A conversation between Contributing Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates &
Senior Editor Andrew Sullivan
A conversation between Contributing Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates &
Sullivan: I find the whole anniversary thing kind of stupid.
Coates: It is stupid. It's like pick a round number.
Sullivan: I think it's FDR who started this whole thing.
Coates: One of the things I've been trying to write about is this whole arbitrary comparison between presidents. "Is he more like FDR? Is he more like Lincoln?"
Sullivan: I find myself doing it a little bit when I write my columns because you want to try to put people in some kind of historical context. Although it is kind of hard. How does one compare this period in history to any other period in history when we don't even understand what really this period of history is actually about yet. It's pointless. And I feel that it's particularly pointless with Obama because he has always been about the long game. So the idea that you could judge so soon seems to be particularly inappropriate with the kind of person he is.
Coates: Here's a question I wanted to ask you. Have you been uncomfortable at all with how he's proceeding economically in terms of bank stimulus and all that? Has that made you uncomfortable at all?
Sullivan: No. Not short term. I think that even those of us who are pretty fiscally conservative understand that January of 2009 was not the right moment to tighten your belt. I think you could make a very good argument that you could actually make your fiscal balance worse in the long run because you would so depress the economy that revenues would collapse. But, that does not mean that I'm not very worried about the fact that he doesn't seem to have any solid revenue stream or any solid proposed cuts for the next 5 to 10 years which will be the critical timeline. But if he didn't keep saying he was very intent upon entitlement reform and entitlement cuts--cutting Medicare costs, for example--then I'd be more worried. I think the time to get really energized or angry about that is probably next year rather than this year.
Coates: Right. Right. He's such an interesting philosophical, political figure. One of the first places I was introduced to him was through your whole argument that temperamentally he's actually a conservative.
Sullivan: Don't you think that's kind of turned out to be correct?
Coates: I actually do, but I have some quibbles about what that means.
Sullivan: I don't even know what that words means any more to be honest. I know what I think it means but obviously in terms of general discourse it's come to mean something very different. What I mean, to take the c-word out of it, is simply that he is comfortable with existing American institutions and would like to make them work better rather than junk them.
Coates: Do you think that hampers us? Do you think that hampers in terms of the debate about torture and what should be done? Is his unwillingness to look at prosecution for those who may have ordered torture out of a respect for American institutions? Is that his conservative impulse coming out?
Sullivan: I think that he's aware that he's now the president. So it's his CIA. He still has to be extremely concerned with detecting and using intelligence to foil various plots. He also has a very deep sense of the presidency being something that he has to represent all Americans--which is what he understood to be Bush's mistake. So I think what some people are criticizing as a weak of muddled response is, in fact, a function exactly of this establishment preference. I think you see it more in terms of keeping Bob Gates on at the Pentagon, and going to people like Clinton and Holbrooke in foreign policy, who are not exactly new figures. In delaying withdrawal from Iraq, basically for a year, to give the military face-saving time, that's what I mean by his small-c conservatism. Frankly, I'm worried that he's leaning too much in that direction. Especially with the banks. He picked Summers and Geithner not Krugman and more radical types. He wanted to go in there and take those banks over. Again, it's more pragmatic and establishment then people really give him credit for. You see what I'm saying?
Coates: Yeah, I totally do. And for me, that pragmatism has been one of the most welcomed things after the eight years of ideology. I blogged some about this: his speech on Cuba, his whole thing with Chávez and everything and this era where if you smile at someone it's the same as the threat of nuclear war or something. His ability to cut through the bullshit and say, "No, no, no, I'm not afraid. Just because I smile at someone doesn't necessarily mean that I approve of them as a leader," or something like that.
Sullivan: It's more about the confidence of an American leader who knows the United States should not be intimidated by a guy like Chávez, for God's sake. In attempting to demonize these people, we gave them more standing then they deserve. And I think there's something great about him defusing all that shit. And that's classic Obama. It's like, "Okay, whadya got?" It's calling their bluff. He's doing a very masterful job with the Iranians and, to some extent, the Israelis right now. Saying, "Look, here I am. I want to make some progress here. Here are the contours. How are you going to help?" They all then jump into the fray and -- he has a capacity, by being so steady sometimes to prompt these other people to make unforced errors. Frankly, I think the way he handled this torture stuff has brought Cheney swinging out into the noonday sun in a way that Cheney will probably regret in six months time.
Sullivan: Have you not been surprised by Michelle?
Coates: I wasn't surprised.
Sullivan: She has cleaned up. The absolute ruthlessness and forethought with which she has killed all that burgeoning hostility; I'm staggered by her skill.
Coates: Not so much out of any sort of belief that she's anything particularly unique--I mean she is in her own way--but from a political perspective. I found this when reporting that piece on her, I think Chicago is so brutal politically. So so brutal. We haven't had a president in I don't know how long who hailed from a city. But Chicago is just so brutal politically, you can't come out of that without--and they came out relatively clean--some degree of chops.
Sullivan: So you're not surprised with her.
Coates: From my perspective, I'm not, because they've been around.
Sullivan: But the vegetable garden and the girls' school and Europe and the bare arms and the tour with the kiddies for the Easter Egg Roll and the kitchen. If you compare the deftness of the way she has taken her role with like Hillary Clinton in 1992--
Coates: That leads us to an interesting path. I want to ask you about this because--and I mean no disrespect--but Hillary Clinton in '92, I was literally in high school. And I know from your career you were actually covering this stuff or observing it to some extent. One of my theories on this--and some of this was in your cover on Obama--is that Hillary, coming out of the generation that she did come out off, came in thinking that she had something to prove as a woman. I always think about that statement, "I'm not here to stay home and bake cookies." When I was doing the reporting for the Michelle Obama piece, I kept thinking, "I don't think Michelle would say that." Not out of any who's-better-than-who thing, but I wonder how much the times have changed. That's a fight you don't necessarily have to have any more.
Sullivan: That's probably true in part. At the same time Michelle's also a black woman. If she'd wanted to play into Sean Hannity's hands, she could have. And even if she hadn't wanted to, she could have slipped up in some respect and played into their hands. But with discipline, she has not. Her simple skill of getting out and about in the city, in D.C., where she was around the corner from me in my neighborhood at Mary's Center which is for women who have suffered domestic abuse and for their kids. The fact that she's been out and around so openly in a way that the Bushes never were, I think it's very subtle. What I think that they've done quite quickly is establish a very powerful presidential aura. It reminds me a little bit of how Reagan began to epitomize a certain kind of American President. With Obama, it's not always predictable. He's very young. He's racially different, funny name, all the rest of it. It could have been that he would not have seemed like a President you could imagine, but he does seem to have become part of the furniture pretty quickly.
Coates: That's totally true. And I'll just throw this one last thing in here. Going back to Michelle, one thing that I came across was that her job at the University of Chicago was very much about managing a very difficult relationship: the relationship between the black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago with the University of Chicago, and particularly with the hospital there. That is a very delicate place to be. On the one hand the community can feel like, "Oh, you're selling us out, you're taking their side" and on the other hand, the University literally hired you to make their relationship better. I think going to the whole politics of it, I think that gives you invaluable experience in terms of how not to fall into a trap that people lay for you. And the South Side of Chicago is, in many ways, socially conservative. In ways that you would just never suspect because of the way black folks vote. But it's an extremely socially conservative place.
Sullivan: Their family, their White House is a very socially conservative unit inasmuch as Grandma is also in the house. And the kids--
Coates: And the dog. [Laughter]
Sullivan: The whole thing is also absurd, how "Leave it Beaver" it is really.
Coates: That's hilarious. [Laugher]
Sullivan: Who would have thought that the first black couple would do this? Maybe they have to do this. The truth is: I don't think it's that much of an act. It is who they are.
Coates: I think it is too. I think given how he came up, he's always hungered for a kind of normalcy. And I think, given how she came up, it's what normal for her.