of the call and response, the ebb and flow, the dialogue of a communal consciousness.

In his speech, a remarkable and moving one, he referenced Marilynne Robinson's phrase “reservoir of goodness.” If we could just tap into that reservoir of goodness, he both urged and wondered, if we could just tap into that grace, what might be possible?

On this day of all days, the answer seemed to be: more than even Andrew Sullivan expected in his lifetime.

Obama to appear on Between Two Ferns

President Obama's appearance on Funny or Die's Between Two Ferns will post tomorrow morning at 7:30am.

Sure, Obama came of age in the dawn of the internet, but it still feels like he's leaned forward on social media more than the average President would have. I'll always think of him as our first intentionally viral President (Bush having been more “unintentionally” viral).


I admire [CNN's] commitment to covering all sides of a story...just in case one of them happens to be accurate.

When Obama leaves office, one of the things I'll miss the most are his comedy routines at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. The one he gave last night was one of the best yet.

I recognize that the Press and I have different jobs. My job is to be President, your job is to keep me humble. Frankly I think I'm doing my job better.

Seriously, he has some serious comedic timing, that's a gift. He also has some great joke writers, and they deserve some recognition. Who are they? Conan O'Brien could've used them last night.

Real life probability quiz

Mark Bowden adapted a piece of his upcoming book about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden for Vanity Fair. It's a crackling read.

What's most fascinating is the insight into how Obama finally made the decision to move on the compound in Abbottabad. As Obama has noted before, he only gets called on to make the tough decisions. The easy ones are made for him.

“One of the things you learn as president is you’re always dealing with probabilities,” he told me. “No issue comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. No issue comes to my desk where there’s 100 percent confidence that this is the right thing to do. Because if people were absolutely certain then it would have been decided by someone else. And that’s true in dealing with the economic crisis. That’s true in order to take a shot at a pirate. That’s true about most of the decisions I make during the course of the day. So I’m accustomed to people offering me probabilities. In this situation, what you started getting was probabilities that disguised uncertainty as opposed to actually providing you with more useful information.” The president had no trouble facing reality. If he acted on this, he was going to be taking a gamble.

As Nate Silver notes in The Signal and the Noise, one of the reasons more data doesn't always lead to better predictions is that people interpret the data subjectively. The intelligence on Abbottabad was weighted by each member of Obama's administration along with all the evidence they'd accumulated in each of their lives, and so everyone put different likelihoods on whether the man seen pacing in the garden of the compound (nicknamed The Pacer) was actually Bin Laden. The result, Bowden notes, was a distribution of confidence, with most at 80 percent confidence but some as low as 30 percent.

At one meeting, Obama asked Morell, who was seated in a chair against the wall behind him, under the presidential seal, for his own view. Morell put the probability that The Pacer was bin Laden at 60 percent.

Morell had been personally involved in the flawed analysis of Saddam’s weapons capability and yet had felt more certain about that than he felt about this. “People don’t have differences because they have different intel,” he said. “We are all looking at the same things. I think it depends more on your past experience.” He explained that counterterrorism analysts at work on al-Qaeda over the past five years had enjoyed a remarkable string of successes. They had been crushing the terror group inside Pakistan and systematically killing its top leadership. So they were very confident. Those who had been at work longer, like himself, had known failure. They knew the fragility of even the soundest-seeming intelligence analysis. The W.M.D. story had been a brutal lesson.

“Mr. President,” he said, “if we had a human source who had told us directly that bin Laden was living in that compound, I still wouldn’t be above 60 percent.” Morell said he had spent a lot of time on both questions, W.M.D. and Abbottabad. He had seen no fewer than 13 analytical drafts on the former and at least as many on the latter. “And I’m telling you, the case for W.M.D. wasn’t just stronger—it was much stronger.”

Emphasis in the excerpt above is mine. Examples like this make a good case for electing a President with a good handle on statistics.

Bowden's article does not shed any light on who Jessica Chastain plays in the upcoming movie Zero Dark Thirty. The second trailer for the movie and the priority of the advance billing seem to make her CIA analyst a central figure. These days, she really does seem like the busiest girl in show business.